A/N: Here's the epilogue at last! It was by far the most difficult installment to write. Thank you so much to all of you who've read this story, and to those who've let me know what they think as the chapters are posted. Now that it's over, I hope you'll all let me know what you thought! I'm kind of sad that it's come to an end, but ready to move on to something new as well. I'm going to post this whole story as a .pdf over at my Livejournal (my user name is formerdinosaur), as well as a soundtrack for the story.
Mr. Garrison was late to class, and everybody was saying that maybe he had finally died. He was about a thousand years old, so it wouldn't be too shocking. Lee put his head in his hands and wondered how long it would take the rest of the teachers to figure out that Mr. Garrison was dead somewhere and send in a substitute. He also wondered if he would be sad, and decided that no, he wouldn't. Mr. Garrison was pretty much an asshole to him, and everyone, all the time. Lee's parents and a bunch of their friends had once campaigned to get him fired, but Garrison had tenure and seemed to enjoy torturing fourth graders too much to retire.
Just as Simon Broflovski was declaring that they should all get up and leave, the classroom door opened and Garrison walked in. The students groaned openly, and he glowered at them.
"Settle down, you little bastards," Garrison said. He was stooped and slow, and he made his way into the room with the help of his cane; Lee had regular nightmares about being struck with it. A little girl with black hair walked in behind him. "Today is a very special day," Garrison said.
"No, it isn't," Tom Stoley said, because he was always saying stupid things like that. A couple of the girls who had crushes on him laughed.
"Yes, it is, Tommy, so shut your trap," Garrison said. He reached his desk and the girl stood beside it, looking awkward. She was wearing a plaid skirt and a sweater over a shirt with a stiffly ironed collar, and some of the girls were already whispering about how stupid her clothes looked. "We have a new student," Garrison said, gesturing to the girl. "I want you all to say hello to your new classmate - uh." He stared at her for a moment, and she stared back, unsmiling. "What's your name again?" Garrison asked.
"Emma," she said. She had a weird accent. There was some snickering about this.
"Say hi to Emma," Garrison said, addressing the class again.
"Hi," Lee said, stupidly, because everyone else was silent. They all laughed about this and he scowled. He was always doing the wrong thing in class. Emma was smiling at him, though, and she was kind of pretty, with big hazel eyes.
"And where are you from, Emma?" Garrison asked, sitting at his desk.
"The seventh layer of hell," she said. Natasha Black scoffed as if personally offended.
"Ooh, that's exciting," Garrison said, though he just sounded bored as usual and was already paging through one of the gossip magazines he kept on his desk. "I think I had another student from around there, a long time ago. And what do your parents do?"
"My dad's a homemaker," Emma said. "And my father is one of the seven princes of hell."
"So you have two daddies?" Garrison said, looking up from his magazine. He frowned. "Fine, well, why don't you go sit by Lee? He's in the same boat."
"Which one is Lee?" Emma asked, but she looked right at him. He waved, glad to have someone else with two fathers in class, so that he would take less heat for it himself. He didn't see why he should get picked on so much for it when Jacob Marsh had two dads and got interviewed on the local news about how good he was on the high school basketball team.
Natasha had to move to another desk so that Emma could take the one beside Lee's. Lee was glad about this. He hated Natasha.
Emma glanced at Lee as she sat down. He normally hated to be caught looking at girls, but she seemed nice, and like she perhaps shared his tendency to zone out and obliviously stare at people, though with her it was more like she was studying him. He tried smiling, and she smiled back.
"Hey, new kid," Tom whispered while Garrison droned on about something at the blackboard. The one good thing about Garrison was that he was basically deaf, so kids could talk freely during his lessons if he was facing the board. Emma turned to look at Tom. "Where did you get your clothes?" Tom asked. "England?"
Though this wasn't funny, the girls who liked Tom laughed. Lee considered tattling on him, but he didn't want to seem like a dork in front of this new girl.
"My dad made my clothes," Emma said, and everyone who heard this laughed, except Lee. His mom knitted sweaters and scarves and things for him all the time. Emma looked down at her clothes as if to check for errors, smoothing her sweater down self-consciously.
"What'd he make them out of?" Tom asked. He seemed to cast around for something funny to say, his mouth hanging open. He finally settled on: "Barf?"
"You're so stupid," Lee said, glaring at Tom. "Shut up."
"Oh, whoops, I guess Lee's gonna marry this girl because their dads can all be queer together."
Emma said nothing, but Lee could tell she was angry. She was flexing her fists as if she was barely containing the urge to start throwing punches. He could smell something like fireworks, or a candle that had recently been blown out. When she noticed him looking at her fists, he thought she would be mad that he was staring again, but she just looked worried.
At recess, none of the girls made any attempts to include Emma in their games, and the boys ignored her. Lee was accustomed to spending his recess hour with Simon and some of the other dorks, playing a game they'd made up that was based around their Friday night D&D sessions. He saw Simon and the others staring at him questioningly as he made his way over toward the new girl. She was sitting with her elbows on her knees, staring down at her shoes. They were old fashioned, shiny black with straps.
"Are you really from hell or whatever?" Lee asked, standing in front of her and toeing the asphalt. She looked up and nodded, hugging her elbows.
"I could have set that kid's hair on fire," she said. "But I really don't want to prove my father right."
"That I'd hate it here," Emma said. She sighed as if she was halfway to deciding that she had. "It's just so boring down there. No one wants to play with me because they're afraid of my father, and I'll never get any older than eight. I want to grow up, and play with regular kids who are still alive. I guess they all hate me, though."
"They don't hate you," Lee said. He sat down beside her. "They just don't know you yet."
"They don't seem to want to know me," Emma said. "I suppose I could go somewhere else. My father said we could live anyplace but in South Park, so me and Christophe decided that's exactly where we wanted to go."
"Who's Christophe?" Lee asked.
"My guardian angel sort of guy," Emma said. "He's around here somewhere. He grew up in South Park, when he was alive."
"Oh," Lee said. He tried to absorb all of this, his fingers twitching on his knees, but not a lot of it sunk in. "So. If you're from hell, have you met Satan?" He hoped she would say no, but she nodded.
"He's my grandfather," she said.
"My grandfather was Jack Tenorman," Lee said, hoping to deflect that information with his own impressive family history. "He played right tackle for the Broncos."
"I know," Emma said. Lee raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah, I know all about people who are in hell. He's there."
"My grandpa's not in hell!" Lee said, distressed, though maybe he was, because he'd never been around for Lee's dad, apparently.
"Sure he is," Emma said. "Most everyone who's dead is."
"What about my grandma?" Lee asked. There was no way Liane Cartman was in hell. She was saintly, according to his parents, and pretty. He'd seen pictures.
"She's there," Emma said. "But don't worry!" she said, touching Lee's leg when his face fell. "She loves it."
"How could you love being in hell?" Lee felt like he could cry. Of course the first girl who actually wanted to talk to him was telling him his grandma was in hell.
"Most people would prefer it to heaven," Emma said. "Or so my father says, anyway. He thinks he knows everything. He's right about some stuff, though. Hell stuff. Oh, say, since you're a boy and all, I wonder if you would consider getting me pregnant?"
"Um." Lee recoiled. "What?"
"Not now, of course. This body isn't ready for reproduction. But I won't be able to stay on earth for more than ten years if I don't have a human baby. It's a rule."
"Oh." Lee looked across the playground, wondering if he'd rather be with the other kids than this strange girl. "I'll think about it," he said, because he kind of liked her strangeness. There weren't many people in South Park who were brave enough to be different. "Does this mean you're going to stay?"
"Well, I guess so," she said, reaching down to tug her socks up. "I mean, if you want me to."
"Yeah, I think I do," Lee said, and they smiled at each other. "But hey. How come you were living in hell, anyway?"
"That's just where my father lives. And then my dad, he ended up there. He's really nice, though. A lot of nice people end up in hell."
"That sucks," Lee said fretfully. "But how come your father was living there?"
"He's the son of Satan," Emma said, shrugging as if that was all there was to it. "He tried living up here once, but they weren't nice to him. He really hates South Park. Christophe thinks it's funny that he has to live here now, while I'm in school, but I think it will be good for him, you know, like a second chance? Look, there he is."
"Your dad?" Lee said, going tense and whirling around.
"No, Christophe," she said. A scrawny, tired looking boy was walking toward them, smoking a cigarette.
"You'd better not let anyone see you with that," Lee said, nervously checking to make sure no teachers were watching.
"So this is Eric Cartman's miracle of science," Christophe said, ignoring that warning. He took the cigarette from his mouth and bent down to kiss Emma's cheek, which Lee found annoying.
"Don't hover around me when I'm at school," Emma said. "They already think I'm weird."
"You are weird, and good for you," Christophe said. His accent was funny, too, but it wasn't the same as Emma's. "Do you think I should go visit McCormick? It's been so long, I think I might scare the shit out of him."
"I don't know," Emma said. She tugged on Lee's arm. "Are there any McCormicks in your class? My father said not to make friends with them, so I was thinking maybe I would."
"The McCormick kids are older," Lee said. "Christine is in high school, and Clint is in junior high. Christine is nice, you should be friends with her. I'm friends with her," he added, proudly, because Christine was the prettiest girl in town. "Clint is kind of a butt head, but I have to see him at cookouts and stuff sometimes. He's okay."
"All this progeny is making my head spin," Christophe said. "I think I'll leave you two to your youth for the afternoon."
"Yes, please," Emma said.
"How old are you?" Lee asked before Christophe could walk away. He stopped and studied Lee the way Emma had in class, though less kindly.
"Zero years," he said. Lee scoffed.
"It's true," Emma said. "Sort of. He's dead, so he doesn't really have an age. Down in hell he looks older, but up here he's got to be my age."
"I don't understand any of this," Lee said, feeling dizzy.
"Spoken like a true Cartman," said Christophe.
Before Lee could defend his family name, Emma said something to Christophe in an elegant but angry language that Lee didn't know. Christophe returned something just as sharply, scoffed, and walked off, dragging on his cigarette. Emma watched him go and shook her head.
"What was that?" Lee asked, glad to see Christophe go.
"French," Emma said. "I told him he might be calling me Madame Cartman one day. Mostly just to piss him off. You don't have to marry me if you don't want to. Contracts between humans are irrelevant to the rules."
"Oh," Lee said, too confused to feel relieved about that. "So what did he say to you?"
"He called me a lunatic. Do you want to play a game or something? The air up here is so clear, it makes me want to run around."
Lee rarely wanted to run around, but, somehow, with her, he did. It was fun, if tiring. They made a game of kicking pine cones, and Simon Broflovski came over to play with them.
"I've got some questions for you, kid," Simon said to Emma.
"Okay," she said.
"Um, well, if you're from, like, hell, or whatever, then, I mean – do you have powers?"
"No," she said.
"Well, that's stupid," Simon said, looking disappointed.
"I agree," Emma said. She gave Lee a conspiratory smile that he didn't understand until after school, when they were heading toward the area where the kids who didn't ride the bus got picked up by their parents. Emma pulled Lee aside, checked over her shoulders to see if anyone was looking, and made a little fireball in her palm. He gaped at her, amazed and a bit frightened, and she closed her fist around it, putting out the fire and leaving that candle wick smell in the air.
"I can do other stuff, too," she said, whispering. "But don't tell anyone."
"How come?" Lee asked. He figured she could use this to impress the other kids, or at least scare them into being nice to her.
"I want to try this like a normal person," she said. "Just to see if I can do it."
"What if you can't?" Lee asked. He wanted to see her do that fire thing again, and it seemed too cool a talent to suppress.
"If I can't, I don't know, maybe I'll take over the earth and enslave mankind."
"Whoa," Lee said. She grinned.
"Just kidding," she said. "But if I did rule the earth or something, you could rule it with me."
"Really?" Lee appreciated that, though mostly it sounded like a lot of work.
"Yeah, really." She touched Lee's elbow. "But you won't tell anyone my secret, will you?"
"No," he said. "I promise." They shook on it, and Lee blushed when he felt how warm her palm was.
"Look, there's my parents," Emma said, nodding toward the road. "We just got that car yesterday, isn't it great?"
Lee turned, immediately aware of which car she was referring to. It was a shiny black Cadillac that looked like it was from the sixties, with flourishes over the tail lights that reminded Lee of bat wings. The car pulled up to the curb, and a smiling blond man with fussy clothes got out to hand Emma's pick-up number to the safety monitor. Behind the wheel, there was an angry-looking man with black hair and big arm muscles who instantly made Lee nervous. They both seemed way too young to be parents, barely older than Christine McCormick.
"How was your first day?" the blond man asked, kneeling down to hug his arm around Emma's shoulders. Lee was fairly sure that this was the non-demon parent, though he did have eerily smooth skin.
"It was good," Emma said. "I made friends. This is Lee Cartman."
"What was that?" the dark-haired man barked from the driver's seat, leaning toward them. "Cartman?"
"Lee, this is my dad," Emma said, gesturing to the blond man and ignoring the other. "His name is Pip."
"How do you do?" Pip said. His accent was more heavily British than Emma's, and he seemed nice. Meanwhile, Lee could feel the other man's stare burning against the side of his face like an open flame.
"And that there is my father," Emma said, gesturing to him. "Damien Thorn. Daddy, this is Lee," she said. "Don't be mean."
"I heard the name Cartman," Damien said.
"Darling," Pip said, and he gave Damien the kind of look that Lee's mom gave his dad if his dad was about to laugh inappropriately at the homeless or something.
"Where's that worthless nanny of yours?" Damien said, still looking angry, though he seemed less determined to burn a hole in Lee's skull with his eyes. "I told him not to leave your side."
"I'm here, asshole," Christophe said, appearing beside Lee as if out of thin air. "I don't have to be physically-"
"Yes, but I asked you to be physically with her at every moment," Damien said, his teeth grit.
"What am I going to do, enroll in school?" Christophe said. He had another cigarette, and was gesturing with it when he spoke. "I think I'd fail the entry exams when they take me to the school nurse and see I have no pulse, eh?"
"Let's not have this argument again, please," Pip said, standing. He put out his hand and Emma took it, which made Lee think of other home schooled kids he'd known. They were typically unembarrassed to be seen enjoying the company of their parents. "Come, children," Pip said, opening the back door of the car.
"You will cease referring to me as a child or face grave consequences," Christophe said.
"Get that cigarette out of my fucking car and away from my kid!" Damien said, and he and Christophe proceeded to argue in what sounded like French. Emma gave Lee an exasperated look and waved.
"See you tomorrow," she said, and she climbed in beside Christophe, who must have been losing the argument, because he'd thrown the cigarette out of the window.
"Do you need a ride, love?" Pip asked Lee.
"No, thanks," he said. "My dad's coming to get me." It was actually his mom, but he only called Butters that at home, usually.
"Well, you tell him that we said hello," Pip said. "You look rather like him. More trim, though, certainly. Though actually - your other father is Butters, I take it?"
"He was always on the slender side."
"How do you know them?" Lee asked. His attempting to understand things that went over his head threshold was reaching its limit, and he was looking forward to being on the couch at home with some cookies and TV.
"I went to school here, a long time ago," Pip said. He sighed and looked at the school. Damien honked the horn.
"What the hell?" Damien said, apparently finished arguing with Christophe, who was sulking in the back seat. "Don't tell me you're getting sentimental about this pit," Damien said when Pip climbed in beside him.
"Quiet, you," Pip said, rubbing Damien's frightening bicep. Lee waved to Emma as the car pulled away, and he noticed that she was the only one wearing a seat belt. He found this scandalous, and, like most other things about her, exciting somehow.
Butters was there soon afterward, still in uniform but driving the family car. Lee preferred to be picked up in the police cruiser, even if he had to sit in back behind the cage-like divider, and he begged to be allowed to ride on the motorcycle Butters used at work, but it was forbidden.
"How's my little man?" Butters asked when Lee climbed into the car, and Lee moaned when his hair was ruffled, afraid someone would see.
"I'm good," Lee said. "There's a new girl. She might be my girlfriend, I don't know."
"Really!" Butters said, and his eyes were on the windshield as he pulled away from the school, so Lee couldn't tell if he was excited or disturbed by this news. "What's her name?"
"Thorn. Where do I know that name from?"
"I don't know," Lee said, not wanting to get into it about hell and everything right up front. "She's great, though. Oh, and Simon and Penny played with us at recess." He mentioned this because he knew his parents worried that he didn't have enough friends, and also because he was proud of himself. Simon and Penny were pretty cool. They'd laughed at a few things he said during the pine cone game - nicely.
"Sounds like you had a great day," Butters said. "And it's about to get even better, because!" He paused for dramatic effect. "It's meatloaf night."
"Yay!" Lee loved Butters' cooking possibly more than anything else in the world. He actually had a pretty home schooled kid attitude toward both of of his parents, though he'd learned not to let it show too much in public.
At home, his dad was having a beer at the kitchen table and reading something on his handheld. He was still in uniform, too, and he reached for Lee without looking up from whatever he was reading, giving him a one-armed hug and shaking him a little.
"Do you have homework?" he asked. This was always his first question.
"No," Lee said, leaning onto the table with his elbows so he could see the handheld's screen. It was something for work, a report.
"You're lying," Eric said, which was correct, but he didn't press. "Check this out," he said, sliding the handheld over toward Lee. "This guy got arrested for liberating his neighbors' chickens. Some PETA freak."
"What a freak," Lee agreed, though he sometimes felt sorry for animals in cages.
"Eric, don't show him that stuff," Butters said. He was at the fridge, getting wine for himself and a juice box for Lee. "And don't call people freaks," he said, more to Lee than to Eric, which seemed unfair.
"Some people are freaks, Butters," Eric said. "The kid knows this already." He gave Lee another shake, and Lee grinned, because he liked it when his dad called him the kid, like Lee was his apprentice at the station.
"People have different beliefs," Butters said. He sat down across from them at the table. "Let's just leave it at that. Alright, Eric, brace yourself," he said, and he took a drink of wine. "Lee has himself a girlfriend."
"Mom!" Lee said, blushing, because some things were harmless if told to one parent and totally embarrassing if revealed to the other. He looked at his dad, who had raised his eyebrows, but only a little.
"Huh," Eric said. "Well, good for you, I guess. Never saw the appeal of women myself."
"Eric!" Butters said, plunking his wine glass down, and Lee laughed, because his dad was smiling the way he did when he'd intentionally rather than accidentally horrified his mom with some comment.
"I'm just stating the obvious," Eric said. "So?" He squeezed Lee's shoulder, his arm still hugged around him. "What's she like? Oh, shit, it's not one of the Broflovski litter, is it?"
"No," Lee said.
"God, tell me it's not a McCormick," Eric said, his arm going tense around Lee.
"Eric," Butters said, sighing. "Kenny's daughter is seventeen."
"Well, Leeloo is mature for his age."
"Don't call me that," Lee said, because it was the opposite of the kid, his baby name.
"And Kevin's got kids all over town!" Eric said.
"It's not a McCormick!" Lee said. "And she might not even be my girlfriend, okay, so don't go around telling Kenny and everybody about this, please!"
"We wouldn't, honey," Butters said.
"Somebody better tell me which family this kid is from before I assume the worst," Eric said.
"Who's worse than the Broflovskis and the McCormicks in your esteemed opinion?" Butters asked. Lee was wondering this, too.
"Tucker's sister has kids!" Eric said. "Shit, what's her husband's last name-"
"It's a new girl, Dad!" Lee said. "Her name is Emma."
"Thorn," Butters said. "That sounded familiar to me, but I couldn't figure why."
"Where's she from?" Eric asked. "She's not a ginger, is she?"
"It's perfectly fine if she's a ginger!" Butters said immediately. Lee sighed and touched his own hair, which was reddish brown. He'd been assured by his dad many times that his lack of freckles made him not a ginger.
"She's got black hair," Lee said. "And I don't know where she's from."
"She might be your girlfriend, but she didn't even tell you where she moved from?" Eric said, obviously suspicious. He could always tell when Lee was lying.
"She told me, but I forgot."
"Stop questioning him, Eric," Butters said. "I'm sorry I even brought it up, geez."
"Well," Eric said. "As long as Garrison isn't teaching sex ed, which, thanks to the heroic efforts of your South Park Chief of Police, he is not legally allowed to do, I'm sure everything will work itself out." He finished his beer and handed the empty bottle to Lee. "Throw that out for me," he said.
"Put it in the recycling bin," Butters corrected.
"The recycling bin," Eric said sadly, watching Lee deposit the bottle in the section for glass. "Butters, what have you done to me? Reducing me to this hippie nonsense."
"Nobody associates recycling with hippies anymore, Eric," Butters said. "Get with the times."
"No one says 'get with the times,' anymore, Butters. Get with kissing my ass."
For some reason, this sort of talk always ended with his parents smiling moonily at each other, and it was happening now, across the kitchen table. Lee grabbed his school bag and made himself scarce.
Upstairs, he stretched out on his bed and took out his own handheld, propping it against his knees and pushing the homework reminders off the screen. He had a new social contact request, but the parental controls would only let him see the user's name until his parents cleared it. He opened the invitation and smiled when he saw that he'd guessed correctly: Emma Thorn. His new best friend. Maybe girlfriend. Maybe mother of his child. They'd just have to wait and see.
Jacob had insisted on driving home from school, and by the tenth hour of navigating across icy, traffic-clogged highways, he was trying to remember why doing so had once felt so important. Kyle hadn't wanted him to drive, which had made driving seem absolutely necessary, but now he was exhausted and nearly ready to admit defeat, dreaming of finally arriving in his parents' house and dropping his head onto Kyle's shoulder. This was usually the way it went when they fought: Jacob admitted he was wrong, sometimes tearfully and only after suffering a good deal of discomfort for having ignored Kyle's advice. Kyle said this made him just like his father – his other father – but Jacob didn't think that was true, because Stan always did as Kyle asked from the start, as far as he could tell.
He didn't reach South Park until after three o'clock in the morning, and he was fighting to stay awake by the time he pulled into his parents' neighborhood, chewing the insides of his cheeks. He parked in the driveway and left the stuff he'd brought home in the trunk. At the front door, shaking with exhaustion and from all the caffeine he'd consumed on the road, he struggled to fit his key into the lock. It seemed colder in South Park than it had been in Michigan, maybe just from the elevation. He unlocked the door and stepped into the living room, the smell of his childhood home hitting him like a mood-lifting drug. He'd noticed this when he came home for Thanksgiving last month, too: it was like freshly vacuumed carpet and dryer sheets, with something nutmegy mixed in. Now, a few weeks from Christmas, he could also smell the apple cinnamon air freshener things his parents always used around the holiday.
Stan and Kyle were asleep together on the couch, stretched out under a blanket with the TV still playing, the volume muted. Kyle had his phone clutched in his hand, and he was frowning in his sleep. Jacob took his phone out of his pocket and saw fifteen missed calls from home.
"You weren't answering your phone!" Kyle said, suddenly awake and catapulting off the couch. Stan woke with him, though more slowly, and he sat there smiling as Kyle pulled Jacob into his arms.
"I was driving," Jacob said. He put his head on Kyle's shoulder and closed his eyes, half-asleep already. "It was terrible."
"I told you! Why didn't you just fly?"
"Dude," Stan said, ambling over to put his arms around both of them. "We were worried."
"Sorry," Jacob said. Kyle cupped his cheeks with reproachful tenderness while Stan went to turn on the light beside the couch.
"Where are your things?" Kyle asked, searching the room.
"In the car. I'll get 'em tomorrow. I'm so tired."
"Was there ice on the highway?" Kyle asked, as if he needed to worry about it retroactively. Jacob shook his head.
"It was mostly cleared," he said. "Traffic was really bad, though."
"Want something to eat?" Stan asked, and he hugged Jacob again, putting him in an arm lock from behind.
"I made a noodle pudding and everything," Kyle said.
"The one with the raisins?" Jacob asked, brightening.
"Of course the one with the raisins! Do you want some?"
He thought he was home free, heading toward the kitchen, but Kyle grabbed his wrist before he could walk off. The seriousness of his expression told Jacob that he'd noticed.
"What exactly is that in your mouth?" Kyle asked. Stan frowned and leaned in to see what Kyle was talking about. Jacob stuck his tongue out, partly delighted by Kyle's obvious horror. Stan just looked confused.
"It's a tongue piercing," Jacob said. "Obviously."
"That is against your religion!" Kyle said. He seemed too tired to get properly upset.
"Did it hurt?" Stan asked.
"No," Jacob said. It had, but neither of his parents could stand to hear about him suffering a moment's pain. "And there's nothing in the Torah about body piercings, okay? Plus, I'm not really Jewish."
"How can you say that to me?" Kyle's eyes went unfocused with grief, or exhaustion. "You had a bar mitzvah. Didn't we give you a lovely bar mitzvah?" He almost sounded like he was sincerely asking, or talking in his sleep.
"Dad." Jacob headed for the kitchen. "Not now, okay?"
"Why would you want to pierce your tongue?" Stan asked. He seemed less angry and more personally wounded by this, like he always was when Jacob did anything that reminded Stan that he wasn't eight years old anymore.
"I don't know," Jacob said, though he did. Issac had gotten his done, and Jacob couldn't stand it when Issac tried to act like he was more hardcore, or rebellious, or what the hell ever Issac thought he was these days. After Jacob got his tongue done, Issac had turned around and gotten his nipples pierced, too. Jacob wasn't sure he was up for that challenge, afraid of what the next hurdle would be.
"Can you eat with that thing in?" Kyle asked as he microwaved some noodle pudding.
"Yeah," Jacob said. "I usually take it out, though." He did so, putting the little silver barbell on a folded Christmas napkin that Kyle had set down for him. His parents stared at him, aghast. Stan recovered first, and handed Jacob the glass of milk that he'd poured for him.
"Well," Stan said, sitting beside him. "We're just glad you're home safe."
"You cannot wear that thing around your grandmother," Kyle said. Jacob rolled his eyes.
"Issac wears his around her," he said.
"Don't go emulating your cousin," Kyle said. The microwave beeped, and he retrieved the steaming noodle pudding. "He's younger than you, for God's sake."
"I'm not emulating him," Jacob said, offended. "I'm just saying."
"Can I have some, too?" Stan asked, looping his arm around Kyle's waist when Kyle served Jacob his plate. Kyle bent to kiss Stan's forehead, and they smiled at each other tiredly. Jacob started eating, though his food was too hot and the noodles burned his tongue.
"I might have some myself," Kyle said, going back to the casserole tray. "I didn't really have an appetite earlier. I was too worried that my son was careening off some frozen mountain road."
"Sorry," Jacob said, and it was true. "I'll fly home next time. I promise."
"Good," Stan said. He reached over to squeeze Jacob's wrist. "You know, I have some bad stories about those," he said, nodding to the barbell Jacob had removed from his tongue. "From my paramedic days."
"Oh, God!" Kyle said. "I'm sure you do. Let's finish eating first, though."
"I don't want to hear any paramedic stories tonight," Jacob said. Stan had retired from riding around in ambulances and had taken a less sensational position as a physical therapist, but the old cautionary stories still got brought up all the time – too often, in Jacob's opinion.
They ate together in the kitchen, Jacob answering questions about how his finals had gone. Mostly well, he thought, but it had been his first semester at college, and the finals were more intense than anything he'd undergone in high school. His parents told stories about their own college experiences, and Jacob half-listened, because he'd heard a lot of these stories before. Stan and Kyle were a little obsessed with their first two years at college – Stan's only two years – because it had been the one time in their lives, save their time spent in their mother's wombs, that they'd actually been apart. Kyle went to NYU, and Stan got a football scholarship from UVA, where he played for two years before he decided he hated it and moved up to New York to live with Kyle and train as a paramedic. They talked about those two years as if it was some war they'd suffered through, split apart in different platoons.
Jacob didn't want to be that way. His parents weren't the only people in South Park who'd partnered up in infancy and stuck to their guns on into middle age. Almost all of his parents' friends had been settled by the time they attended their senior prom, and to Jacob's generation it was sort of an alarming phenomenon. He'd made a point to play the field in high school, never committing to any one girl. Or to Issac, who he might not have known since the womb, but who had spent the first nine months of his life in the same womb that Jacob had once occupied, despite the fact that they weren't genetically related.
"We're having dinner at Grandma's tomorrow," Kyle said as Jacob was settling into bed, letting Kyle straighten his hair, too exhausted to bat his hand away. Stan had gotten his things from the car, though Jacob insisted he wouldn't need them until morning, and he was setting them down in a pile near the door.
"Grandma's," Jacob said, his eyes already closing. "Okay."
"Did you brush your teeth?" Stan asked, coming over to rub his shoulder.
"No," Jacob said.
Stan made a worrying noise, as if this lapse in teeth brushing was a bad sign. They were treating him like he was five. Jacob had predicted that this would happen when he came home from college, but he hadn't expected to actually appreciate it. He had during Thanksgiving, since it was the first time in his life that he'd returned to them after two months away, and now it was a little grating, but not very.
"I left my tongue stud downstairs," Jacob said. He cracked his eyes open and looked at Kyle. "Don't throw it out."
"What! I wouldn't!"
Jacob moaned doubtfully, imagining Kyle pretending that he'd crumbled up the napkin it was resting it on and pitched it into the trash without thinking, and that, whoops, he'd also taken out the trash, despite the fact that it was five o'clock in the morning and snowing.
"I'll go get it for you," Stan said. He kissed Jacob's ear. "G'night, dude."
"I'm so glad you're okay," Kyle said, moaning and leaning down to hug him, as if Jacob had walked across two hundred miles of hot coals to get there. At moments, when the traffic was motionless and the satellite radio went dead, it had felt that way. As he fell asleep he got the sense of his parents standing in his doorway and admiring him, and he remembered being very little and waking up surprised that they weren't still with him. He used to wander down the hall petulantly with his stuffed elephant and get into bed with them without comment, and he would cry and beat the door with his fist if he found it was locked. He had hated the feeling that they had anything together that was secret from him. In hindsight, he was very glad that they'd been vigilant about locking the door on those nights when their bedroom light was still on and the mattress was squeaking. He used to think that they'd been playing games without him, and always got the feeling they were lying when they told him that they hadn't been, because there would be a sense of interrupted joy lingering in the room.
He woke up to a gray morning and the feeling of his mattress dipping as someone sat on it. It wasn't one of his parents; they were heavier. Jacob moaned with annoyance, but didn't move away when Issac spooned up behind him and pressed his freezing nose to his neck.
"Hey, asshole," Issac said. "You don't answer your phone anymore?"
"Ike," Jacob said, his face still buried in his pillow. Nobody else called Issac that, because it was too confusing. Issac mostly just called Jacob 'asshole' or 'dickhead,' affectionately. "What time is it?"
"I don't know," Issac said. "You know how I feel about time."
Jacob grunted. Issac's feeling was that time was imaginary. He had a lot of feelings about things that everyone else accepted as reality, and he'd quit high school at sixteen to work at Whistlin' Willy's, because his feeling was that slinging pizzas and singing the birthday song to ten year olds was more fulfilling than listening to lectures by teachers who were dumber than him.
"So," Issac said, wriggling until Jacob could feel the shape of those nipple rings against his back. Even through both of their t-shirts, they felt as cold as Issac's nose. "You're home."
"Just for the break."
Issac scoffed. "No shit. How's college?"
"Are you coming to Grandma's tonight?"
"Of course," Jacob said, and he groaned, realizing that Issac wasn't going to let him sleep any longer. He rolled onto his back and blinked up at his cousin. Issac was wiry like his father and pretty like his mother, with her wavy blond hair, though his was darker than Bebe's, just a shade away from light brown. At the moment, his hair was also partly green, his roots more grown out than they'd been at Thanksgiving. Issac beamed down at Jacob with the unchecked adoration that always made Jacob feel guilty for going away, even though he was glad that he had, most days, when Issac wasn't staring him down like this.
"What'd you get me for Christmas?" Issac asked.
"Nothing yet," Jacob said. "What do you want?"
"Um," Issac said, and Jacob winced when Issac bent down to lick his neck.
"Hey, c'mon," Jacob said, rolling away from him. It used to make his heart pound, trying to negotiate Issac's advances, but now it just made him feel tired, and much older than Issac, though they were only a year apart. Almost as soon as Aunt Bebe had Jacob, she got pregnant with Issac the old-fashioned way, whereas Jacob the embryo had been expensively implanted. Jacob sometimes felt like Issac had read a cheat sheet for staying close to him, that he got an unfair advantage from having a consecutive nine months in the place where Jacob became a person.
"Have you got a girlfriend?" Issac asked, spooning him mercilessly.
"No," Jacob said. He had slept with a few girls at school, but he didn't return their calls. He wanted to live, to know a lot of different people, none of this from-birth romance for him.
"Me either," Issac said. "So, according to our rules—"
"We haven't got rules anymore."
"Oh, okay. But according to them, because yes, we do have them, that means—"
"I love it when you call me that." Issac moaned, squeezing him. "Man, I miss you. Seeing you at Thanksgiving only made it worse."
"You're so shameless," Jacob said. It was partly a relief. He'd been afraid that when he came home from college Issac would be angst-ridden and cold to him.
"Shame is for the weak and indecisive," Issac said.
Jacob grunted, already half asleep again. He'd spent so many nights with Issac clinging to him that it felt more natural than sleeping alone. When they weren't wrapped up together, this tended to worry him. As kids, they couldn't walk two blocks in South Park without someone stopping to remark on how much like Stan and Kyle they were, inseparable and synchronized to a step, shoulders bumping together as they beat their super best friends paths around town. They'd taken pride in that when they were young, but once Jacob was a teenager he didn't want to be his father's clone. He couldn't help that he looked so much like Stan, but he could choose not to let Issac pin him down to South Park, so he'd fled for a far away college. That hadn't curbed Issac's enthusiasm much.
"Did your parents tell you I got my GED?" Issac asked.
"Yeah," Jacob said. He reached back to pat Issac's skinny ass in congratulations, only thinking better of this when it was too late. "That's awesome, man."
"It was totally easy. So, anyway, I applied to Michigan State."
"Ike." Jacob groaned and rolled toward him. "You can't stalk me to college."
"Yeah, I can," Issac said. He didn't have Asperger's as such, but he had that genius thing that made him socially oblivious. It was more willful than automatic. "Unless you've replaced me. Do you have some new best friend whose fingerprints match yours?"
"Ours don't actually match," Jacob said. He held up his hand in demonstration and let Issac press their palms together. When they were little, when they learned how fingerprints formed, they were sure that theirs were identical. Later, Jacob suspected that Issac had always been too smart to actually believe theirs could be the same, and that he'd humored Jacob's idea that they were out of kindness, or because he wanted it to be true.
"I know," Issac said. "That's a joke. Our inside joke. You used to get my jokes."
"Are you okay?" Jacob asked. He touched Issac's cheek, though he didn't want to encourage him.
"I am now," Issac said.
"You should go to college someplace far away from South Park," Jacob said. "But somewhere new. Not Michigan. Someplace where you can make your own friends."
"But I hate people," Issac said. He put his head down on Jacob's pillow and pushed their foreheads together. "You're the only person I like."
"That's not true. What about Sydney?"
"She's my sister. I have to like her. And half the time I don't even."
For a while they just lay there studying each other's eyes. It wasn't like having a conversation without words; it was the opposite of a conversation. Together, oftentimes, they were two dumb animals who couldn't quite figure out that they didn't actually share a thought process.
"You look skinny," Jacob finally said.
"You look fat," Issac said. Jacob shrugged.
"The freshman fifteen," he said. "And I'm not playing basketball anymore." Refusing to take his early athletic success seriously had been another way that he attempted to differentiate himself from his dad. Stan and Kyle were relieved that he didn't want to play in college, afraid that he'd suffer injuries and be distracted from his schoolwork. Jacob didn't want to go pro or deal with the press, but he missed having strict work outs, being part of a team. The only other team he'd ever belonged to was the one that was just him and Issac, and he thought he'd quit it, too, but he was in no hurry to get Issac out of his bed, despite his resolutions. Over Thanksgiving break, they'd had one of their encounters, and it had served as Jacob's introduction to Issac's tongue piercing. It was inspiring, if nothing else.
"So how's Whistling Willy?" Jacob asked, hoping this wasn't too mean.
"I would not know," Issac said. "I got a new job. Kyle didn't tell you? I'm over at Tire World now."
"Oh. How's that?"
"Rubbery," Issac said, and he pressed closer when Jacob laughed at his joke. "No, really, it's good. They're going to put me on the sales floor during the holiday rush."
"You're selling tires with green hair?"
"That's the condition," Issac said. He looked sad about this, though the green hair - or what was left of it - was awful. "I have to fix the hair, and start wearing ties. Will you help me?"
"With which one?" Jacob thought of doing up Issac's tie at his bar mitzvah. Issac had been uncharacteristically nervous beforehand, fish-white.
"Well, both," Issac said, frowning. "Frankly, dude, I need you to move home so you can do my tie for me every day before work."
"Nope," Jacob said, concerned that he might be serious.
"Then I guess I'll have to come to Michigan. Aren't they famous for their tires?"
"I'm pretty sure that's Michelin."
"Oh, right. Well, at any rate. I'm probably not going to major in tires."
"Don't you want to know what life without me around is like?" Jacob asked. He sat up on his elbow to communicate his seriousness on this point, and to separate from Issac, who was getting dangerously close to his mouth.
"Uh," Issac said. "I do know. You've been gone since August. It sucks."
"But you're putting all your energy into pining for the past," Jacob said. This sounded a little rehearsed, because it had been. He'd had a lot of time during that drive to think about what sort of wisdom he'd try to impart to Issac.
"Nice alliteration," Issac said. "Alas, I don't care. You're not the past. You're right here."
"Don't let my lack of willpower fool you," Jacob said. "I'm not really here."
Issac was quiet for a moment, unreadable. "That's the worst thing you've ever said to me," he said. Jacob dropped back down to the pillow and tried to cuddle him in penance, but Issac moved away.
"You know what I mean," Jacob said.
"Yeah." Issac sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "I do, that's the problem."
"Well, what do you want from me, man? You're in a rut, and the rut is me. It's my fault, I know. I was older-"
"Was?" Issac stood, apparently taking particular exception to this. "You blew your load in my mouth like two weeks ago."
"Three weeks," Jacob muttered, ashamed of himself. "And I shouldn't have."
"This is unacceptable," Issac said, and he walked to the window.
"Don't forget your jacket," Jacob said. He didn't want Issac to go, but he had to start acting his age, in the hope that Issac would follow his lead. Issac picked up his jacket as angrily as possible, whipping it behind him as he pushed the window open.
"You know," Issac said when he was straddling the windowsill and scowling at Jacob, his jacket only halfway on. "I could have been a neurosurgeon or something."
"You still could," Jacob said. Issac usually didn't level this accusation at him when he was sober, but it wasn't unfamiliar. "And you hate the kind of people who need to be called neurosurgeons before they can feel like they did something with their lives."
"Don't tell me who I hate," Issac said. "I hate you, mostly."
"Oh, get out of here."
"Yeah, well, we'll see if you get blown in the bathroom during family dinners this time around," Issac said. He dropped out of the window and leaned back in to glower at Jacob, standing outside. "I've done you so many favors!" he said, suddenly shouting. Jacob covered his eyes with his hand.
"Send me an invoice," he said. Issac left then, slamming the window shut behind him. In roughly five seconds, Kyle at was at Jacob's bedroom door, still doing up the sash on his flannel robe.
"What the hell?" Kyle said. Stan was close behind, looking ready for a fight. Jacob was surprised he wasn't wielding a baseball bat.
"It was just Issac," Jacob said.
"What, at the window?" Kyle said.
"He still does that?" Stan said, walking into the room. He went to the window and frowned, presumably at the sight of Issac jogging off down the road.
"Why didn't you tell me he's working at Tire World?" Jacob asked. He sat up in bed, draping his comforter over his shoulders to keep warm. "He wants me to cut his hair, or something. So he can sell tires."
"That boy is a textbook narcissist," Kyle said, joining Stan at the window. "Ike and Bebe don't want to hear that, but it's true."
"Don't be so hard on him," Stan said. "He just misses his best friend."
"As if the problems began when Jacob went to college! Alright, well, now we're all awake. I'm making coffee."
Downstairs, Jacob drank coffee with his parents until he felt jumpy. Stan made pancakes, and the sugary maple syrup contributed to Jacob's shakiness. He needed to do something with his energy, and his parents were just sitting around reading the news on their handhelds and muttering about errands they would have to do later. Jacob got dressed and decided to go see Christine, who was the only person he had ever talked with honestly about Issac and the whole deal.
"Be back for lunch," Kyle said. "I'll need your help at the grocery store."
"What, reaching things on the high shelves?" Jacob asked, and he smirked when Kyle gave him a look.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Stan asked. He held up the barbell that he'd rescued the night before. "I cleaned it for you," Stan said when Jacob came to claim it. "You're cleaning it daily, right?"
"Of course," Jacob said, though he wasn't. "Thanks."
"I'm still telling you piercing horror stories," Stan said. "Later."
"I'll look forward to it," Jacob said. He went to the hall mirror to reinstall his piercing, and thought about surprising Issac with it later.
"You're not driving, are you?" Kyle asked as Jacob headed toward the door.
"Nah." He needed a long, bracing walk after that confrontation with Issac. It wasn't unusual for Issac to randomly shout at him, or anyone, but that had felt a bit different, and Jacob wanted to be relieved, because of course they would need to fight seriously if Issac was ever going to move on with his life. He was also aware that part of the impediment to this was his own reluctance to let Issac go, and he was in a fairly self loathing mood by the time he reached the McCormick house.
Kenny answered the door, still sporting the beard that had so offended Kyle at Thanksgiving. They exchanged hugs and how are you's, and Jacob did the same with Wendy in the family kitchen. She was dressed for work, whereas Kenny was barefoot in sweatpants and a long-sleeved BOOK IT t-shirt.
"The kids are still asleep," Wendy said.
"They're always asleep," Kenny said. "Clint is going to major in sleep at college."
"They stay up all night," Wendy said. "We go to bed at eight."
"Nine thirty," Kenny said. He jostled Jacob's shoulder. "You'll understand someday."
"Yeah." He didn't really plan on understanding, since he was banking on being a lifelong bachelor. "Can I wake Christie up?"
"Of course," Wendy said. "It's nearly noon."
"Just knock first," Kenny said. He'd always been a little suspicious of Jacob's closeness with Christine, though their relationship was completely asexual. "To make sure she's decent."
Jacob jogged up the stairs, past Clint's room, which reeked of aftershave and nostril-stinging incense. Clint was a harmless weirdo like his father, and Jacob got along with him well enough, but he'd always preferred Christine. He knocked on her door, and she called out to ask who was there.
"It's Cobbie," he said. She was the only one who'd ever called him that.
He was smiling as he came through the door, because she'd sounded very happy to see him. In the past, he'd considered how much easier it would have been to develop some weird secret thing with Christine, who was a girl, and not his cousin, but she felt too much like his sister for him to think of her as anything else.
"When did you get back?" she asked when he sat on her bed and hugged her. She was in pajamas, her music player docked on her bedside clock, playing something acoustic and quiet.
"Last night," he said. "Really late."
"I've been here since Wednesday," she said. "Finished my stuff early. Your finals went okay?"
He stretched out in bed beside her and they chatted about school. Christine was fooling around with her handheld while they spoke, and she pointed people out when they came up in conversation, scrolling through her social index. Jacob was glad that she'd come out of her shell a bit since leaving South Park. As a kid, she was often glued to his side, reviled by most of the other girls because, through Jacob, she spent so much time with the boys. Now she was going to college in Seattle, studying History, already thinking about law schools.
"Ike came over this morning," Jacob said after they'd talked about school for a while. Christine looked up from her handheld.
"No, Issac the second. He was in a state."
"Isn't he always?" Christine put her handheld away and rolled toward Jacob, resting her chin on his shoulder. It was so different from when Issac did it, intimate but aimless. "At least call him Issac so I don't have to picture his father doing - whatever he did."
"He didn't do much. He just humped me a little and then had a meltdown."
"Apparently he's applied to Michigan State."
"Oh, God." Christine moaned. "He's probably lying."
"It's certainly possible. But, okay, the weird thing? I don't want him up there with me, I really don't, but I didn't want him to leave, either."
"Of course you didn't," Christine said, slapping his chest. "You wanted to get laid. Herein lies the problem, pretty much from the onset."
"No, it's more than that," Jacob said. He'd tried to explain it to her in the past, but he always ended up sounding like a sentimental idiot or the victim of a con artist. She sat up and gave him a skeptical look.
"Let me see this thing," she said, pulling at his bottom lip. He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue so she could frown at the piercing. "He's a bad influence on you," she said.
"I'm the older one," Jacob said. "I was a bad influence on him."
"You provided a good example in most areas," Christine said, very charitably. "He dropped out of school for no reason."
"He dropped out because I'd graduated, therefore he saw no reason to continue to show up."
"Well, that's demented." She settled down onto the pillows again, and they both looked at the ceiling of her bedroom. "Anyway, he cannot come to school with you. Obviously."
"Obviously," Jacob agreed. "But then I hate the thought of him on his own."
"You're a vicious cycle."
"That's not really news to me." Jacob always thought he wanted to talk with her about this, then regretted it when faced with sane advice. "So. Are you dating anyone?"
"I'm being pursued by this Biology TA," she said. "He's one of those guys who wasn't cool when he was younger, so he's really impressed by his marginal adult coolness."
"Sounds like he sucks."
"Mostly, yeah." She sighed, and Jacob felt badly for her, though also relieved. He was as protective of her as Kenny, ironically. She hadn't dated at all in high school, to their mutual relief.
"But don't change the subject," she said, elbowing him. "What are you going to do about Issac?"
"What can I do? Take out a restraining order?"
"It might be advisable."
"No, it might not." Jacob sat up, increasingly irritated. "You know, maybe none of this would have happened if I didn't always feel like the only one who defends him."
"His parents indulge him pretty frequently," Christine said.
"That doesn't count. Ike - Issac - he's really smart. South Park stunted him. I stunted him."
"He's talked you into blaming yourself," Christine said. "That's sad. He seduced you, Cob. I'll admit that he's cute as fuck. And you're too nice. Too accommodating, I mean. You were always going to be seduced by the first cute person who tried it."
"See, that's the kind of attitude I hate!" Jacob said. He got out of her bed and started pacing. "That South Park bullshit. You're fated to end up with the first person who batted their fucking eyes at you. The curse."
"Why do you think I waited until after I'd left town?" Christine said, grinning.
"Oh, God. It's not like it's real."
The curse was something that was either made up by Jacob's generation or by the one immediately preceding or following his. According to legend, there was a witch who had lived in the mountains and fallen in love with a boy from South Park back around the time the town was founded, during the Gold Rush. The boy romanced her, but after he became wealthy he moved away and broke her heart. In revenge, she placed a curse on the town that meant the first person a resident of South Park kissed - or fucked, depending on who was telling the story - would own them forever, and that they would never be able to truly love unless they returned to their sweetheart from home.
"I don't know, Cob," Christine said. "I think you might just have to propose marriage and get it over with."
"Christ." The idea of marrying Issac was too macabre to even joke about. "Let's talk about something else."
"Fine." Christine patted the bed, and Jacob sat again. "Are you seeing anyone at school?" she asked.
"I would have told you if I was." They talked often but briefly, through text messages.
"But you're sleeping with people?" Christine said. "Men?"
"Men! No!" He had yet to be attracted to anyone male who wasn't just some guy who looked like Issac, which didn't count. "A couple of girls. Nobody special."
"That's gross." She shoved him.
"That's normal. The thing with Issac is gross." He felt terrible saying so. They'd had so many things together that were special. When they lost their virginity to each other Issac sobbed and told Jacob that his faith in God had been restored, because their connectedness was too profound to be wholly organic. He rescinded this soon afterward, during a fight, but for Jacob it was still a good memory.
"You need to tell him in no uncertain terms that he's not to follow you to Michigan," Christine said.
"I have told him! I did, just this morning! He ignored me. That's not even what set him off."
"What did set him off?"
"I told him I wasn't there."
"Never mind." Jacob stood again. "I'm not going to survive this winter break," he said, dramatically, reminding himself of Kyle. "I'm not even going to survive dinner at our grandparents' house tonight."
"It's so eerie that you have the same grandparents," Christine said, wrinkling her nose. "You've never seemed - related."
"We've never felt related. I feel more related to you and Clint."
"Zelda once told me that everyone in South Park is related if you go back far enough," Christine said. "It's one reason I don't date boys from around here."
"Is Zelda home for the break yet?" Jacob asked. Talking about Issac was, as usual, getting him nowhere.
"She's home," Christine said. "She's irritatingly interested in Clint's whereabouts, lately."
"My thoughts exactly."
"God!" Jacob felt like punching something - himself, mostly. "She's got a whole university full of people to get crushes on, a whole semester to do it, and she comes home to moon over goddamn Clint?"
"Don't you dare tell her I said this!" Christine said. "It's just my theory."
"As if I talk to Zelda Donovan."
"Don't be a snob!"
"Don't be so sanctimonious!"
"You need to go home and take a nap," Christine said, waving her hand to dismiss him. "You're grouchy as hell. And you're mad that I don't like that thing on your tongue."
"I don't care about your opinion on my piercings," Jacob said, though he had been deeply annoyed by her reaction.
"Your problem is that you want to be this perfect, normal little golden boy, and a depraved, incestuous rebel," Christine said. "You want to wear the letterman jacket and the tongue ring. You're clashing with yourself."
"It's not incest!" Jacob said, dispensing with the rest of that for now.
"Right, but the thrill involved is incest-like, you must admit."
"You sound like my dad!"
"Kyle! When he's analyzing someone. Don't tell me how I'm getting my - thrills. You don't have a dick. You don't understand."
"Oh, my God!" She was laughing, falling over onto her side. Humiliated, Jacob took a pillow from the end of her bed and threw it at her.
"Alright, that was stupid," he admitted. "Look, I'm on about four hours of sleep here. Being back is making me feel insane."
"Issac is making you feel insane," Christine said, still lying on her side, her long hair tumbling over the edge of her bed. "I can't have a conversation with that kid without wanting to bang my head against a wall, and I never fucked him."
"Well, lucky you," Jacob said, and again he felt guilty, on behalf of his private history with Issac. "You know, I sometimes wonder if I ever should have confided in you about this."
"Why?" Christine sat up, looking hurt. "You know I'm only teasing. I'm trying add levity to the situation."
"Maybe the fact that my cousin is self destructing over his obsession with me is not the kind of situation that calls for levity."
"Don't give yourself all the blame for his self destruction," Christine said. "Or the credit, for that matter. You know, Cobbie, you've gotten awfully vain."
"You know, Christie, you've gotten awfully judgmental."
"Maybe." She made a face, as if shelving this for later reflection. "But I love you, alright? I don't want you to suffer needlessly."
"Any suffering I do over this was pretty earned," Jacob said, and he felt miserable, because it was true. She shrugged.
"Just learn from your mistakes, maybe," she said. "Instead of immortalizing them with tongue jewelry."
He withheld a further idiotic comment about how she couldn't possibly understand the life altering experience of being blown by someone who knew how to use a tongue stud. He didn't want to fight with her, especially with Issac already soured on him, and not even a day into his winter break. He sighed and walked over to Christine's desk, pretending to be interested in some books that were stacked there.
"If Zelda marries Clint, I refuse to attend the wedding," he said.
"I'm with you there," Christine said. "Zelda could so do better than my brother. Though, honestly, she'd make him miserable, too. We should try to pass a law about people from South Park not being able to mate with each other until the gene pool clears up a bit."
"I guess that's sacrilegious," Jacob said, flipping through the pages of one of her books. "Since we wouldn't exist without the curse."
"You know what I'd like to see?" Christine said.
"An alternate universe where they were all scattered around the world. Where they didn't grow up together, and they didn't even meet until they were out of college. I'd like to see if they'd all still be each other's soul mates."
"That's sort of depressing," Jacob said, trying to imagine his parents growing up without each other, all the stories about their happy childhood evaporated. "I wouldn't even recognize my parents if they weren't, uh. Well, if they weren't who they are. They'd be totally different."
"I guess," Christine said. "I can't imagine what my dad would be like if he hadn't grown up with your parents. He talks about them like they saved his life."
"But that was him," Jacob said. He frowned and set the book down. "Right? He saved my dad from drowning."
"Yeah." Christine nodded to herself. "I guess it's pointless to speculate. This place is what it is. You just have to decide if you're going to let it entrap you or not."
"By 'it' you mean Issac."
"Well. Yes. Of course that's what I mean."
"Obviously I haven't gotten trapped, though, right?" Jacob said. "I mean, I left! I'm gone!"
"Yes, but your heart is still here," she said. She looked sad for him, and he wanted the levity back. "I think. Entrapped."
Jacob left the McCormick house in a bad mood, annoyed with himself for repeating his old pattern of pissing Issac off and running to Christine, then longing to lament about her judgments of him to Issac, thus completing the cycle. He wanted to go to Issac's house and sit on the couch with the four Broflovski siblings, whose crowding always offered an excuse to basically flop against Issac's side in plain view. He resisted the urge to show up there and headed home instead. Kyle was in the kitchen, finalizing his shopping list.
"Dad left for work," Kyle said when Jacob leaned beside him at the counter, watching Kyle write down things they needed from the store: grapes, napkins, tongue scrapers.
"Tongue scrapers?" Jacob said.
"Well, you know, everybody's always serving red wine at these holiday things. I get self conscious about tongue stains."
"Oh. I thought that was some dig at me."
"I would never dig at you," Kyle said, reaching over to smooth his hair. "No matter what you put through your tongue."
They left for the store shortly afterward, and Jacob laughed when Kyle tried to jam his ceramic coffee mug into the car's cup holder. He wedged it in until it was precariously secure.
"Do you seriously not own a travel mug?" Jacob asked.
"They're all in the dishwasher or something," Kyle said.
"Well, now I know what I'm getting you for Christmas."
"Yes, good idea," Kyle said. "Get me a robot housemaid who will actually remember to run the dishwasher." He dislodged the coffee cup, drank some and handed it to Jacob.
"I don't want any," he said. "I'm still all jittery."
"Take it, though," Kyle said. "Be my cup holder."
"This is why you like having me home," Jacob said, holding the cup with both hands to leech heat from it. "I'm your robot housemaid."
"Oh, ha! That's hilarious."
It was true that Jacob had rarely done any significant chores, growing up. More often, he kept his parents company while they did them. He'd liked being included in anything he considered to be an adult pastime, whether it was helping Stan pick up sticks before he mowed the yard or doing the grocery shopping with Kyle. It still made him feel content and even a little spoiled, riding along with his dad on the way to the store, holding his coffee for him.
"So, Issac came by this morning?" Kyle said.
"Uh-huh." Jacob was mortified at the thought of Stan ever finding out about him and Issac, but he was tempted at moments to tell Kyle everything. He'd always felt a bit jealous of Kyle's patients, who Kyle saw at the house. Sometimes after a particularly grueling session Kyle would come into Jacob's room and hug him fiercely, as if to thank him for being so untouched by tragedy, happy and normal. Jacob wanted to tell Kyle about Issac partly because he secretly needed Kyle's opinion on everything, and partly because he wanted to prove that he'd been through something as shocking as any of Kyle's patients, if not as traumatic.
"How's Issac doing?" Kyle asked after Jacob had sat there in silence for a while, turning the coffee cup in his hands. Kyle had an annoying, therapisty habit of giving people a long time to speak before he felt he should move the conversation along.
"Same as always," Jacob said. "He's talking about college now, though."
"Yeah, Ike told me! So, that's good."
"Hmm. He said he wants to apply to Michigan State."
"What!" Kyle braked hard at a red light and turned to Jacob. "Well, that's crazy."
"I know," Jacob said, though he was tempted to defend Issac. Kyle had been one of his major detractors ever since he quit school.
"He'll have to start off with community college," Kyle said. "For one thing."
"Yeah. He is a genius, though. His test scores-"
"Well, I don't care what he is, he's not coming up there to distract you and take you to piercing parlors, you're up there to get an education, not to bum around with your cousin-"
"Dad! I know! Jesus, it's not like this was my plan."
"I worry about that boy." Kyle was frowning at the windshield. He reached for his coffee and Jacob passed it over.
"He's just a teenager," Jacob said. "He'll figure his shit out."
"I suppose. Thank God you never went through that phase. Ike did, you know. He was just too much of a special snowflake to show up to class for a while."
"And everything turned out fine," Jacob said.
"Jury's still out," Kyle said, and he grinned when Jacob laughed.
"What's it like to have a brother?" he asked, without thinking, and he wanted to retract the question when Kyle's face fell, just a little, the wrinkles around his eyes smoothing out.
"Oh," Kyle said. "It's complicated. But good. I'm sorry you never-"
"Dad, that's not what I meant."
"I always hoped Ike's kids felt like your siblings," Kyle said. "They certainly never felt like my children, though. Well, except Simon, maybe, but you two were never close."
"Simon's fine," Jacob said. He was the smartest of Ike's kids in a non-genius way, or at least the best in school. Jacob was a little jealous of him, which was ridiculous, because Simon was twelve and a complete dork, but he was Kyle's favorite nephew, and the two of them bonded over certain shared fastidious qualities and hair troubles. Bebe's effortless waves had been beautifully recreated on Issac, but on Simon they were muddied by Ike's coarse, straight hair, resulting in a frizzy brown mess.
"I do wonder what my biological brother might have been like," Kyle said. "If we would have done each other's hair or something."
"Only if he was gay, too," Jacob said, and he ducked when Kyle swatted him.
"I used to have this recurring dream that I had a different adopted brother," Kyle said. "Or, he wasn't my brother exactly, he was this French chap who chain smoked. I could have sworn I saw this exact kid in town a few months ago, did I tell you that?"
"This is the first I've heard of him," Jacob said.
"I guess it should have startled me, but it sort of cheered me up," Kyle said. "He's probably just some kid I'd seen around without consciously noticing - it's hard to tell how far back recurring dreams actually go unless you keep a diary. You know my feelings about dream analysis, though."
"Yeah, I know your feelings."
"Well." Kyle wedged the empty coffee cup back into the holder as they pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store, which was too small and crowded as usual. "Anyway, what were were talking about?" Kyle asked. "Issac?"
"He came to your room? What did he want? What's with the window thing, anyway? He sort of slammed it on his way out, the little brat. Scared your dad and me half to death."
"He likes to pick fights with me, that's all." It was actually Jacob's fault this time, and he was feeling increasingly worse. He regretted telling Kyle about Issac's plan to attend Michigan State.
"Pick fights about what? Who could fight with you?"
"You've fought with me."
"Not really! Have I? It doesn't count if I'm just telling you to turn your music down or something."
Jacob tried to remember a serious fight with either of his parents, and he couldn't think of anything. He liked making them proud, and they had devoted a lot of their lives to making him happy. He suspected they were still in significant debt from the act of creating him alone, even with Bebe doing the surrogacy and Shelly donating the egg for free. He tried not to think about it, but he did, and ever since he was old enough to comprehend the gravity of where babies came from in cases like his he'd had a sense of not wanting to let them down. He'd saved most of his melodrama, teenage angst and selfishness for fights with Issac.
"I guess he just got mad because I had the same reaction to this Michigan State idea that you did," Jacob said.
"It's about time you laid down the law with him," Kyle said, sounding pleased. "He can't hero worship you forever."
"It's not hero worship, Dad. Issac is an iconoclast."
"Iconoclast - please! He looks at you like you invented the sun. Or something bigger than that, since he probably dismisses the sun as trite. Anyway, you know." Kyle paused for a moment. They'd parked, and were sitting in the car, Jacob starting to crash after his earlier caffeine high. "Dad and I used to worry that he had a crush on you," Kyle said, and something about the heaviness in the air inside the car made that statement very unsurprising once it was actually said. Jacob forced a laugh.
"I think he's asexual," he said, and he hurried to get the passenger door open. Kyle had parked too close to the neighboring car on Jacob's side, and he had to side step to squeeze his way out. He walked toward the store without waiting for Kyle, who jogged to catch up.
"I didn't mean to embarrass you," Kyle said, tugging on his elbow.
"I'm not embarrassed," Jacob said. "Why would I be embarrassed?"
Jacob was no longer sure what kind of conversation they were having. Thankfully, it ended once they were inside the busy store, and Kyle simply asked Jacob to fetch things while he waited in line at the deli and then then fish counter, making very particular requests that reminded Jacob of his grandma Sheila when she ordered things. They lost each other briefly, and reunited in the dairy section, where Kyle was searching through the half gallons of egg nog for one that was furthest from expiration.
"Let's be hasty," Kyle said as Jacob piled the things he'd collected into the cart. "I saw Tweek in the frozen aisle. All I need right now is to get trapped in some awkward conversation with him and Craig."
"Oh, man," Jacob said. He was still afraid of Principal Tucker, who had hated him because of his association with Issac. "Copy that."
They managed to escape without having to talk with Craig or Tweek, who Jacob actually liked, but who was an extremely awkward conversationalist in the best of circumstances and especially when he was outside of his comfort zone, the public library. Back in the car, Jacob was afraid Kyle would try to talk about Issac again, but he didn't. Kyle gossiped about South Park citizens who were of varying interest: apparently Wendy was gaining weight, though Jacob had thought she looked the same as always when he'd seen her that morning, and Butters Stotch was doing the middle school holiday pageant this year. Kyle didn't approve of the Christmasy undertones in the color scheme, though he supposed it was none of his business, even if he was helping Simon rehearse.
"Simon has developed this worrying friendship with Butters' and Cartman's son," Kyle said.
"Worrying like - gay?"
"No! Not that I'd be - well, yes, I would, but only because he's a Cartman. At any rate, no, apparently they've both very into girls. Bebe caught them looking at certain videos together."
"Yes, precisely. I'm sure it was Lee's influence. He's just like Butters, it's amazing. Acts like an innocent little darling when he's anything but. You don't even want to know what Butters and Cartman were like as kids."
"You're right about that."
"Your father and I were absolutely chaste in comparison. He didn't even kiss me with his tongue until-"
"Alright, well. You should take comfort in that, though, I think."
Jacob was silent after that, irritated, not because Kyle had dared to mention Stan's tongue but because his own trajectory with Issac was similar: tongues came into play fairly late in the game. There was nothing more depressing to him than the thought that he'd relived his parents' experience of early romance. If he had, he'd at least put a stop to it before it could solidify into fate. He was not Stan and Issac was not Kyle, or vice versa, or anywhere in between. The curse of South Park was not real, and if his heart was still in South Park right now, it was only because the rest of him was.
At the house, he sat in the kitchen drinking egg nog while Kyle made a green bean casserole for the night's dinner at his grandparents' house. Kyle always made something very gentile when it was a pot luck, so that Stan would have a comfort food, and also, probably, to annoy his mother. Stan and Kyle were not practicing Jews or Catholics, though they both had sentimental attachments to the religions they'd grown up with and would admit, if pressed, that they believed in God and all of that. Jacob wasn't sure what he believed. Kenny had been Mormon for a while, or at least very interested in all of the kids giving Mormonism a shot, but the emphasis on marrying and having a ton of kids didn't sit well with Jacob at all.
Stan came home around four o'clock, when Jacob was dozing on the couch, watching a college football pre-game show that was extremely boring. He still wasn't used to the sight of Stan in scrubs instead of the militaristic paramedic uniforms he'd worn until Jacob started high school, when the ambulance Stan was riding in got in a very minor accident that made Kyle flip out and demand that he take up another line of work. Two years before, a guy Stan had been trying to strap onto a gurney bit him on the wrist hard enough to leave a permanent scar, which was perhaps less dramatic but somehow more disturbing. Jacob was glad that Stan had switched to physical therapy, because he seemed to like it better anyway, but the old uniform had been so much cooler.
"Egg nog, awesome," Stan said when he was checking out the contents on the fridge, Kyle still hugged against him in the sort of prolonged reunion thing that they always did; they couldn't stand being apart. It made Jacob feel itchy, afraid that codependency was in his genes. Stan got the egg nog out and poured some for himself, dropped two ice cubes into it, and grabbed the brandy from the top of the fridge.
"Can I have one like that?" Jacob asked, walking into the kitchen to watch him mix his drink.
"No," Kyle said. "You are not getting drunk before you see your grandmother."
"I wouldn't get drunk," Jacob said. "Please, Dad?" Sometimes 'Dad' very obviously meant one of them in particular, and in this case it was Stan.
"He can have a little splash," Stan said. "It's Christmas."
"Oh, God, not for two weeks," Kyle said. "All of December is Christmas to your father," he said to Jacob.
"It's true," Stan said. He mixed Jacob a very weak egg nog with brandy, and added powdered nutmeg before handing it to him. They toasted and drank. "Want one?" Stan asked Kyle.
"I can't," Kyle said. "It's too fattening."
"You need some fattening up," Stan said, slapping Kyle's ass. Kyle scoffed, but he was blushing, flattered. Jacob retreated back to the living room, and Stan joined him after a few minutes of whatever that Jacob had turned up the volume to avoid overhearing.
"What'd you do today?" Stan asked when he dropped onto the sofa beside Jacob.
"Shopped with Dad," Jacob said. "And I saw Christine this morning."
"Yeah? How's she?"
"Still mostly cloistered," Jacob said, because this was their old family joke about Christine, that Kenny would lock her up in a tower if he could. The first time Kyle described her as 'cloistered' Jacob had burst out laughing, because he was eleven and didn't know what the word meant. He'd assumed it was something to do with bodily functions. After laughing along with him, Stan admitted that he wasn't really sure what that meant, either.
"Something to do with nuns, right?" he'd said, and the moment had been officially immortalized, because the combination of nuns and bodily functions had been the height of hilarity for Jacob at the time.
The game was just starting to get good when Kyle asked them to dress for dinner. Jacob had been allowed to drink a beer in addition to his egg nog, and he wondered why he felt so easily drunk until he realized that he hadn't eaten a proper lunch, just snacked on things while Kyle cooked the green beans. He was laughing under his breath as he pulled on clean but wrinkled gray slacks and a dorky navy sweater that had been a gift from Grandma Sheila.
"Oh, you look cute," Kyle said when Jacob came downstairs, yawning. He usually wasn't much of a drinker, but he was feeling celebratory and wanted another beer. He allowed Kyle to roll up the cuffs on his sleeves so they didn't hang over his hands. Stan came downstairs in an untucked Oxford and jeans that Kyle had picked out for him, embarrassingly tight and fashionable in a way that Stan was seemingly oblivious to. Jacob was instructed to carry the green beans out to the car (by Kyle) and to not forget his coat (by Stan). In the car, he was forced to remove his tongue ring, and he slipped it into his front pants pocket, hoping that he'd have a moment alone to model it for Issac.
Because of their loitering in front of the game, they were the last ones to arrive, and it was intimidating to be received by so many Broflovskis at once. While hugging his grandmother, Jacob saw Issac hanging back, and his body did a humiliating full-on flush thing that he hoped Sheila wouldn't notice. Issac had gotten his hair cut, and it was short and spiky the way he'd worn it when he was a sophomore in high school, darkened to a burnt honey color by too much gel. It made him look like he'd – petulantly, intentionally – returned to the age when he'd finally persuaded Jacob to throw all caution to the wind, that year when Issac sobbed and talked about believing in God again because Jacob had done him so right.
"I guess you don't need me to do it, then," Jacob said when he'd finally worked his way across the room to Issac, who was wearing a gray t-shirt that was tight across his scrawny chest and jeans that were too big for him, sagging in a particular way that made Jacob suspect that Issac might have stolen them from him at some point, years ago.
"Do what?" Issac asked, obviously still rankled.
"Your hair," Jacob said. "Who cut it?"
"Some guy. My mom took me to her salon." Issac was eating cheese straws and his breath was terrible, but Jacob still wanted to kiss him.
"I, um." Jacob felt more drunk than he was, pop quizzed by Issac's cold stare. Issac looked like he'd chewed on his lips during the car ride over, probably on purpose, to make them fat and pink. "How was your day?" Jacob asked.
"Shitty," Issac said.
Issac huffed and walked away. Jacob let him go, but only because Sydney had appeared at his shoulder, grinning and ready to interview him about college. She had a massive mane of frizzy blond hair that she'd let go wild in the past year or so, but its wildness complimented her delicate features, and her high school boyfriend, one of the Stoley boys, had already proposed to her. She'd turned him down after some negotiations with her parents, which had resulted in her getting a car of her own and still being allowed to wear the promise ring he'd given her, just not on the finger that made it official.
"Zach is being more bitchy than usual," Sydney said when she saw Jacob's eyes wandering to Issac. Jacob flinched at the nickname; all of Issac's siblings called him this, and he'd never approved.
"It's the hair, probably," Jacob said. "He misses that green shit hanging off like rotting seaweed."
"He misses you," Sydney said. She made a pouty face to offset the seriousness of this and punched Jacob's arm. "You could have gone to school in Denver, man."
"I'm not his babysitter," Jacob said. "And not everyone from this town is destined to stay here forever, okay?"
"Lighten up," Sydney said. "It's Christmas."
"Not for two weeks."
"You know what I mean."
At dinner, they all sat at the same long table that was really meant for ten. There were eleven "major Broflovskis," as Issac referred to them, and he included Jacob and Stan in this, though Jacob considered himself more of a Marsh, even though his legal name was hyphenated. He would have been more sensitive about this if he felt that Kyle would be offended, but Kyle considered himself more of a Marsh as well, and had in fact changed his name when he married Stan in a courthouse in New York. This was after Stan quit the Cavaliers and showed up at Kyle's dorm room to get down on one knee and tell him that he couldn't live without him, not even temporarily. It was all very romantic and spontaneous, the name change included. Professionally, Kyle still went by Broflovski, but whenever he had something monogrammed, which was not infrequent, he used the initials KBM.
"So tell us everything about college," Sheila said to Jacob while they ate. "Maybe you can inspire your cousin to get cracking on his applications."
"He's been cracking," Bebe said, a little tightly, and Jacob saw his Uncle Ike give her a consoling smile.
"Stop talking about my crack, guys," Issac said. Simon and Gwen laughed, under their breath, afraid of their grandmother. Gwen was Bebe and Ike's youngest, by far the sweetest and most well-behaved of their four children. She was also the most awkward-looking, and the most awkward in general, but she was Uncle Ike's clear favorite.
"College is going good," Jacob said when his grandmother stared him down.
"Well," she corrected.
"Oh - well-"
"He's doing extremely well," Kyle said. "We're so proud of him."
The conversation moved on to a discussion of Sydney's holiday choir concert, and Jacob was grateful, increasingly sober and half-hard under the table. Issac was sitting across from him and eating a dinner roll in a deliberately seductive fashion, tearing off little bits of it and placing them on the tip of his tongue before curling them into his mouth and chewing slowly. Jacob kept trying to meet his eyes and failing.
"And how's your sister, Stanley?" Sheila asked.
"Shelly's good," Stan said, probably on purpose. Jacob smiled down at his mashed potatoes. It was unsettling to think that his aunt Shelly was his mother, biologically. She lived in Utah with her husband and children, and Jacob usually only saw her once a year, when they went to visit during the summer. He was always allowed to bring Issac with him, because he didn't get along with either of Shelly's sons, who were technically his half-brothers, which was weird. They were both brawny meatheads with bad skin, and Jacob had been so in love with Issac last summer when they went to Shelly's together, because Issac was Jacob's intellectual ally against his not-brothers, and because he was such a pretty little thing compared to them, more clearly special than he seemed back in South Park. This was what Jacob feared most about having Issac at college with him: he would make Jacob hate everyone else, all the normal kids, because they wouldn't measure up.
After dinner, everyone migrated to either the kitchen to help with cleanup or to the sofa to watch the game. Jacob's parents were both in the kitchen, Kyle at the sink and Stan helping Sydney load the dishwasher, so Jacob figured his family had offered enough tributes. He waited until Issac headed for the upstairs bathroom, and followed him up when he heard the toilet flush. He knew Issac only opted for the upstairs one so that he could have the pleasure of rejecting him, but Jacob had a secret weapon, and also a plan that he thought might fix everything.
"Let me show you something," he said when he caught Issac at the top of the stairs, taking his elbow.
"Seen it," Issac said, pulling free. "Thanks anyway."
"Trust me, you haven't seen this," Jacob said. He walked backward toward the guest room where the coats were piled on Kyle's childhood bed. Issac raised his eyebrows.
"There is nothing on you, anywhere, that I haven't seen a million times," he said.
"Not true," Jacob said. "C'mere."
Issac followed him into the bedroom, and Jacob didn't bother to shut the door. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the tongue stud, closing it into his fist so that Issac wouldn't see it. He'd only put it in without a mirror a couple of times, but he felt like he could use Issac as his mirror now. He stuck out his tongue and unscrewed the fastener on the little barbell before bringing it up and pushing it in. Issac watched, quiet but obviously surprised, his eyebrows lifted.
"Fuck," Jacob said, though it came out sounding more like 'thduck,' because he was still holding out his tongue, trying to screw the fastener on to the bottom of the barbell and failing miserably. Issac sighed as if this was all very typical and unceremoniously reached into Jacob's mouth to take the fastener from his slippery fingers. Jacob titled his head back so Issac could see what he was doing.
"Thanks," Jacob said when the barbell was in place. He was blushing, stupidly. Issac wasn't, but he seemed more willing to look at Jacob than he had all night. "I thought I could return the favor," Jacob said when Issac continued to stare at him in silence. "Maybe not tonight, if you're still pissed off at me. But sometime before the New Year."
"You got your tongue pierced so you could return the favor?" Issac said.
"Well, yeah. And, just, I thought it looked cool. On you. So."
Issac sighed and walked to the window. He normally had less willpower than Jacob, who didn't have much, so even this minimal resistance was unusual. Jacob stood in the middle of the room, feeling like an idiot, his tongue throbbing a little from the reintroduction of the barbell.
"Shut the door," Issac said.
"Yeah?" Jacob wanted him bad, on top of the coats, anywhere. He did as Issac asked and walked over to stand beside him. "So," he said, fidgeting like they were strangers cruising each other in a men's room. "Door's closed."
Issac turned to him and lifted his shirt, pulling it all the way up to his collarbone so that Jacob could see his new piercings. The nipple rings weren't rings so much as little silver horseshoes with balls on the ends. Jacob let out a long breath, nodding to himself. Issac's nipples were dark pink and stiff, and Jacob wanted his mouth everywhere, but he never made the first move.
"Are they still sore?" Jacob asked, his pants getting tighter with every shallow breath he pushed out.
"A little," Issac said. He touched his left nipple and made a soft noise, rubbing his fingertip around the piercing and over the tip.
"Jesus, fuck," Jacob said, whispering. Issac shoved him when he swooned closer, and he let his shirt drop down to hide his chest again.
"Oh, sorry, was I stalking you just then?" Issac said. "Forgive me."
"Dude." Jacob moaned, too fogged with lust to remember the real reason why he'd come up here. "You look so good. Your hair, those - things. You look so good."
Issac smiled despite himself, but he pushed Jacob farther away.
"You just want easily accessible ass," Issac said. "I can't believe you got your tongue done," he added, more quietly, as if to counter his own accusation.
"I don't actually want ass," Jacob said, though he did, so badly that his knees were shaking. "I wanted to give you a proposal."
"Well," Issac said. "Better get down on one knee, then."
Jacob did without hesitation, and Issac laughed, loud and nervous. His hand was shaking when Jacob took it, and Jacob hoped he didn't think this was some sort of actual marriage proposal, though he was pretty sure Issac wasn't that dumb, or that hopeful. Jacob thought of his parents, Stan on one knee in the hallway of Kyle's dorm, exhausted, ring-less, and begging for something he already had.
"Here's what I think," Jacob said, pressing Issac's hand flat between his. "Until the end of the year, while I'm home, we go on like we always have. Because I love the way we are. I mean, the way we've always been. I love you," he added, sheepishly, and Issac's lips parted, but he said nothing.
"But then we have to do a test," Jacob said. "A science experiment. I don't want us to be just part of the South Park curse. I don't want to do things exactly like my folks did. I need to know, Ike. I want to always feel like I did after, you know. Our first time. Like I was going to die if I ever had to let you go."
"I always feel that way," Issac said angrily, and Jacob shook his head.
"I know I piss you off," he said. "Like this morning. I know you think I'm arrogant and selfish sometimes. You need to let yourself imagine that there might be someone out there who's better for you. Even if you think there probably isn't, 'cause I think I'd probably be happy with you for the rest of my life, but that scares the fuck out of me. I don't want to just assume. I want to find out."
"What's your experiment?" Issac asked flatly. "You want me to get fucked by a lot of other guys?"
"No." Jacob stood, still holding Issac's hand, curling it into a fist between his palms. "I fucking hate the thought of you with someone else. But we have to go off and have our own lives for a while. We can still talk, but we have to apart for long enough that it doesn't feel normal to suck each other off between dinner and dessert at Grandma's. You have to get the hell out of South Park, dude. Fuck Tire World. You're smart, you know you can get into any school you want with your test scores. You could go to school in another country, you could go anywhere. And that's what I think you should do, and after we're done with school, we should meet somewhere, and then we'll know. We'll really know if we're, like. Soul mates."
Issac was quiet, and Jacob listened to his own breath, which was coming fast, from emotion and arousal, though the latter had faded somewhat.
"But," Issac said, and he left it at that, staring at Jacob's chest. Jacob pulled Issac to him, hugging him, his head dropping to Issac's shoulder.
"I know," Jacob said. "But listen. When we meet up, if you still – if I still. If it still feels like it does now, I swear to you, I fucking promise, we'll never be apart again. That's the deal."
"I've just always had you," Issac said. He clawed his hands into the back of Jacob's sweater and released a choppy breath against his neck. "I was breathing your leftover air when I was still, like, a bean."
Jacob laughed and squeezed him closer. He didn't want to let him go. The thought of Issac - his Issac! - out in the world, untethered, was terrible. But it was the only way they'd know for sure. They had to lose each other. Neither of them could leave South Park unless both of them did.
Issac leaned back to look at him, and Jacob knew he should send him downstairs before their absence became any more incriminating, but Issac seemed to need kissing and Jacob had never wanted anything more than the taste of that fucking dinner roll on Issac's hot mouth. They kissed softly, licking just the tips of each other's tongues, both of them mindful of how badly things would play out if their piercings were to tangle together.
"Go downstairs," Jacob said, whispering this against Issac's lips.
"Do you promise-" Issac said, panting. "Until the end of the year-?"
"I promise," Jacob said. "I've got my car here." Saying so, he knew why it had been so important to drive instead of fly. "I'll come get you later." He pushed his hands up under Issac's shirt, and Issac shivered when Jacob's fingers brushed the nipple piercings.
"And after this fucking experiment," Issac said. "Later, when we're older. Where should we meet? After we've graduated or whatever your fucking deadline is?"
"After we've both finished school," Jacob said, nodding, because that would be an incentive for Issac to stick with it. "We'll meet up, um. I don't know, you pick the place."
"General Sherman," Issac said, and Jacob wasn't surprised. It was where they'd had their first kiss, in Sequoia National Park, at the foot of the biggest tree in the world. They'd gone camping there with their families, and there was still snow on the ground, though it was early June. Everyone was miserable except Stan and Bebe, who shared his love of hiking. Jacob was thirteen, antsy and afraid of the bears they kept spotting off in the distance. Issac was twelve, a sarcastic bastard who complained nonstop, but something about the giant trees had shut him up. On the morning they reached the General Sherman tree, Issac had shot forward and Jacob raced after him, around the side of giant trunk. Issac had always been faster, and when Jacob caught him it was only because Issac wanted him to. They fell against the tree and kissed; there was no way to tell whose decision it was. It had felt mutual, and ended too fast, when the other kids ran around to join them.
Jacob headed downstairs a few minutes after Issac, but nobody seemed to notice their strategic reemergence. Stan and Kyle usually wanted to leave early, and tonight was no exception, to Jacob's relief. Later, he would go out again with Issac, to no place in particular. Maybe he'd bring Issac back to his bed, in through the window, and spend the whole night doing nothing more than sucking on his sore little nipples. He was confident that he could make Issac come just from that, and he was foggy again on the ride back to his parents' house, his erection concealed by a paper plate piled with leftovers and covered with aluminum foil, leaving grease spots on his slacks.
"Issac looks so much better with his hair fixed," Kyle remarked at one point during his and Stan's recap of the evening. "He seemed calmer. Don't you think? Only one joke about his ass crack in front of my mother. A record low."
"He's fine," Stan said. "He's a good kid."
"He told Bunny that he wanted to apply to Michigan State!"
"Oh," Stan said. "Hmm."
"You guys still call me Bunny?" Jacob said, definitely not in the mood to discuss Issac's future with them.
"Only to each other," Kyle said. "We stopped saying it to your face when you were, what? Eleven? Per your request."
"It is important to honor your child's emergent self identity by respecting their feelings about nicknames," Stan said, quoting Kyle like he was reading from one of his books. Kyle snorted and reached over to squeeze Stan's thigh. Jacob looked out the window and thought about what Issac had said to him this morning, that he loved it when Jacob called him Ike. He'd said that before, and had explained that he liked it mostly because Jacob was the only one who called him that.
"I'm someone else when I'm with you," he'd said, about this, once. "Like this genie who came out of a bottle."
"Like I'm your master?" Jacob had said. This had been last summer, in Utah, when they were cuddling after fooling around.
"No," Issac said. "I just mean - you make me feel like I can grant wishes. Like I've got this power." He'd dropped off there, blushing. Jacob hadn't needed any further explanation. He knew exactly what Issac meant.
By the time they got home Jacob was half asleep and no longer hard, his semi crushed by leftovers. He sloped into the house with his parents and developed a second wind when Stan started mixing egg nog again. They all had one this time, with twice the brandy that Stan used earlier, and Jacob wondered if he'd have to walk to Issac's later.
"You put that thing back in," Kyle said, meaning the tongue ring.
"Grandma didn't even notice," Jacob said.
"Lucky you," said Stan. "Did you show Issac?"
"Yes." Jacob blushed and drank more.
"What'd he have to say about it?" Stan asked.
Jacob sort of wanted to tell them, though it was especially pointless, on the cusp of their hiatus: well, mostly he was concerned that if he shoved his tongue into my mouth too deeply we might end up being one of those horror stories you tell people about tongue piercings.
"He was impressed," Jacob said.
"You'd do well not to try to impress that kid too often," Kyle said.
Jacob thought it was probably too late for that. He was already thinking about four years from now and what might happen at the base of General Sherman. They would go in summer, maybe, in August, the snow long gone. They would wait until sunset when the crowds had thinned, and they would know the verdict as soon as they laid eyes on each other.
He had another egg nog with his parents and they all got a little drunk.
"Remember that trip to the sequoias?" Jacob asked, eying the clock on the oven. It was close to ten o'clock. Issac would be waiting for him, but he wasn't the only one Jacob had missed, and he didn't want to leave his parents yet.
"I remember it was fucking freezing," Kyle said. "And we had to walk from one end of the earth to the other."
"That trip was awesome," Stan said. "One of my favorite national parks, God. It's so amazing, like another world. You had fun, right?" he said to Jacob, squeezing his shoulder.
"I did, yeah." After getting kissed by Issac, he'd spent the rest of the trip in a kind of pleasant haze. At one point, Stan had flipped out over seeing some rare woodpecker. It was one of Jacob's most vivid memories of his parents: Stan flailing as quietly as possible, so as not to scare the bird, and pausing in his attempts to take a decent picture of it to beam at Kyle, who could have given a damn about woodpeckers, trees, hiking, and spending his vacation in the kind of dirty, heaping snow that had finally melted back home. Kyle had smiled tiredly at Stan, letting Stan take his hand and shake his arm with excitement. Jacob had wondered if the woodpecker would even mean anything to Stan if he hadn't been able to turn and know that Kyle had seen it, too. He tried to explain this to Issac years later when they were reminiscing about the trip. It had been one of those afternoons when Issac was zoning out and hardly seemed to be listening, but a few weeks later he got a text message from Issac, who was on vacation with his family in New York for the week:
seeing all kinds of rare woodpeckers today. without you they don't count. come with next time. fuck basketball. think of the woodpeckers, j. think of the woodpeckers we're both missing out on.
When Kenny took a turn for the worse, half of South Park showed up in the third floor waiting room of Hell's Pass, and most of them stayed past evening and on into the wee hours of the morning, slumped onto each other like refugees in the uncomfortable chairs. Christine and Wendy did their best to keep the others from crowding Kenny's bed after visiting hours ended, though of course he loved the company and wanted his farewell party to be as well-attended as possible. Selfishly, Wendy and Christine wanted more time alone with him, and even Clint's sudden interest in their father was wearing on Christine by his second day in town.
"What does everyone want for breakfast?" Clint around around six o'clock in the morning. Christine winced at the volume of his voice. He was an actor, just starting to have some modest success at thirty-five, and she suspected his artfully distressed jeans cost a thousand dollars or more.
"Well, let's see," Kenny said, surprising everyone, because he'd seemed to be sleeping, or just knocked out by his morphine drip. "You think I could eat an egg McMuffin?" he asked Wendy, who was in bed with him, stretched out along his side.
"You could try," she said. She wasn't normally so indulgent of him or anyone, and Christine had expected her to continue waging war on Kenny's illness the way she had when he first got sick, but she seemed resigned now. She kept giving Kenny long looks, like she wanted to ask him a question but couldn't figure out how to word it.
"McDonalds, then!" Clint said, manic with enthusiasm; he clapped his hands together. "Christie? Mom? What can I get for you?"
"Coffee," Christine said. She hated McDonalds, and the way Clint was looking at her, like he'd asked her to remind him what his next line was. "And, um. Anything that comes on a bagel."
"Mommy?" Clint said, going to Wendy.
"Oh, nothing." Her chin was on Kenny's shoulder, and though she was sixty-eight years old she was holding on to him in the shameless way a teenager might clutch at her boyfriend while they watched movies on her parents' couch.
"Eat something," Kenny said, nudging her with his nose.
"Do you think they have a yogurt parfait?" Wendy asked.
"I'm sure they do," Clint said. "Okay, egg McMuffin, coffee, something on a bagel, yogurt parfait. Got it."
"You should ask everyone out there if they want anything," Wendy said, sitting up. "That would be nice of you."
"Mom, there are like twenty people out there," Christine said, starting to feel bad for Clint.
"I can do it!" Clint said. His guilt about having been away so much for the past fifteen years was manifesting as a lot of errand-doing, though of course there was nothing, finally, that any of them could do for Kenny. "It's no problem," Clint said, backing toward the door. "I'll just, um. Does anyone have something I can write with?"
He left, and Wendy went to search the halls for a nurse to administer more morphine. Christine went to the attached bathroom and wet the cloth that she'd begged from a nurse a few hours ago. Kenny smiled at her when she cleaned his cheeks and forehead. He seemed peaceful, even amused, as if this death business was just another party he was throwing, an excuse for all his old friends to get together and hang around.
"You okay?" He kept asking Christine this, like she was the one who was dying.
"I'm fine, Daddy," she said. She wasn't fine. She felt lost, and like the world without him wouldn't be real enough to mean anything. "I slept for a few hours. Do you want some chapstick? Your lips look dry."
"Do they?" Kenny pressed them together. "I'm pretty high, I think. A little numb. What flavors do you have?"
"Only one flavor," Christine said. She went to her purse to dig her tube of chapstick out. "Pineapple."
"Ooh, sounds good. I'll take it."
He seemed to want to put it on himself, but he was too weak to hold anything without dropping it, so she did it for him. Halfway through doing so she wondered if this was embarrassing for him, but he rubbed his lips together and gave her an appreciative smile when she was done.
"Delicious," he said.
"You're hungry?" she said, because it didn't really make sense, considering everything his body was going through.
"No, not at all. I meant the smell."
"Oh. Well. I thought you wanted an egg McMuffin, though?"
"I do. It's for your mom, really. She loves them. We used to eat them together on the way to school when we were kids. Fuck this yogurt parfait bullshit. Life's too short for a yogurt parfait."
"Ha." Christine didn't want to talk about life and its shortness, not with him or anyone else. It seemed ludicrous that he could be dying at sixty-nine. He looked maybe fifty, and this only in the past year, since he'd gotten sick. Christine had always operated under the belief that her father was immortal, and she supposed most people felt this way as children, but her delusions about his indestructibility had persisted into adulthood.
"Is everybody really still out there?" Kenny asked.
"They really are." Her father was a beloved figure in South Park, to the point that Christine and Wendy had somewhat deliriously wondered if statuary would be erected after he died. Kenny still went to the public library every day, and it had become a kind of meeting place for his friends after they all began to retire, where they would play cards, drink coffee, and talk about the old days. It was too depressing to think of how the others would go on this way without him; they wouldn't, probably. He was a mascot they all rallied around, the glue that kept them together.
"Even Stan?" Kenny said when Christine sat on his bed again. "He hates hospitals."
"That's a funny thing for a physical therapist to hate," Christine said. Stan Marsh had been a paramedic, once, too. She remembered him coming to her school in his uniform, making the kids laugh and groan with gross stories about what happened if you ran with scissors and so forth. "But yeah, Dad, Stan's out there. Of course he's out there."
"What a question! When's the last time they were apart?"
Kenny closed his eyes and grinned as if she'd said something funny. "I should tell you a story about that," he said. "I've always wanted to tell someone. I started to tell your mom a few times, but then I would think, she's taken a lot on faith already, hasn't she?"
"Are you okay?" Christine asked, because he was starting to ramble, his eyes still closed. "Do you feel dehydrated?" She looked at the IV of fluids that he was plugged into as if it would tell her anything.
"I'm okay," he said. He took her hand, or more like flopped his against hers so that she would hold it. She did, rubbing his knuckles. "I should tell you," he said again, more quietly now, his eyes coming open. "I've been thinking for a long time that none of it mattered, but it did. It's part of what we all are, somehow. Maybe just part of who I am."
Christine's heart sped up, and she was afraid that she was about to hear some deathbed confession about infidelity. Her mother returned with a nurse before he could say any more, and Christine muttered about needing air. She hated to see the nurses fussing over her father, adjusting wires and administering drugs that would ease the way as his illness nudged him out of the world. She went out into the waiting room, and everyone there looked up from whatever they were pretending to read and stared at her as if she'd have news.
"Clint is bringing breakfast," Christine announced, though they'd already know that, since he'd taken orders. There was a kind of lightening of the air in the room as everyone acknowledged this for what it was: a tactful way of saying that it wasn't yet the time to file into the room and have their last words with Kenny.
She stood surveying them, wondering what they'd all asked Clint to bring them to eat. Stan and Kyle were in the back left corner, Kyle still mostly asleep on Stan's shoulder, blinking groggily while Stan stroked his hair. They'd probably asked for bacon, egg and cheese biscuits, hash browns, and possibly pancakes, too. When Sheila Broflovski died Kyle had gained twenty pounds, something Christine's mother had endlessly remarked upon, and Stan always ate a lot anyway. Issac was beside them, distracted by his handheld. He was still skinny and essentially adolescent, though his hairline was receding quite dramatically as he neared forty. He was a celebrated orthopedic surgeon who specialized in delicate robotic hand bones that could function along with an organic nervous system, and because he'd had a role in inventing the technology he was apparently very wealthy. He still dressed like a punk kid, in a flannel shirt with rolled up sleeves and jeans that were frayed at the bottom in a not stylish way. He'd probably just asked for coffee. Jacob's absence was conspicuous, and Christine imagined that he'd been sent off to find Issac something very particular to eat, like a plum, or a chicken salad sandwich on a croissant.
Butters was the only member of the Cartman clan who had stayed the whole night, though Emma had promised to come back in the morning after Ian left for school. Christine suspected Eric Cartman would be back, too, to exchange a final round of affectionate insults with her dad before he lost his favorite rival. Emma claimed that their animosity stemmed from the fact that Eric had viewed Kenny as a competitor for the romantic attentions of Butters when they were young, which was as hilarious as it was disturbing. Christine was irritated with Eric for outliving her father. He'd had several heart surgeries, and the second of which accompanied a genuine near-death scare. Kenny had rarely left the hospital during the whole ordeal, mostly for Butters' sake, though Christine got the feeling that Kenny and Eric were something more like actual friends after the whole thing was over. She was sure that Butters had thanked Clint but asked for nothing. He always demurred every favor his friends offered, and only Kenny was determined enough to simply do things for him without asking.
Ike and Bebe were sitting closest to the hallway that led to Kenny's room, and they both smiled at Christine gamely. They had been like an aunt and uncle to her when she was growing up, but she hadn't seen them much since she'd moved back to South Park. Ike was one of the library gang who played cards with Kenny, and she supposed he must attend the later rounds, since he was still working. He'd taken over as Principal of South Park Elementary following the retirement of Principal Tucker, who was also in the waiting room, tending to Tweek.
Tweek was a wreck, fidgeting and jiggling his knee like a nervous kid, a cup of coffee hugged between his palms. Kenny had always seemed to feel a sort of responsibility toward Tweek, and Christine remembered him saying that he had to 'check up on Tweek' whenever she'd tagged along with Kenny on visits to the library as a child. Back then, she'd thought of Tweek as a kind of mystical creature who lived among the bookshelves, and it was strange to see him out in the real world; he'd declined every invitation to dinner that Kenny had offered over the years, because Craig didn't like seeing the kids he reigned over in social settings. Craig still managed a somewhat frightening presence, sitting stick-straight despite the long hours in the chair, his arm clamped around Tweek's trembling shoulders. Christine wondered if Clint had been brave enough to ask Principal Tucker what he wanted from McDonalds. She was certain Craig would have sneered at the suggestion of fast food.
There were others: Sydney Broflovski and Clyde Donovan, Christine's aunt Karen and her grandma Carol, who was still in relatively good health at eighty-seven, as if all of that vodka had partially embalmed her. Tired of trying to guess which McDonalds breakfast foods these people would have asked for, Christine walked down toward the ladies restroom, though she didn't really need to use it. She planned on splashing some water on her face, but stopped and headed down to the end of the corridor when she saw Jacob leaning on the windowsill and looking out at the sunrise.
"Hey," Christine said, coming up behind him. She leaned against his back and closed her eyes for a moment, exhausted.
"Everything okay?" Jacob asked, meaning Kenny. He reached back to hook his arm across her waist, holding her there, and she thought of her father's vigilance in making sure they had never been left alone behind a closed door for too long as kids. It had been funny to them then, and it was still funny. She thought of Jacob not just as a brother but as a kind of twin, a helpful additional limb that she sometimes had to function without.
"Dad's fine," Christine said, though of course he wasn't. "He's tripping already, and they're giving him more drugs. He started to tell me something about the past. I think it might have been fairly horrible. I escaped, is that awful?"
"No," Jacob said. "And he wouldn't have told you something horrible. What made you think that?"
"Nothing, never mind. What are you doing down here by yourself? Are they all driving you crazy?"
"Not really." Jacob pulled her over to lean against his side. "Ike wanted Harbucks, but they don't open for thirty minutes. I'm just killing time."
"Little Ike or Big Ike?" Christine asked, though she knew which one he was talking about.
"Little Ike," Jacob said, still staring out the window. "My Ike."
"I figured." Christine wasn't sure that she completely understood what was going on there anymore, and she often wondered which other family members had and hadn't caught on over the years. It wasn't something that was talked about, and Jacob no longer confided in her about it, which made her sad, though she was also relieved to no longer bear the burden of knowing everything. She had been thirteen when Jacob returned from a family road trip to California and told her that Issac had kissed him. Christine had been furious, ready to report Issac to their parents for this degradation of her beloved Jacob, but Jacob had grabbed both of her wrists, yanked her forward and stared at her with his eyes blown open, only a faint edge of self-hatred in his tone when he told her that he'd liked it. A lot.
"Are you guys staying in separate bedrooms?" she asked, not in the mood for walking on eggshells for anybody.
"We're staying with my parents," Jacob said. "And no, not separate."
"Oh. So they're. Okay with things?"
"They love Issac now," Jacob said, dodging the question. "Now that he's rich," he added, and Christine knew he was mostly talking about Kyle. Stan Marsh loved everyone, as far as she could tell. She'd once seen him sincerely apologize to a moth.
"I'm surprised Issac's okay with missing work," Christine said.
"Don't be," Jacob said. "He loves your dad."
"I know." She remembered her father taking a particular interest in Issac when he left school at sixteen. Kenny had sometimes seemed to suggest that he and Issac had this in common, though Kenny had been a good student. He claimed his performance in school was only a symptom of courting Wendy, and Christine once had to stop herself from making a joke about how lusting after Jacob hadn't brought Issac similar academic success.
"It's strange, everybody being together again like this," Jacob said. "And we're all, you know. Making chit chat. Not really talking about why."
"Well, there's not much to say about why." She didn't want to talk about it herself. "You know, the only one who really cheers me up is Emma, because she's so inappropriate. She was talking about setting me up with some friend of hers – that weird French guy who's always hanging around her."
"God, really?" Jacob frowned. "You know, everyone thinks she cheats on Lee with that guy."
"Do they? Jesus, who knows what goes on with them. All the Cartmans are so strange. Anyway, she wouldn't tell me how old he was, but he looks ten years younger than me—"
"Please," Jacob said. "You don't look your age. You're like Kenny, you're ageless."
They let that drop between them, and Jacob put an arm around her. "Did you tell Phil about your dad?" he asked.
"No." She hadn't talked to her ex-husband in three years and didn't see why he should know that her father was dying. Phil was her failed experiment, an attempt at having a life that wasn't centered on South Park, which Jacob had always claimed to want, too, before he reunited with Issac and became his "roommate" in an apartment in Denver. They claimed Denver didn't count, but it completely did, and they were in South Park all the time, looking after Stan and Kyle now that those two were old enough to need someone to clean their gutters and unload the massive pallet of firewood that they bought at the start of winter. Jacob seemed happy, and Issac was smug with victory. He'd gotten bold, at least when his parents weren't looking, and was always brushing eyelashes from Jacob's cheeks like he was polishing a medal he'd won.
"So are you going to date the French guy?" Jacob asked. Christine recoiled.
"Of course not," she said. "I'm still vulnerable to the curse."
"I think only virgins are."
"Well. Even so." She wasn't a virgin, but she wasn't sure that she'd ever really been in love. She'd always sort of held herself back from Phil, and she hated to think that it was because she'd never managed to fully trust someone who wasn't from home. Phil had dreaded visits to South Park, and she had felt badly for him, because he'd been so easily excluded when she was back among her family and friends. It hadn't been that way when they'd visited Phil's family in Newport; she'd gotten along better with his mother than he had.
At six thirty they walked down to the Harbucks counter in the lobby, and they ran into Clint on the way there. He was laboring under the weight of everyone's breakfast, and Christine felt more tenderly toward him than she had in years as she watched him struggling to juggle two coffee trays and three heaving bags of greasy food. She hurried to help him, leaving Jacob to fetch Issac's coffee.
"They recognized me at the McDonalds," Clint said. "I had to take a picture with the cashier, and then they brought the manager out, and I had to take one with him, too."
"You're famous," Christine said. "They'll have to redo the Welcome to South Park sign. 'Home of Clinton McCormick.'"
"They didn't know my real name or anything. They called me Owen. 'Hey, it's Owen from Triage.' I get that in L.A., too."
"I'm not complaining! I'm just saying. Nobody knows who Clinton McCormick is. They know Owen. Did anything happen with Dad while I was gone?"
"Don't you think I would have opened with that if something had?" She felt bad for being sarcastic; she felt she hadn't seen her brother in a long time, though he'd made an appearance at Christmas. "I've been hanging out with Jacob for the past ten minutes," she said. "I guess McDonalds coffee wasn't good enough for Dr. Broflovski."
"Issac's a prick," Clint said. "He said, 'Why McDonalds?' So I bitch slapped him with, 'Because it's what my dad wants.' Then he asked for hash browns. That guy has no shame. Is he still, uh. Him and Jacob?"
"You know about that?" Christine said, stopping in her tracks. They were close to the waiting room but still not in earshot. Clint frowned.
"Mom acts like everybody knows," he said. "It's pretty sick, isn't it?"
"It's not really," Christine said. "They're not – I mean, they don't have the same blood or anything."
"Yeah, but they both – Bebe gave birth to both of them, yeah? They stewed in the same juices."
"Clint, God! That's disgusting."
"Disgusting but true," he said, looking proud of himself, and she was back to being annoyed by him.
The distraction of the food and non-hospital-brewed coffee was welcome, and there was a lot of noise and shuffling of bags and wrappers as everyone situated themselves, sorting through McMuffins and McBiscuits until they all had what they'd asked for, more or less. Christine took Jacob's empty seat beside Issac, and she pulled Jacob's discarded fleece sweatshirt on, because she knew it would irritate Issac.
"You okay?" Issac asked.
"Not especially," Christine said. "How are you?"
"Is there really nothing that can be done?" Issac asked. "I have a friend who specializes in—"
"There's really nothing," Christine said, insulted. "We've exhausted the resources of the medical community, believe me. We might not be as rich as you—"
"Oh, God." Issac sat back and huffed, looking away.
"But my parents do have money, okay, and every desperate effort was made."
"Well, of course, but I hate just sitting here, doing nothing." Issac looked down at his hands. "Your father was the only one who didn't treat me like a leper when I quit school. I used to hang out in the library with him and Tweek, after Jacob left for college. He taught me how to play poker."
Christine reached over to pat Issac's wrist, hoping that he wouldn't find the gesture condescending. They had never gotten along, too directly in competition for Jacob's attention as kids. Christine had listened to many rants about Issac over the years, and she imagined that he'd heard some about her.
"How's your mom this morning?" Stan asked Christine, and she was embarrassed to realize that he'd overheard her bitchy exchange with Issac. Kyle at least seemed oblivious: he was eating his McDonalds pancakes with dire concentration, sectioning them into bite sized pieces with a knife and fork. He looked very tired.
"Mom's okay," Christine said. "She just seems dazed, like she's run out of energy. I think she expects to go with him—" Christine broke off there, not wanting to give the impression that she thought her mother would actually kill herself or anything. It was just that she'd never before seen her mother not leading the way with her father happily following.
"Poor Wendy," Stan said, and he clasped Kyle's arm as if he was afraid he'd catch the dead spouse disease just by invoking her name. Kyle looked up at him, chewing.
"I think I'd expect to go with you," he said, apparently listening after all. Stan looked at him sadly and touched his cheek. They were both in good health, and Christine doubted that they'd given much thought to that inevitable parting until now. Jacob appeared with two coffees, and Issac hopped out of his chair, went to him and hugged him fervently in front of everyone. Christine met Jacob's eyes over Issac's shoulder and grinned; he seemed confused, and couldn't properly hug back with the coffees in his hands. She checked for Stan and Kyle's reaction, because she'd always been curious about their opinions on this and knew she would never hear them aloud. Kyle was watching the two of them but still mostly looking tired, still chewing. Stan was gazing at Kyle, and he seemed broken up, as if he was trying to imagine life without him.
They were all cleaning their hands with pale yellow napkins and gathering up the trash when the nurse came in with Wendy, whose eyes were red and wet.
"Mr. McCormick can have visitors now," the nurse said. She had the fleshy, scrubbed-clean skin that all the younger nurses seemed to have, whereas the older ones were strung out and leathery. "It will be the last time he'll have visitors," the nurse added, and her lack of intonation actually seemed kind, or respectful. Christine stood, then realized that this wasn't her cue. She would be close to the end of the line, one of the three people who wouldn't leave the room until he was gone.
She went into the room anyway, along with her mother, who held her hand. Clint trailed behind them, sobbing in pathetic little gasps. Kenny was smiling and heavy-lidded, high as a kite. They crowded around him while the others lingered outside, trying to compose themselves.
"Did Mom eat her egg McMuffin?" Christine asked, taking her father's hand and holding it. He laughed in a little cough and nodded.
"My dying wish," he said, turning to Wendy. She was stone-faced, holding Clint while he cried.
"Dad," Clint said. He was still having trouble actually looking at Kenny, clinging to their mother in a way that made Christine think of how Disney World had somehow managed to terrify him. He'd come out of the place with a sudden tendency to nervously suck on his thumb.
"C'mere, it's okay," Kenny said, and Clint hugged him, spilling onto Kenny's chest in a way that made Christine want to caution him not to hurt Kenny in his enthusiasm, though she supposed the time to keep him from hurting was done, the morphine so heavy in his bloodstream that he must have felt he was floating.
Christine and Clint hung back while Wendy played usher, bringing Butters in first. Making no attempt to conceal his tears, Butters hurried to the bed and dropped down onto Kenny the way that Clint had, sobbing into the crook of Kenny's neck. Eric Cartman trailed in behind him, timidly meeting Kenny's eyes from over Butters' head.
"I heard I made it just in time," Cartman said.
"You always had great timing," Kenny said. "Hey, hey," he said to Butters, nuzzling at his hair, which was fluffy and white like a spoiled Pomeranian's fur. "It's okay," Kenny said, almost admonishing him. Butters lifted his face and sniffled.
"You're my best friend," Butters said, also admonishing, giving Kenny a reason why he couldn't die.
"We'll see each other again," Kenny said. "I promise. Don't worry about me. I've done this before."
He turned to Christine and Clint and winked, as if they would know what that meant. Christine looked at her brother, but he was just blubbering, his somewhat famous face pinched with ugly tears. She hugged him and watched Cartman shuffle to her father's beside.
"Fuck, Kenny," Cartman said. "What the hell."
He was complaining, too, and Christine started to feel annoyed, wondering if everyone out there was going to come in and tell Kenny that he had some nerve to die when they still needed him, as if he was cheerfully deserting them. She felt that way herself, and to see his friends saying so was painful.
"Eric," Kenny said. "I'm sorry I always gave you a hard time."
"I gave you a harder time," Cartman said, competitively.
"You guys are gonna have it made in the afterlife," Kenny said when they stood looking at him, holding each other. "You never did meet Lee's in-laws, did you?"
"Emma's parents are dead," Butters said, petting Kenny's shoulder sympathetically.
"I suppose that's true," Kenny said, nodding to himself. "One of them is, anyway. I used to see them around town – I don't think anyone else could, unless they wanted to be seen. I guess they had to go back. Rules and all that. How old is Ian now?"
"Um," Butters glanced at Cartman, tears slipping down his cheeks. "Ian's twelve."
"He wants to be a fucking firefighter," Cartman said, obviously disapproving. He'd tried to pressure Lee into becoming a cop, but it hadn't worked. Lee had more of an accountant's disposition, and that was what he'd become, to some extent, though he was mostly a stay home father to Ian. He also did the books for the occult shop that Emma and Mercury Donovan co-owned. In South Park, it was a surprisingly profitable business.
Christine sat on the windowsill and looked out at the parking lot while Butters made Kenny smile with stories about his grandson. She felt a certain amount of guilt for not having given her father any grandchildren to fuss over. It wasn't impossible at her age, but finding someone whose children she actually wanted to have was starting to feel that way. Phil had been attractive enough, and sex with him was fine, but she'd ultimately come to realize that she just didn't want anything of his growing inside her. Once, drunk, she'd offered her eggs to Jacob, but he didn't want children, probably because he had his hands full with Issac already. Stan and Kyle at least had Simon's kids to spoil with grandfatherly attention. Clint had two daughters with his ex-wife, but they lived with her in L.A. and Kenny rarely saw them.
Butters had a long cry on Kenny's chest, and Kenny made whispered promises about how they would see each other again. Christine had never been entirely sure what the hell her father believed in, religion-wise, but he'd always been confident about the afterlife, and her mother had deferred to him on the subject, as if she, too, was confident that he knew what he was talking about. When Butters finally stepped back, Cartman surprised everyone by leaning down to hug Kenny himself. They didn't speak, and Cartman hurried out of the room afterward, his eyes on the floor.
Craig and Tweek were next, and there was a lot of hysterical sobbing from Tweek, mostly stony silence from Craig.
"I guess I should just f-fucking retire!" Tweek said. "I can't run that place without you!"
"Craig could help," Kenny said. "I was thinking of passing my title down to him. If he wants it."
"Your title?" Craig said. "I didn't think you were actually employed there."
"I'm not," Kenny said. "But I'm the resident creepy old man who hangs around with Tweek at the reference desk. You could handle that, I think."
"You do more than that!" Tweek said. "When we get shipments, he signs for them," Tweek said, turning to Craig. "I hate signing for things, man! It's too much pressure!"
"I could do that," Craig said. "You want me to do that?" he asked Kenny.
"Yes, please," Kenny said. "And keep Tweek company, and make sure we're stocked on coffee – you're pretty much an expert in how much he can burn through, so you're really the only candidate for the job."
"What about the poker games?" Tweek asked, drilling his fists together.
"Craig's good at bossing people around," Kenny said. "He could run them."
"I'm not you, though," Craig said. "People don't like me."
"You don't have to be well-liked to be part of the poker games," Kenny said. "Look at Cartman."
Craig actually smiled then, something Christine had never seen before.
Christine's grandmother spent a long time with Kenny, apologizing a lot, which stressed Christine out almost to the point that she wanted to leave. Aunt Karen was more subdued, being strong for Kenny's sake, petting his hair. It was still blond, remarkably, though duller than it had been. Ike and Bebe were similarly upbeat, as if they believed Kenny's increasingly hard to follow rantings about how they were all going to live in a big house together in the afterlife, even Kevin and his father, if he could find him. The Broflovski siblings gathered around him in a group after their parents had gone, Jacob hanging back with Issac, who was crying silently, wiping at his face.
"Let me see you two," Kenny said when they took their turn at his bedside, Sydney having the good sense to usher Simon and Gwen out the door in case Kenny said something incriminating about the Jacob-Issac situation in his morphine-laced euphoria. "You know who you guys remind me of?" Kenny asked.
"Stan and Kyle," Jacob said, and Issac scoffed wetly.
"No," Kenny said. "You remind me of us," he said, turning to look at Wendy, who was leaning against the wall, keeping a quiet vigil over him while he said goodbye to everyone else. "Me and Wendy. Not in this timeline, in the other one. We kept trying to give up on each other, but then we just couldn't. Destiny," he said vaguely, looking back to Jacob and Issac, who glanced at each other nervously.
"I was going to offer to tweak your morphine drip," Issac said. "But I think they've got it cranked up pretty high already."
"They have," Kenny said, and he grinned. "Suddenly everybody's so eager to give me drugs."
Apparently Kenny had been to rehab, once. Her parents talked about it as if it was inconsequential, and Christine wasn't even sure what he'd been addicted to. She'd only seen him drunk when she was older. At her wedding, he got wasted with Stan and they sang karaoke, but this was after Christine and Phil had departed to their wedding night hotel. She'd seen a video, later.
Stan and Kyle were the last to come in, and it was appropriate, because Kenny was closer to them than he was to his mother and sister, and had been for a long time. Wendy gave them the most distance, moving to the other side of the room to stand with Christine and Clint, wrapping them into her arms. Kyle pulled a chair over to Kenny's bed and leaned down to rest his head on Kenny's limp forearm, his hand circling Kenny's wrist. Stan sat on the bed itself and flattened his hand over Kenny's chest.
"There's so much I wish I could tell you guys," Kenny said. "But I'll save it for when I see you again. Then you'll know everything."
"Don't save it," Kyle said, lifting his head. "Tell us."
"He doesn't have to tell us if he doesn't want to," Stan said.
"He just said he wanted to!"
Kenny laughed. "Naw, it's just. Let's say I had this dream about what the world would be like if you two weren't together, and it was a joke. Everything was backward and mixed up, and Kyle, you – you were an agoraphobic."
"Well," Kyle said. "Let's analyze your dream, shall we? It sounds you think I'd be completely unable to function without Stan."
"You would be," Kenny said, nodding, and they both laughed. "And Stan, um, you were really into musical theater? And you were a virgin, I think. And I was celibate!"
"Kenny," Wendy said, more to herself than to him, and she laughed against Christine's shoulder.
"Well, I was," Kenny said. He was smiling, but for the first time since he'd checked back into the hospital, his eyes were getting wet. "Anyway. At the end of the dream, you found each other and everything got put right. That was the important part. Oh, and Karen was pregnant with the Antichrist, but that's a whole other story."
"Dude, this is not working for me," Stan said, his voice starting to go.
"What's not?" Kenny asked.
"You dying. I'm not – you can't –"
"Stop, stop," Kyle said lightly, and he got out of the chair. He sat on the bed and pulled one of Stan's arms around him, letting Stan collapse onto his back and cry, his other hand still open on Kenny's chest. Kenny twitched, wanting to move, and Christine went to the bed. She took Kenny's hand and put it on top of Stan's, then wiped the corners of his eyes dry. He smiled up at her tearfully. She kissed her fingertips, pressed them to his pineapple-scented lips, and left them alone again. When she resumed her spot between Clint and her mother, Kyle put his hand on top of Kenny's, threading his fingers down through Stan's.
"You guys have to watch out for South Park for me," Kenny said. "Take care of things and so on. I invited Craig to the poker games. You should be nice to him, a little, even if he's an ass. For Tweek's sake. And don't let Cartman boss Lee's kid around too much. He wants to be a firefighter, and I think that's pretty sweet, you know, he'd be good at it, since they can do that whole thing with the fire in their palm and all that. I mean, he's got that in his blood. Goddamn, I'm going to have to hang out with those two for a while, aren't I? At least Christophe will be there. I'm gonna miss you guys, though. Jesus, I'm gonna miss you so much."
"Tell me one thing, okay?" Stan said, lifting his face from Kyle's shoulder.
"Anything," Kenny said, and there was some renewed lucidity in his eyes that made Christine suspect that he knew what Stan would ask.
"That day when you saved Kyle at Stark's Pond—"
"Sweetheart," Kyle said, soft but reproachful, turning his cheek against Stan's.
"No, it's okay," Kenny said. "What do you want to know?"
"I always thought me and Kyle – maybe, we'd sort of gone somewhere – together. Like we were missing some time? I don't know, Kyle hates it when I talk about this."
"I don't hate it," Kyle said, muttering. "It's just. Hard to articulate."
"I never knew you felt that way," Kenny said, and he looked happy to hear it.
"Yeah," Stan said. "But I just wanted to know, because you were there, and you had those blankets, and you knew – something. When we were gone – if we were gone – wherever we went – where were you?"
"I was in South Park," Kenny said, smiling so hard that his lips trembled. "The whole time. Holding down the fort. Waiting for you guys to get back."
"You saved my life," Kyle said, stroking Kenny's hand with this thumb.
"You saved mine," Kenny said.
"I don't know about that."
"No, you did," Kenny insisted. "That day in kindergarten. You guys – you didn't forget me. And you knew me that day at the garage, too. You never really forgot me."
"Of course we didn't," Kyle said, and his facade of acceptance crumbled. He leaned down onto Kenny's chest and cried. Stan rubbed Kyle's back and held Kenny's gaze, shaking his head. Kenny was smiling.
"He called you sweetheart," Kenny said to Stan, and Kyle laughed sadly against Kenny's chest, his face hidden.
"He does that sometimes," Stan said, wiping his face with his sleeve like a kid. "In dire circumstances."
After Stan and Kyle had kissed Kenny's cheeks and told him goodbye, Christine half expected him to immediately slip away, but he seemed somewhat re-energized after they'd left, and they sat talking for a long time, Christine leaning against his right shoulder and Clint against his left, Wendy sitting on the middle of the bed and rubbing Kenny's blanket-covered knees. They talked about nothing in particular, like they were at the breakfast table back when they all lived together, lingering over their plates on a Sunday morning while puddles of syrup solidified. Kenny had a lot of questions about Clint's show, and Clint filled him in on the upcoming plot lines, many of which were absurd. They all ended up laughing and talking about shows they'd all watched together on Friday nights when Clint and Christine were very young, sitcoms and cartoons that Christine hadn't thought about in years. She was surprised that Kenny remembered so many details; he'd often fallen asleep on the couch, and Christine, who missed the mid-afternoon naps she had taken with him before she started going to school, would slump against his side, pull his heavy arm around her like a blanket and listen to his heartbeat. In the light from the television, her mother upstairs tucking Clint into bed, she'd felt so safe and cared for, and still she grew up resenting the attitude that she should want to stay in South Park with the people they'd always known and make a little life like the one her father was close to leaving behind.
Now the universe seemed to be orbiting around Kenny's dwindling life, and as the sun started to go down outside, Christine felt like it was the last time she'd ever see it. She put her ear to Kenny's chest and listened to his weakening heartbeat.
"What were you going to tell me?" Christine asked when her mother was in the bathroom and Clint was distracted, searching through his handheld gallery for some recent picture of his daughters that he wanted Kenny to see.
"Hmm?" Kenny turned to press his forehead to hers. He still smelled like pineapple chapstick. "Oh, uh. I guess I was going to tell you about when Stan and Kyle were apart. That's all so long ago, though." He kissed the bridge of her nose. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"Daddy, why are asking me that every five minutes? No, I'm not okay. You're – I mean –"
"I know you're sad about me, but I meant more generally. Like, are you happy and all that?"
Christine exhaled and looked at Clint, but he seemed to know that they needed a moment and was still fussing with his handheld.
"I'm fine, Dad," she said, resting her head on his shoulder. "Don't worry about me."
"I never liked Phil."
"I know you didn't. Well, he's gone now."
"I used to worry that you'd fall in love with Jacob," Kenny said. "Me and Stan had joked about that when your mom was pregnant with you. That our kids would inevitably end up together."
"Who could have predicted what Jacob would actually do," Christine said. "Me and Jacob had a pact that we wouldn't end up back in South Park, and here we both are. It's just that he's here because it makes him happy, and I'm here because my father is dying. But, I. I mean, I'll probably move back to D.C., my firm said I could always have my job back if I wanted it. Daddy, don't worry about me," she said, petting his chest. "I'm okay."
Wendy returned from the bathroom, and Clint brought the pictures over to show everyone. His daughters were cute; Christine hardly knew them. She let her exhaustion pull her under and fell asleep with her head on her father's chest, pretending and then dreaming that they were back on the couch in the living room, having their nap after lunch and before trekking over to the library, which was always empty during the school day. Tweek would sip coffee and listen while Kenny read to her, and she would sit in Kenny's lap feeling like the luckiest kid in South Park, because her father was clearly the best. She understood it in the way people looked at him, everywhere they went.
Late that night, Kenny was still alive, dozing between Christine and her mother, who was deeply asleep, clutching at him as if she could keep him in this world with her bare hands. Clint was stretched out on the floor, snoring manfully, his jacket rolled up under his head for a pillow. Christine was still partially asleep when a nurse and a doctor, both young men, entered the room.
"What about her being awake?" the nurse said, sort of cowering behind the doctor, who had dark hair and an unsettling presence, his bulging arms nearly splitting the seams on the lab coat he was wearing.
"She's not really," the doctor said, and he waved his hand. Kenny woke with a start, and Christine tried to sit up, but she was sort of frozen in mid-blink, her eyelashes netted so that she could only see through a kind of grayish haze. It was the sort of sensation that seemed to call for panic, but she felt preternaturally calm, floating, as if she'd been given a morphine drip of her own.
"Guys?" Kenny said. He turned his head, looking down at Wendy and then at Christine. "You've come to get me?" His voice was reedy and weak, his breath starting to wheeze.
"Fuck no," the doctor said.
"We owe you a favor," the nurse said brightly. He was sort of prissy and small, blond. Something about the unnatural grace in the way he moved made Christine think of Emma.
"It's been peaceful without you, McCormick," the doctor said. "We can only come up once a year now, and my daughter told me you're on death's door. I won't have it."
"It would be lovely to have your company again, old chap, no matter what this one says, but really, you saved us so much heartache, and I do feel somewhat responsible for, well. You've gotten stripped of your power, I'm afraid."
"I'm glad to have it gone," Kenny said. "And I, listen – if you had some hand in Wendy remembering, that was payment enough."
"Shut up, ingrate," the doctor said. "I need at least another three hundred years without you stealing my cigarettes."
"That's about thirty years up top, I think," the nurse said. "We can manage just a little more than half that."
"Oh. Well, um. Speaking of cigarettes, where's Christophe?"
"Late, as usual," the doctor said.
"He'll be here, darling," the nurse said.
"So how've you guys been?" Kenny asked, his voice suddenly a bit stronger. "I used to see you around—"
"Yes, we were allowed to be here until Emma was of age," the nurse said. "Now it's just once a year, so sad! She picks the occasion, and she must be rather fond of you, because she knew we would intervene."
"We're sort of related, aren't we?" Kenny said. "Me and her?"
"Don't you dare," the doctor said.
"Oh, I think of all of us as family now, really," the nurse said dreamily.
"Speak for yourself," someone said, entering the room. Even with her vision partially obscured, Christine could see that it was Emma's Frenchman. He was smoking shamelessly, looking ragged and unshaven as usual.
"Christophe!" Kenny said, coughing a little in his excitement. "Where have you been, man?"
"That's an excellent question," the doctor said. "I'm here for only ten more hours, asshole. I'd like to get back to my family, if you don't mind."
"This is your family, too, dear," the nurse said. "But yes, let's do hurry."
"My friend," Christophe said, reaching over Wendy to touch Kenny's jaw. "You're looking like shit."
"Yeah," Kenny said. "But, I mean. I'm a normal mortal now, right? Don't fuck with that. Everybody's got to die sometime. I don't want to screw things up."
"Stop trying to be noble," Christophe said. "You deserve a bonus. You've been uncompensated for your overtime. Sixteen extra dog shit years, and only you have to remember them."
"So that's what we're giving him?" the doctor said. "Sixteen years?"
"How can you guys do this?" Kenny asked. "And you're so sure, I mean – did you end up with some kind of instruction manual?"
"Not exactly," the nurse said. "We just found a loophole."
"You'll still be human," Christophe said. "But you've earned one last reprieve. So just lay back and take it, eh?"
"I'm laying back," Kenny said. "I can't exactly lift my head. Did you do something to them?" he asked, his hand twitching against Christine's leg. "How come they're sleeping through this?"
"I've had enough questioning," the doctor said. He grabbed Christophe's hand and brought it down to Kenny's chest, pressing it there firmly. Kenny sucked in a sharp breath that sent a flare of real panic through Christine's floating calm, but it was quickly eliminated when Kenny sat up, rolling his shoulders out from under the weight of Wendy and Christine.
"Jesus Christ," he said, looking down at his hands and flexing his fingers. His voice was strong again, and he was breathing hard but easily.
"No," the doctor said. "Damien Thorn. You're welcome. Now, if you'll excuse me, my daughter is making me dinner."
"Enjoy your sixteen years!" the nurse said, following the doctor from the room.
"Wait!" Kenny called out. "Ah. God, I mean. Didn't this cost you something?"
"You'd paid in full already," Christophe said. "How do you feel?"
"Fucking amazing," Kenny said. "Except that I think the morphine wore off."
Christine was able to move her eyelids as soon as the nurse and doctor were gone, but once they twitched shut they wouldn't open again. She realized she was still asleep, dreaming, and that Kenny was still lying beside her. Something was different, though. His heartbeat was strong against her cheek, and he'd wrapped an arm around her back.
When she woke up, her mother was crying, and she lifted up onto her elbow, her lip already shaking as she prepared to have her first look at her father's lifeless features. But he wasn't lifeless: he was smiling up at Wendy, flushed and alert as he wiped away her tears.
"Hey, baby," he said to Christine, and he sat up beside her, rolling his shoulder. "Wake your brother up, okay?"
"Daddy?" she said, sobbing.
"I know, shh." He kissed her forehead. "It's just. I don't know what to tell you. I feel good – I'm gonna be okay. Go wake Clint."
Christine felt like she had on Christmas as a kid, when she had jumped on her brother's bed at four in the morning to wake him so they could survey their presents. She was sort of stumbling, confused, and she knew when Clint sat up with a jerk that he thought she was waking him to tell him that their father had died. She moved aside so that he would see this wasn't the case. Kenny was sitting up in bed, smiling at them, Wendy hugged against his chest. Clint looked at Christine, his lips working around the syllables of a question that he couldn't quite form.
"I knew you wouldn't leave me," Wendy said, and she lifted her wet face to press her cheek to Kenny's. "I knew this time."
Real nurses and doctors came, and Christine didn't have a chance to ask Kenny about the ones in her dream. It was a miraculous recovery, and out came one IV and then the other, the catheter and the oxygen tube. Her father looked ten years younger, sitting up in bed and answering the doctor's bewildered questions. Maybe sixteen years younger.
Christine was sent out to the waiting room to tell anyone who was still lingering the good news. They were all still there, even Eric Cartman, and more had come. Her uncle Kevin's children had shown, and Henrietta was sitting with Clyde, holding his hand. She was the one who rose and came toward Christine as she stood there feeling everyone's eyes on her, not knowing how to tell them what she couldn't yet believe.
"Christie," Henrietta said, taking her shoulders. Christine had spent so much time over at Zelda's house as a kid that Henrietta and Clyde were like a second set of parents. There had been a time when the McCormicks and the Donovans vacationed together.
"He's okay," Christine said.
"What do you mean?" Kyle asked, standing. "We saw doctors coming and going—"
"Come and see," Christine said, meeting Jacob's eyes over Henrietta's shoulder. Jacob was half out of his chair, as if he wasn't yet sure if he should leap into action, his hand braced on Issac's knee. Christine was still wearing his jacket. "You just have to come and see," she said to Kyle, who had walked to her, his arms crossed over his chest as if he was cold, Stan trailing behind him. "All of you. Everybody. You won't believe it unless you come see."
They were surely breaking a number of hospital rules, but the doctors seemed too flustered by Kenny's recovery to notice that twenty people had crowded into his room, and the room was cluttered with everybody's questions, cut through with sobbing and nervous laughter. Everyone seemed to need to put their hands on Kenny to see if he was really still there – even Eric Cartman ruffled his hair, fondly calling him a son of a bitch. Grandma Carol was praising Jesus, and Christine was still reeling, meeting her father's eyes through the throng of people. At one point he winked at her like he knew that she was in on whatever fantastic trick he'd played on Death. Overwhelmed to point of feeling faint, she smiled back at him, too happy to see him wireless and moving with ease to yet question whatever miracle had occurred. She pulled Jacob's sweatshirt off and handed it to him.
"It's so weird," Jacob said, taking it from her. His eyes were wet, and Issac was dry-eyed now, silenced by confusion. "I feel like I knew this would happen. But I didn't, I mean. It's just so – it's so—"
"South Park," Issac said, and Christine laughed, because Kenny would say that himself if he was asked to fit words to this phenomenon.
"I have to get some air," she said. Outside, the sun had come up, and in fact it was nearly eleven o'clock in the morning. She walked through the halls of the hospital deliriously, wondering when she would feel like she had woken from that dream.
It hit her once she was outdoors, walking aimlessly from the front doors of the hospital, the cold mountain air stinging her ears. She sat down on a short stone wall that bordered some frigid pansies. It was late May and there was no snow on the ground, but she could smell it in the air, either forthcoming or melting up in the mountains. She was stoic for a few moments, trying to process a single thought to completion, and when she finally started sobbing it was mostly with relief, but there was misery in it, too, because she would lose him someday, and the past few months of being back in South Park and helping her mother care for him had brought the emptiness of her life without him into undeniable focus.
"Oh, God," someone said, appearing suddenly in front of her. "Am I too late?"
Christine looked up to see a man in a police uniform who was bearing flowers. Peonies, mostly, mixed in with roses, bright pink and white. She cleared the blur of her tears away enough to realize that the man was Cloud Donovan. He sat down beside her and hugged her shoulders.
"I'm so sorry, Christie," Cloud said, whispering this in a way that made her think of him at ten years old, trailing her and Zelda around the house and asking if he could come with them to the mall.
"Oh – don't be sorry," she said, putting her hand on Cloud's thigh in a way that was probably overly familiar; she hadn't seen him in years. "My dad's going to be okay, actually. It's sort of – well, it's a miracle, I guess."
"Jesus, really?" Cloud grinned as if he would happily accept this, no questions asked. He looked down at the flowers. "That's so awesome, Christie. I tried to get off shift earlier, but I couldn't, and I thought. Well, anyway, I brought these." He offered her the bouquet.
"Thanks," she said, taking them. "They're really nice." She felt stupid, crying over someone who hadn't died, crying for herself, really, but she was glad not to be alone. Cloud was seven years younger than her, and she still thought of him as a little boy in her memories. It was strange to be confronted with the reality of him now: he looked a lot like his father, with Henrietta's round cheeks. At school, everyone had called him Donny because of his unfortunate first name, but Christine had always thought of him as Cloud. He'd seemed more like a Cloud than a Donny, and he still did, even with a gun on his hip.
"Are my parents still in there?" he asked.
"Yeah, they are. You can go, I mean – I'm fine."
"That's okay," he said. "I'll sit out here for a minute. It's pretty nice out."
"Uh-huh." She was somewhat startled to realize this was true: the sky was clear and there were wildflowers blooming in the little islands of grass that were spread throughout the hospital's front parking lot. "Still pretty cold, though," she said, beginning to worry about how she must look.
"Oh, here." He took off his jacket, a heavy standard-issue thing with SPPD stitched across the front pockets, and before she could protest he was draping it around her. His uniform shirt had short sleeves, but he was one of those South Park boys who had gone around in t-shirts in December like it was some kind of contest he was having with the weather, and he seemed fine.
"Thanks," Christine said, aware that Jacob would laugh riotously if he knew what was going through her mind at the moment. The jacket was warm and smelled like powdered hot chocolate mix. "Um, how's your sister?" Christine asked, bringing the flowers up to her face so she could smell them, too.
"Zelda's okay," Cloud said. "We don't talk that much."
"She's still in Toronto, your dad said?"
"Uh-huh. She's a freakin' Canadian citizen now." He grinned and she laughed. Christine had had a falling out with Zelda in college that had mostly stemmed from Clint's lack of romantic interest in her, which was hardly Christine's fault. They'd sort of mended things years later, but Christine loathed Zelda's husband, a Canadian named Mike who had very uppity facial hair and had once played the keyboard in a band called Congress. Now they both worked at the University of Toronto in some capacity; human resources or something like that. They had four kids Christine had never met.
"I saw Mercury the other day," Christine said. "That little shop she's got with Emma now – that's really something."
"Really something," Cloud said in agreement, and he smirked. "You're not into all that stuff, are you?"
"All what stuff?"
"Uh, you know. Magic candles."
"Oh, I don't know." Christine let her shoulders slump inside his massive jacket. She couldn't stop thinking that she probably looked like hell, and she'd detected the scent of something else on his jacket, beyond the powdered hot chocolate, something that was more just the smell of him, his sweat maybe.
"My mom was always into it," Cloud said. "Obviously. I got an open mind and all that, but I don't know if I believe people can do spells or whatever."
"Maybe not," Christine said. She tried to get a clear mental image of the nurse and doctor who'd been in her dream – that Frenchman had definitely been there, Emma's friend. Christine had become friendly with Emma Cartman herself since she'd come back to town. She was younger, closer to Cloud's age, and a perfect example of the kind of South Park woman Christine had once been bound and determined never to become: pregnant by her high school boyfriend before her graduation cap could hit the lawn, happily married to him and spending her days gossiping with Mercury as they watched the townsfolk pass by the front windows of their odd little shop. Lee brought her lunch every day and fawned over her the way Butters had always done with Cartman. Their son was cute – probably a future member of the South Park Fire Department. It was the way this town functioned. People decided who they would be pretty early on. Christine had once thought she was being different by deciding that she would do no such thing herself.
"Are you happy here in South Park?" Christine asked Cloud.
"Sure," he said. He seemed unsurprised by the question, surveying the parking lot.
"You and Natasha never got married?"
"Oh – no. We were engaged for a while, but she ended up moving to Denver with this guy who has, you know. Money. Zelda said you split up from that lawyer guy?"
"We – yeah. Three years ago."
"You're still a lawyer, though?" he asked, turning to her with such a look of sincere concern that she burst into laughter.
"Yeah," she said. "I didn't divorce the profession. Just the guy."
She was afraid that had come out meanly, but he grinned. Cloud had always seemed fairly immune to judgmental remarks, or at least not concerned by them. She supposed any boy with his name would have to get that way quick.
"Should we go in?" she asked when they'd been smiling at each other an overlong amount of time.
"Sure," he said. "If you want." He stood and offered his arm. She took it.
Inside, the staff had managed to clear only some of Kenny's friends and family out into the waiting area. Everyone embraced Christine like they hadn't seen her in years, and she hugged them back just as hard, still wearing Cloud's jacket. People were hugging him, too, and he was taking it in stride. When Christine made it through the outer layers of celebratory loved ones, she wasn't surprised to find Kyle and Stan still in Kenny's room. Kenny was sitting with his legs hanging over the side of the bed, resting back against Wendy, who was hugged around him from behind. He'd gotten dressed in normal clothes – Jacob's fleece sweatshirt and somebody's jeans that were too short for him, his bare ankles exposed over a pair of argyle socks that were probably Kyle's. Christine had no idea why anyone would keep an extra pair of socks on hand, and she didn't care much at the moment. She went to her father and fell into his arms, hugging him like she had after her first day of school, so relieved that she could return to the world where he was always reaching down to pick her up.
"I had the strangest dream last night," she said when she pulled back.
"I know," Kenny said. He held her hands, and she had to blink back tears, because yesterday he hadn't been able to hold anything. "We should make that the town motto," Kenny said, looking at Stan. "South Park, Colorado: 'We're that Strange Dream You Had Last Night.'"
"That'd be good for tourism," Stan said, beaming. He was still crying a little, and so was Kyle, wiping his face on Stan's shirt.
"What's that you're wearing?" Wendy asked, reaching around Kenny's shoulder to fold down the pocket on Cloud's jacket.
"Donny's let me borrow it," Christine said. "He brought you flowers, Dad – oh, I must have given them back to him."
"Aw, little Cloud," Kenny said.
"He's not so little anymore," Christine said, holding up the sleeve of the jacket to demonstrate. It was hanging over her hand by about five inches.
"That kid," Kyle said, sniffling. "He pulled me over last week for doing sixty-something in a forty-five. If Clyde thinks I'm going to pay that ticket he's insane."
"I'm sure the Chief of Police will drop everything to fix your speeding ticket, dear," Stan said. Kyle gave him an irritable look, and Stan kissed his forehead. "Actually, he probably will," Stan said. "Knowing Clyde."
"Well, precisely," Kyle said, looking pleased.
Kenny had to stay overnight for observation, but he was agreeable to this, in a great mood and talking about the returning-to-life party he was going to throw for himself, sparing no expense. Christine got a ride home with Karen, dying for a shower and planning to return to the hospital later with dinner for her parents. She didn't realize that she was still wearing Cloud's jacket until she was undressing in her childhood bedroom. She tied on a robe and found her handheld on top of the dresser. It was covered with a layer of dust, untouched for at least three days. She didn't have Cloud in her index, but she found him through Zelda's and sent him a message.
Sorry for stealing your jacket
She took a long shower, cried more, and tried to make sense of what had happened last night. But it was just a dream, of course. She'd seen that doctor and nurse somewhere around town, once – she was sure of it now. Her subconscious mind simply plugged them in as – angels? That didn't seem right; the dark-haired one had seemed downright sinister. Still, she'd gotten the impression that he'd cared for her father in some fashion. She shut off the water and rubbed her eyes clear. Now that her father was well, if she wanted to, she could return to D.C. and let all of South Park feel like a dream that could never be properly untangled.
Out in her childhood bedroom, now her mother's yoga studio but still painted a very pale pink, she wrapped a towel around her wet hair and checked her handheld. There was a new message, a response from Cloud:
well I ended up with your flowers so we're even. I'm off shift if you want me to come over so we can trade
She was chewing her lip while she typed her response, grinning. She told him to come, put on a sweater dress and boots, and only had time to do her makeup, her hair still damp and spilling around her shoulders in wet tangles by the time he rang the doorbell. She jogged downstairs, feeling sixteen years younger herself, and grinned when she found him on the front porch, holding those flowers.
"Oh, fuck!" she said, bringing her palm to her forehead. "I left your jacket upstairs." It wasn't some kind of plot; she really had forgotten, caught up in an effort to make herself look pretty.
"That's alright," he said. "I'm not in a hurry or anything." He held the flowers out and she took them.
She invited Cloud inside, again imagining Jacob's response to this, how he would laugh and laugh at the irony. Or maybe he wouldn't laugh. She hadn't laughed at him and Issac when they'd seemed to be happy together at last, settled into real adult lives and still tripping over each other with adoration.
But really, nothing was happening: she was making coffee for Cloud, and he was filling the vase she'd found for the flowers with water. Her father was alive, and the sun had come up over South Park. It all seemed inevitable now, when last night nothing had. She was embarrassed for wanting Cloud to grab her and dance her around the kitchen while she laughed with relief. She realized that she was happy, and caught herself making plans to stay.
"What?" Cloud said, because she was smiling to herself while she poured his coffee.
"Nothing," she said. "I was just thinking about something I said to Jacob when we were kids. About how I wondered if all our parents would have ended up together if they hadn't started out in South Park."
"Oh, yeah," Cloud said. "Have you ever seen pictures of my parents from back in high school? It's freaking hilarious. My mom was like, in full-on witch makeup, and my dad looked like this dumb jock. Tasha used to get all worked up about it, like, she didn't want to turn into her parents and be stuck here forever."
"Ha," Christine said, mixing sugar into her coffee. "You never felt that way?"
"Well, sort of, but, man, look at me." He grinned. "I'm wearing the uniform, right? Now all I gotta do is marry one of Merc's little spell casting buddies and I'll be just like my dad."
Christine laughed and hid her face in her coffee cup, feeling ridiculous.
"I can't stand her friends, though," Cloud said, leaning across the table. "So that's, you know. Not gonna happen."
"Well," Christine said. "I should get your jacket."
"Are you gonna be in town for a while?" Cloud asked. She met his eyes across the table and realized she didn't know how to answer that. "I mean, I hope so," he said, turning red. She thought of going to the beach with the Donovans when she was a senior in high school and Cloud was barely in junior high, some afternoon when he'd stood beside her in the kitchen of their rental house, watching patiently while she made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for both of them.
"I think I'll be here for a while," she said, and he blushed more deeply, smiling.