Soundtrack: Jesse Went to War – Marcy Playground
Stan and I had the misfortune of sharing a birthday.
I only call the day a misfortune – because that day is the day that lead to his death.
We used to like that we had the same birthday. In fact, that's how we became friends, way back when we were still in diapers and Truman was still president of the United States. Sometimes we shared birthday parties, because Sharon Marsh was – and continues to be – a charitable woman, and took pity on me, the poor boy that her son brought to meet her one day when she came to pick him up from preschool. Most parents didn't let me play with their kids. I was told I looked like trouble, because my hand-me-down shirts from Kevin were too big and worn, and my hair hadn't been cut in far too long. My parents were notorious troublemakers, with my dad in and out of jail on a regular basis, and my mother struggling to make ends meet when she was the only one bringing in money. I was lucky that I made the friends I did. I was grateful for them all: Kyle Broflovski, whose parents understood as a Jewish family what stigmatization looked like, and Eric Cartman, who had the prettiest mother in our entire town, a lady that carried a lot of rumors with her. But in particular, Stan Marsh, who wore his heart on his sleeve and hated to let anybody or anything go unloved, was closest to me.
Stan and I were like brothers.
His doorstep was the one that my mother would leave my sister and me on if she needed me out of the house, and became the doorstep that I came to when I grew old enough to fend for myself, and recognize that when my daddy was drunk, it was time to get out. Stan and I did everything together. He always chose me first for his team when we played baseball with the other kids on the block, invited me over for Sunday dinners with his family, and traded so many baseball cards and plastic action figures that by the time we hit puberty, most of our toys had belonged to both of us. We spent countless nights together, sometimes in the company of our other friends, and sometimes just the two of us, whispering to each other underneath his covers, shining a flashlight over the porno rags I'd nicked from my dad.
"I can't believe your dad just keeps these around," Stan used to say as we'd flip through glossy pages of the most magnificent breasts that we'd ever seen, "my dad hides his in his sock drawer. He thinks my mom doesn't know. God, he's so fucking dumb."
"Hey, don't be so hard on him," I'd respond, nudging Stan with my shoulder. I remember being so damned jealous of how much time Randy wanted to spend with his son, and how I wish my dad could be like that, instead of perpetually out of work and drunk on the sofa, or imprisoned.
Stan would roll his eyes, and we'd pull down our pajama bottoms as I turned the pages of my dad's Playboy, while he shakily held the flashlight up. We trusted each other so wholly, enough that we didn't mind taking our cocks out in front of each other and working ourselves over until we came in our hands. Stan would talk about how Kyle would never do that with him. It was true – Kyle would be shocked. He didn't like potentially putting his dignity on the line. And that boy considered him pretty fucking dignified.
In high school, we changed, but we never stopped being friends. I took after my greaser brother and smoked too much, fucked too much, and generally brought trouble with me wherever I went. Stan didn't mind, he'd just laugh at me when I confessed to getting sent to the principal's again for skipping class or getting caught smoking in a bathroom stall. He wasn't like me at all. An average student, he got away with occasionally slipping out to skip rocks and drink stolen beers with me at Stark's Pond because of his status as our school's star quarterback, destined to grow up and join a real team someday. He was dating the prettiest girl in our entire town, Wendy, who was not only beautiful, but smart as a whip, the top student of our class. Kyle furiously came in second to her in many things, including Stan's time. Right around when we turned fifteen, Stan began to spend the bulk of his time trying to goad her into sleeping with him, advances that she refused.
When we were sixteen, Wendy did let him feel her up through her sweater while they were at the drive-in theatre in the next town over. She told him that she loved him, and he told her that he loved her back. He'd come to me the next day in a panic, wondering what love was supposed to even mean. A huge fucking responsibility, I had told him, and I wish that I hadn't been right. When somebody loves you and you love them in return, I've always felt that you owe them your own well-being, which is why I didn't let myself love a lot of people. Maybe I still don't.
The night of our prom, I spiked the punch bowl with my dad's whiskey, but Stan and Wendy hadn't even been there to enjoy it. Even as I had Rebecca on top of me with her hands in my hair and her lips on my neck in the back of my truck, I wondered where the fuck he'd got to.
He'd lost his virginity to Wendy.
Reportedly, it had been a hell of an event. He'd laid out a blanket by Stark's Pond and lit candles, the whole fucking nine yards. Normally I wouldn't understand putting so much effort into getting a girl to fuck you, but I understood for Wendy. She was worth that kind of effort. By the end of high school, I'd come to like her almost as much as Stan. At first I thought she thought she was better than the rest of us – in particular, me – but discovered that she wasn't above sharing a joint and a flask with us, laughing at our stupid jokes and making some of her own. She was everything that Stan deserved, and she was everything that he deserved. I was pretty certain that I'd never find anything like that myself. I wasn't like Stan or Wendy, with their drive and loyalty. I moved from one thing to the next, and took life as it hit me, not bothering to complain when the cards I were dealt were unfair.
We graduated in the spring of 1966, optimistic despite the ongoing conflict in Vietnam overseas, and racial tensions at home in the states. Stan passionately opposed the war alongside Wendy, and sometimes I'd come with them when they drove down to Denver to protest. I got a job fixing up cars, while Kyle and Cartman shipped off to expensive universities in the east. Wendy and Stan decided to attend the same school, a small one barely an hour outside of our hometown. They both worked jobs to pay tuition, Stan at an animal shelter in the next town over, and Wendy at the diner across the street from my garage. Sometimes while we waited for Stan to come back home, we'd sit outside together while I smoked a couple of after-work cigarettes.
"Why didn't you go out to one of those fancy schools like Kyle or Cartman?" I'd asked her, once. She was still in her uniform, her chin set on her knees, and I got to thinking how I never thought that she and Stan would be the ones to stay behind with me.
Wendy answered, "I just feel like I need to be here. I can't explain it. Maybe I'll go one day, I guess. But my place is right here for now, you know what I mean?"
I nodded. I did know what she meant. I don't think I could have left South Park, even if I tried. It was my place in the world.
We were only nineteen when I stood next to Stan while Wendy was walking down the aisle, looking like she'd stepped right out of a fairytale. Kyle was Stan's best man. They were best friends, and I understood that, but it never took away from what I had with him. Our friendship was its own unit, something that I never thought that I'd have to go without.
Despite both being in school, they were no sooner married than Wendy was pregnant. I maintain that I was just as fucking scared as Stan – I was going to be an uncle. He was going to be a father. Young and poor as fuck, and Wendy was bringing new life into the world, new life that they'd made. It was surreal to see her belly grow, to see Stan talk to it like it was a real person, informing the thing in her belly that he was its daddy and they were going to have so much fun together. When Wendy was rushed to the hospital and hours later Stan held a baby in his arms, he'd been struck dumb, like he only just then understood the gravity of bringing a baby into the world.
The first time that I held Molly Marsh was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. She was asleep, and I was convinced that I was going to drop her. She was so tiny, but she was real, a living, breathing, creature all bundled up in my arms. She had a soft crop of dark, fuzzy hair on top of her head, and tiny little hands that she gripped onto my finger with.
Wendy had smiled at me as I sat with her on their sofa, and told me, "She likes you."
"Ladies usually do," I'd said back with a wink, and Wendy had hit my arm, laughing. Wendy didn't mind my reputation as a seducer of women, like lots of people in our conservative small town did. She treated me like a human being, something that I'd come to appreciate.
Molly was a hellion, and Stan loved her more than I'd ever seen him love anybody else. He took her everywhere with him. He was nothing like our fathers had been. He was there when she took her first steps, and caught her when she fell. He built her towers of blocks just so she could destroy them for a good laugh. Nothing made Stan quite as happy as his daughter's laugh. He even made the cake for her first birthday. It was a wreck, but it tasted good, and Molly didn't seem to mind that her daddy was shit at baking.
There's a photograph that Wendy keeps on the mantle of the event – Molly's face covered in cake, and Stan grinning beside her like he'd just won an Olympic gold medal. He'd kissed her cheek right after that photo was taken, and lifted her out of her chair to wipe the frosting off of her face.
We hadn't known then that our lives were about to veer off the tracks.
There was announcement, one that I heard on the radio while I was working on a truck in the back of the garage. The other guys surrounded the radio. The older men looked grim, glancing at the younger men among us. At me. I'd slid out from under the truck, wiping my hands on my jumpsuit to come and listen.
The news that I was hearing my my heart fly up into my throat.
The military was bringing back the draft. I'd heard rumors before that it was going to happen, but I doubted it. We were past that, I'd said. Cartman was the one that talked about it most, brewing up wild theories about when it would happen, and telling us all that we were doomed.
"I'm moving to fuckin' Canada if it happens," he'd warned, "I've gotta get out of here. They can't take me alive. Fucking commies."
"Relax, there isn't going to be a draft," I told him, sipping a beer. I waved at Stan and said, "Right, Stan?"
"Right," he responded, though he looked worried. I got it. He had a family now, responsibilities. I didn't. I did little else outside of my job beyond smoking with my friends and finding girls at bars to bring home for a night.
After the announcement, we'd all gathered at Stark's Pond. It was fucking freezing, the beginning of winter, but I wanted to make sure that we had a last memorable night together, just in case. I stripped and jumped into the ice-cold water buck naked. Stan laughed when I swore, and Kyle told me I was an idiot.
"You guys are fucking dumb," Kyle told us, when Cartman and Stan started stripping their clothes off, too. Stan left his folded neatly near the bank, not like the puddles of clothing that Cartman and I had left behind. Wendy would kill him if he brought back his clothes all wrinkled and muddy, I understood.
We didn't stay in the water for longer than a couple of minutes before crawling out, skin covered in goose bumps and teeth chattering. Kyle reminded us how stupid we were on the walk back to my apartment, where we warmed up and got so drunk that none of us could put two coherent words together.
On the first day of December in 1969, we all huddled on the couch in Sharon Marsh's living room, clustered in front of the television. Sharon set out food despite the tension in the room, and Randy offered us all beers, which we took gratefully. Molly couldn't stop crying, even though Wendy held her close and bounced her on her knee.
We watched with bated breath as Alexander Pirnie reached into a glass container on the Marsh's black and white television. I only realized that I'd started shaking when he drew out the first capsule, and Wendy reached over to squeeze my hand.
"October nineteenth," he called.
Sharon dropped the plate of oatmeal cookies that she'd been about to set on the coffee table. The plate shattered, sending shards of blue and white china over the floor.
"That's not possible," she'd said.
Stan and I glanced at each other.
October nineteenth – our birthday.
Molly was still crying, and Sharon joined her, sobbing with her face pressed against the doorframe. Stan stood and stumbled to her, holding his mom in his arms. He rocked her back and forth and told her that it would be okay, that he would be fine, and that I would be fine, too. I'm sure I'll be back before you even know that I'm gone, he told her.
"My boys," she cried, gripping his shirt in her fist, "this can't be happening to my boys."
Sharon pulled herself out of Stan's arms after a moment and came to me, throwing her arms around my neck. She wiped the tears off of her face and said to me, "You have to promise me that you boys will come back safe and sound, okay?"
"You know I can't promise that, Sharon," I told her, "Even though I wish I could."
I knew I would be fine – I always am.
But I was terrified for Stan.
When we left for basic training, my sister and my mama cried too, hugging me close to them and running their hands through my now-cropped hair and pressing kisses to my face, leaving their tears on my skin. Sharon cried again, and Wendy did too. Stan held Molly against him as long as he could, tossing her up in the air and catching her as she shrieked with laughter, oblivious to what was happening around her. Molly only cried when Sharon took her out of Stan's arms, and we said goodbye for the last time.
Basic training wasn't easy, but with Stan and I at each other's sides, we pushed through. Stan talked on the phone with Wendy every opportunity that he was allowed. The only time I saw him cry was on one of those phone calls – Molly laughed into the phone, and Stan broke down, holding his face in his hands. We sat outside together after that with our arms slung around each other, completely silent, but saying everything.
My folks didn't have the money to come and see me before we shipped off, so only Stan's parents and Wendy and Molly made it, waving goodbye to us before we boarded our plane.
Wendy hugged me and kissed my cheek. She whispered, "Keep him safe, okay?"
I nodded, "I will."
Overseas, it was strange. The terrain was unfamiliar, and at time I found myself terrified even though I knew that when I died, I'd wake up again in my uniform, in a new body, on a new day.
The day that Stan died, it rained. The rain was so thick that it was almost impossible to see. We were soaked to the bone, slogging through thick, heavy mud. I barely had time to react when I saw one of the pale, drawn faces of our enemy, gun held firm in his hands. I turned and dashed back to cover Stan when the bullets began to fly, crackling in the air against the sound of the rain. I was scared, so fucking scared. What if Molly never remembered her dad? Who would tell Wendy?
God, who would tell Kyle?
The names of everybody that loved Stan ran through my head, flicking scene by scene like a movie. I leapt for him, but the mud sucked my boots in and made me slow. I tackled him to the ground, pushing him back and holding my body over his like a sheild.
I know the feeling of dying too well. As soon as I turned, I knew that I'd been shot, three times in the back. Blood came up from my mouth and dripped down my chin as I pulled back from Stan, who was staring up at me, his blue eyes wide. He stammered out, "K-Kenny?"
"Don't worry about me," I told him, knowing I didn't have much time left before being sucked away into some version of the afterlife. I bent down and pressed out foreheads together, trying not to think of the pain, just that Stan was okay, and added, "I'll be fine."
"I know you will," Stan said, "You always are."
He sounded like he understood exactly the gravity of his words, like he knew that even though I was going to die that I would also be coming back, and that understanding was what made me peel back and look more closely at him. A little bit of bright red bubbled up from his lips. A big, red stain was spreading over Stan's uniform, leaking everywhere. The memories after that are mostly a blur. I remember panic, and crying, "Fuck! Stan, hold on, I'll get help." I was tearing the uniform to look at his wound, but the rain and the bullets in my back made everything too hazy. I was faint, almost gone, but I couldn't let Stan go. God, he couldn't die. I couldn't go back home to South Park without him.
I just – couldn't.
"Kenny, stop it," he coughed, a stream of red leaking out from the corner of his mouth, "I love you, alright? Tell everyone else I love them, too."
He went horribly still underneath me, but I had no time to process it. I fell, slumped over him.
And I still didn't save him.
When I woke up, my uniform was pristine. Stan's blood wasn't on me. I had no bullets in my back.
As usual, I was alive.
I pleaded to go back home after that. I begged. I told them that I needed to be the one that told Wendy and Sharon that Stan was gone. Gone. Gone. He'd died underneath me and I didn't fucking do anything to stop it. They took pity on me. They agreed to let me go back home to the United States, at least as long as it would take to attend Stan's funeral. Then I'd probably be sent back, they said. I agreed, ready to do anything to be back at home, even to sell my soul to Satan.
I'm on a plane, now. I only have an hour until I'll arrive at the airport. My mom and my sister will be there. They'll bring me back to South Park, and I'll have to speak to Sharon and Wendy, and help them with the funeral rites.
The stewardess smiles at me. She's pretty, with honey-blond hair and thick lips. She's flirting with me, I know she is, but I can't find it in me to do as I'd usually do, smile back and cajole my way into having a bathroom tryst before landing in Denver. I just look out the window, feeling a pang in my gut. It's all different, now. Even if I had slept with the stewardess, I wouldn't have Stan to brag to. Kyle would tell me it's inappropriate to talk about, and Cartman is only interested in himself.
I feel so fucking empty.
Karen cries when she sees me. When she winds her skinny arms around me, I hug back, but I feel lost. Stan should be next to me. Wendy and Molly should be waiting for him.
But they aren't.
They don't even know that I'm home yet.
My brother is here, too. He doesn't hug me, but pats my shoulder instead. He smiles at me, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and says, "Welcome back, Kenny."
I don't smile back.
South Park looks the same as ever. Though it's winter, there isn't any snow on the ground. We live in a dry valley, and get less precipitation than the surrounding mountains. The sky is clear and sunny, though when I emerge from the car, the breeze is frigid and biting. It's different than it is overseas. I unpack my things in my apartment. I don't have much. I have medals, but they're a poor replacement for my closest friend. I stare at my boots, wondering if I should cry.
But I don't think that I can. I haven't been able to. It isn't for lack of trying. I think of Stan, the blood leaking from his mouth as he smiled up at me, telling me that he loved me. The tears don't come.
I duck back out of my bedroom. My family loiters in my kitchen. Kevin has a beer in his grip, something probably past its expiration date, though I doubt he cares.
"I have to go talk to Wendy," I say, swallowing.
Karen's face falls, and my mom's brows sweep together like she doesn't understand what I mean.
"I have to – tell her about Stan," I say softly.
"I'll drive you," offers Karen quickly.
I nod. I don't know if I could drive in this state, in any case.
The ride to the little yellow house that Stan and Wendy bought together is all too short. It's only a few minutes that I have to steel myself, to get ready for the moment when I have to tell Wendy what happened. Maybe she won't ask me. Maybe I won't have to say. Maybe I won't need to tell her that I tried to save him and failed. I didn't keep him safe like I'd promised.
"Are you okay?" Karen asks me. She sets a hand on my arm and I flinch away, feeling immediately guilty.
I answer, "Don't worry about me," because I don't know the answer to her question, and don't know if I'll ever know the answer.
I step up onto the porch with my back stiff and stare at the door for a long time. I've been in front of this door many times before, with a six pack in my hands and a grin on my face. Once I dropped by here with a baby carrier, when Wendy looked like she was about to pop and Bebe threw her a shower. It's one of those things that men don't usually go to, but Stan wanted to be there, and so I came, too. I spent more money than I could afford to, because I knew that any child of Stan and Wendy's deserved nothing but the best.
I take a deep breath, and then I knock.
The door opens a beat later. Wendy looks exhausted. Molly is situated on her hip, her dark hair longer and her toothy smile wide. She'd be two and a half, now.
"Kenny!" exclaims Wendy, her eyes going wide, "What are you doing here? Where's Stan? He would have told me if he was coming home."
My eyes flick to the porch, to the boots on my feet. I can't smile, or offer up any reassurance. Nothing that I say will ever make this okay, and I know that. So I do all that I can. I silently shake my head before I say, "His body should be home soon."
For too long, Wendy just stares at me, before he gaze falls to the floor in disbelief. When her eyes look back up to me, wide and pleading, it's as if she's begging me to tell her that it isn't true.
"Oh," she says, breathing shakily, "No. No, you said you'd keep him safe."
"I tried," I weakly reply. My eyes well up, but they don't spill over. Just as it happens every time that I try to cry, I can't.
"Honey," Wendy says to her daughter, voice weak and wavering, "Go – go play. Mommy will be back in a second." She sets Molly on the ground, and Molly seems content to wander back into the house, toddling on unsteady legs.
Wendy holds the back of her hand over her mouth, and asks quietly, "How did it happen?" Her eyes are glassy now. Tears drip out of her eyes, and her shoulders are shaking, but she doesn't make any noise.
I clear my throat and hoarsely reply, "We were ambushed. I jumped in front of him, Wendy, I swear, but one of the bullets got him. He said he loves you. He wanted you to know that. Please know that."
She sobs only then, taking one of my hands and clutching it in hers. She surges forward and leans her head against my shoulder, crying harder than I've ever seen anybody cry in my entire life. I hold my arms around her thin body and rock her. It's all I can do, and I don't know how much it helps. I doubt it does much. She loved Stan more than anything. Stan was her world. Now he's gone, and their baby girl doesn't have a daddy anymore.
And it's all my fault.
I can't tell Wendy that. I can't tell her that I should have known that those men would be there, that I should have reacted faster, that I should have stayed conscious long enough to find help for Stan, to get him out of there. But I didn't do any of those things, and now he's gone.
I don't know how long I hold her there, but it's long enough that Karen creeps up onto the porch and holds a hand on Wendy's shoulder while I rock her.
The funeral happens a week later. It is exactly the funeral that Stan deserved, with a guard of honor and a bugler to play Taps as he is buried. I am the one that folds the flag draped over his coffin and hands it to Wendy, who isn't crying anymore, but whose cheeks are tearstained from earlier. Molly sits beside her, frowning and swinging her legs. She doesn't understand what's happening, why she must wear a black dress, or why her mom has been crying so much. I hardly understand it all, either. It feels surreal, like it never happened. I keep thinking to myself that this isn't possible, that Stan can't have died beneath me overseas.
But he did.
Kyle came down from Harvard to attend the funeral. He cries onto my shoulder at the reception, tucked in the front hall in Wendy's little yellow house. I rub his back and tell him that it will be okay, even though I don't know if that's true. I still can't cry like everyone else has. I still want to cry desperately, but I can't.
I linger after most of the others have left. Molly is curled up asleep on the sofa. Kyle is sitting beside her, staring at her little black shoes. He looks as lost as I feel.
Wendy has started cleaning up the buffet table, and I help, bringing dishes into the kitchen and placing them in the sink, careful of my dress uniform. She pauses, not looking at me as she speaks, and says, "Tell me that you're staying."
"I can't tell you that, Wendy," I say softly.
She looks up angrily, eyes watery again, and says, "They can't fucking send you back! Not after what happened to Stan! You deserve to be at home, with us."
"I'm sorry. I have to go back," I say, wishing that it wasn't true. I want nothing more than to be back home, to be safe. Here I can look out for Molly and make sure that everything's in order for both Stan's family in mine. I can't do that in Vietnam, but I know that Vietnam is where I'm returning anyway. I feel cold when I think about it, and wonder how many times I'll die before I can finally come home for good.
"What if you get killed?" Wendy asks, putting her hands on her hips.
"I won't," I say.
"You sound so sure," Wendy accuses, glaring at me like she knows that I've told her a lie.
I've tried explaining my curse to people before, that I can't die – or, more accurately, that when I die, I keep coming back. I gave up on telling people sometime around when I was twelve, because that's when people started telling me that I was too old to play pretend. I wanted to shout that I wasn't fucking pretending, that my curse was real, but I knew that they'd never believe me. No one ever does.
"I am sure," I respond simply, because it's all I have.
They send me back two weeks later. Wendy comes when my family sends me off. She holds me as she says goodbye, closer than she's ever been to me before. It makes me feel strange, but I hold her back. She kisses my cheek as I pull away and says to me, "Make sure you come back alive."
"I will," I say, and she nods. I don't know why she takes my promises seriously after I broke the most important one of my life – to keep Stan safe. But she believes me.
I die often while I'm overseas. It happens so much that I become used to near-daily deaths. I'm shot, blown up, tortured, stabbed – everything imaginable. And as the days wear on, I grow more and more resigned. I never pictured my life like this, not back in high school, when all I did was drink and smoke and have sex. I thought life would always be that way, and that I'd always have my friends. I feel like I was carefree for too long, that somebody should have told me what reality is really like. They don't tell you, and then the cold, hard truth of what our world really is hits you like a brick wall.
But I'm alone here. I rarely speak to the other soldiers, but they don't seem to mind. Many of them seldom speak, anyhow. They've lost friends just as I've lost friends, and optimism is at an all-time low.
My sister writes to me, and Wendy does, too. Wendy sends me pictures of Molly, playing outside or opening Christmas presents under a well-decorated tree. Sometimes those letters are the only things that keep me from letting myself get killed another time, that keep me going, keep me dodging bullets and living to see another humid night.
Some of the others know me as Lucky Kenny, because of how often I return from fighting unscathed. They don't know how unlucky I really am, how I die, and how the untouched body that they see is a brand new body, not the one that I left in.
In 1973, they finally send me back home. I'm relieved when they tell me, but I don't pass on the news to my family that I'll be coming back. I want to surprise them.
It's summertime in Colorado. I missed the dry heat, and I'm glad to feel it on my skin as I make my way up the concrete walk to the little yellow house. I don't know why I want Wendy to know that I'm home first, but I do. I want to tell her that I'm home for good this time.
Bebe and Wendy are sitting out on their front lawn on a picnic blanket, watching Molly ride her red tricycle up the sidewalk. I wonder if it's the same blanket that Stan laid out for Wendy on prom night, and the thought makes my chest hurt. Molly stops her furious peddling when she sees me. She looks up, squinting at me against the sun. Her dark hair is up in pigtails. I feel sore when I notice that her eyes are blue.
She has Stan's eyes.
"Uncle Kenny!" she exclaims. She dismounts from the tricycle and runs to hug me, wrapping her chubby arms around my leg.
I don't know how she remembers me, but it's the first thing that has made me smile in recent memory, chipping past the lost feeling that I haven't been able to shake since Stan died underneath me. Wendy comes running when she sees me, and throws her arms around my neck. She cries, "You're home! Why didn't you tell us?"
"I wanted it to be a surprise," I say, rubbing my hand over the fine bones of her back. She rests her head on my shoulder, and I feel a breath that I've been holding in for too long leak out of me, slowly. I murmur against her hair, "I came back alive, see?"
Wendy pulls back and holds my face in her hands. Her fingernails are unpainted but her palms are soft. She leans forward and presses her forehead against mine. By the time I realize what she's doing, it's too late to stop her. She presses her lips onto mine. She tastes like strawberries. It makes me heart beat faster and my breath come shorter, but I make myself jerk away.
"Wendy," I say, feeling my face heat to red. I don't know why something as simple as a kiss should make me blush, but it does. I go on, "You're Stan's wife."
"Stan's gone," she softly says, looking wounded.
I've never walked away from something more quickly. I feel dizzy and confused and wrong, because even though Stan is gone, he's still my best friend, and kissing his widow just doesn't seem right to me.
In the following weeks, I keep to myself. Being at home isn't quite as comfortable and peaceful as I imagined. I get my job back at the garage but lose it only two weeks afterward. A car backfires in the lot out front and I lose my shit completely – I think that I'm back in Vietnam, I think that I was still fighting, surrounded by enemies with my weapon somehow lost. I panic, and the owner of the garage calls my mother to bring me back to my apartment. She makes me a boxed dinner and tucks me into my bed, sitting next to me until I come back into reality. She runs her fingers through my hair and reassures me that I'm not at war anymore. I am at home in South Park, Colorado. I am safe. There are no enemies here, just the ones in my head.
Since the kiss, I avoid Wendy at all costs. I still feel guilty for that one little kiss, and I think I feel as guilty as I do because I liked it. I liked how she tasted and how she felt in my arms, and it makes me feel like a traitor to Stan's memory.
I don't have money for this month's rent. My landlord's been banging on my door almost every day, asking what the hell I've been doing.
I haven't been doing anything. Mostly, I sit by myself and watch TV. Anything to get my mind off of Stan, and the war, and Wendy's kiss that tasted like strawberries.
My sister stops by most nights. She cooks me dinner and sits with me. We don't talk. Or – I don't, really. Karen talks. She tells me about her courses in the fancy university that she's attending, and how she can't wait to return for the next year. She tells me about the boyfriend that she has there, says that he has dark hair and that he can always make her laugh. I used to be able to make Karen laugh, but I don't know how anymore. When I tell her that I wish I could still make her laugh, Karen holds my hand and tells me that it's okay.
"It takes time to heal," she says, and she leans her head against my shoulder.
On a hot night in July, I wake up from another nightmare. There were grenades launching at me. My blood was everywhere. The blood of the other soldiers ran thick. And there was Stan, being shot over and over again. I launch up in my bed in a cold sweat, hugging myself to make sure that I'm still alive and in my own bed, in my own apartment. I'm shaking and my throat is dry. It's a night like every other night. I wish that this would stop, the dreams and the panic, and then I wonder if it ever will, knowing that the death of my friend was because of me.
As I shake myself out of my sick trance, I realize that somebody is knocking on my door.
"Go away," I hoarsely call. It's probably a drunk neighbor – that's the only person I can think of that would be banging on my door at three in the morning.
"I am not going away, Kenny McCormick!"
It's Wendy. I feel torn, but I don't want to leave her outside in the dead of night. I have no idea what possessed her to do something like this, but I slide out of bed, running my hands through my growing hair, and open the door. She stands with her hands planted on each of her hips. She's wearing a low-cut striped dress. My mouth goes a little dry at the sight, and I make myself look away.
"Where's Molly?" I ask.
"With my parents," she clips. She pushes her way into my apartment without being invited, and I close the door behind her.
"You want something to drink?" I ask, "I got – milk, I think."
"I don't give a damn," Wendy snaps back. I've seen her mad before, so this isn't new, but she's never been mad at me.
"I don't understand what you're so riled up about," I say. It's not true. I'm certain that she's flustered about the same thing that I am, the kiss that tasted like strawberries and felt so right that I could cry.
Wendy grips my cotton undershirt and pulls me forward, kissing me hard on the mouth. She doesn't taste like strawberries this time, she just tastes like herself, and it's intoxicating. I fall into it sleepily, sliding my tongue over her bottom lip and sucking gently. Before we can deepen it, though, she pulls back. She sets her hands on my chest and says, "That's what's got me riled up."
"Wendy, I – I feel like I'm doing Stan a wrong when we do this," I protest weakly, though I just want to pull her up against me and hold her tight. More than most people, she understands the lost feeling wrenching up my gut. She knows the sadness and the guilt and the loss. And she knows me. She always has, better than most folks.
"You know what I think?" Wendy says, smoothing her hands over my chest and up to touch my hair, "I think that Stan would have wanted us to be happy. And I think that – that if he knew we'd started to feel something for each other, that he'd want us to see where it takes us. Because that's how Stan was. He always wanted other people to be happy."
She's right, naturally. But I don't know what to say.
"If you don't feel something for me," Wendy starts, "then I'll walk out this door, and we never have to talk about it again. But if you do feel it, and I think you do, I want you to kiss me."
I stare at her for a long moment. My heart feel like it's pumping a million beats a minute, slamming up against my ribcage harder than it did even when I was under fire overseas. Gradually, I find myself nodding, and I lean forward. I coil my arms around her waist, feeling her soft curves press up against me, and push my lips against hers.
The strange thing about kissing Wendy is that it makes me feel like I'm not so lost anymore, like I know what I need to do and where I need to go, and who I am. Her hands slide back through my hair before they lower, teasing the hem of my undershirt. She pushes her palms up underneath it, feeling along my chest. It feels good to have her hands on me, so good that I moan a little into her mouth and pluck her up off of the ground, barely registering that I'm carrying her back to my bedroom before I've already deposited her on my mattress and climbed on top of her, breaking our lips only to pull my shirt off of my body and cast it onto the floor.
She puts her hands on me, running them all over my skin and punctuating with little kisses. She kisses my neck and I groan out, "Fuck, Wendy."
I push my hands underneath her dress and pull it up, enough to reveal her plain cotton panties that are somehow more erotic to me in that moment than any lingerie that I've had the honor of seeing. She sits up and helps the dress off the rest of the way, her cheeks turning pink.
I realize that Wendy hasn't ever been in the business of having new lovers, not like I have. She's only ever slept with Stan before, as far as I know. In a way, sometimes the second person that you have sex with can be even scarier than the first, because then there's something to compare and contrast. And if you had a good partner the first time, it can be intimidating to be with a new one.
I graze my knuckles down the curve of her cheek and give her a gentler kiss, hoping that I still have the ability to be reassuring. I mumble, "You're the most beautiful woman in the Rockies, you know that?"
I take my time with her, kissing her lips before I move to her neck and collarbone. I haven't shaved in a few days, and I hope the scraggly beginnings of a beard on my face aren't scratching her too badly. When I lower my lips to her breasts, she arches up against me, her long-fingered hands pulling at my short hair.
"Is it okay if I take this off?" I ask, pulling a little at her white bra.
Wendy sits up a little and nods, but says, "Let me." She reaches around and unhooks it from the back, peeling it away from her body and dropping on the floor beside my bed.
Her breasts are some of the most magnificent that I've ever seen. They're not big, but they're perfectly round, her small nipples already poking up at my touch and my kisses. I bend down to move my tongue over them, kissing her skin everywhere as I reach to pull off her underwear, sliding it down over her long legs before letting it fall to the floor with the rest of her clothing. Her skin is tinted golden from being out in the sun, and feels as smooth as butter to the touch.
I look to her as I rest my hand on the top of her thigh, looking for permission. She nods.
I lean over her and kiss her as I begin to stroke, at first just teasing the outside of her, and pushing a finger inside when soft noises come from her lips, keening sounds that make me want her even more desperately.
I pull back from her to remove my pajamas, but pause. I say, "I don't have anything for protection. I haven't been with anybody since before the draft."
"That's alright," Wendy says, "I've been taking birth control pills."
This surprises me, though I'm not sure why. Wendy has always been the kind of woman that likes to take charge of her own life, opinions of others be damned. I kiss her again before I pull off the rest of my clothing.
We come together slowly, at first. Neither of us has been with another person in quite some time. I groan into her shoulder and kiss her neck. She sighs out my name and runs her fingers through my hair. I haven't felt this safe in ages. Somehow, I feel more at home with her arms and legs wrapped around me than I've felt in so long. It's been so long ago that the era of skinny dipping with friends and skipping classes to smoke weed at Stark's Pond seems like an entire different lifetime, one that belongs to somebody else, on another plane of existence. But I feel full here, inside of her, with her lips on my skin and my lips on hers.
I make sure that she comes before me, writhing below me and arching into me, before I bury myself deep inside her and kiss her as I come, too.
I smooth a hand over her hair as I pull out of her. She looks satisfied, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips.
She doesn't know that Stan's death is my fault.
That's when it happens – I finally, at last, begin to cry. It feels awful, wrenching me up inside and making it hard to breathe, but it's been a long time coming.
"Kenny, what's wrong?" she asks, holding my face in her hands and smoothing tears away with her thumbs.
"It was my fault," I confess, "I wasn't – w-wasn't fast enough to save him. I jumped to cover him as soon as I saw, but I didn't make it. He died anyway and it's my fault."
Wendy shakes her head and responds, "No. You did everything that you could. Don't talk like that, Kenny McCormick. I know that you did everything that you could to save him. It just wasn't meant to be. He was my world, but he's someplace better now. And – he brought us together." She kisses me, and kisses the tears on my face.
I sob against her collarbone, shaking and shivering, but I feel absolved of sins at her words. I think that she's right. I think that Stan did bring us together, and I think that he would be glad to see the people that he loved leading happy lives. I think it would destroy him to see the person that I've become, wrapped up inside myself and afraid of too many things. I don't want that. I want to make Stan proud.
I fall asleep with Wendy holding me against her, rocking me like I rocked her the day I brought the news of Stan's death home.
The months pass by. Karen turned out to be right. I am healing, though the process is slow, and some days I still hurt so much that I don't want to get out of bed. I got a job at the local grocery. It isn't ideal, but it's better than nothing, and I'm back to paying my rent on time. It's a quiet job, for which I'm grateful. The little that's left of my paycheck after necessities often goes to spoiling Molly – one of my newfound joys is bringing her candies and new toys. Seeing her eyes light up is like an echo of Stan, like his blue eyes are happy that I'm making sure his daughter is loved.
In 1975, the conflict in Vietnam comes to a close. I cry when I hear the news, and later that night, Wendy and I celebrate in her bedroom, kissing and falling asleep tucked up against each other.
I think I'm going to ask her to marry me.
And I know that she's going to say yes.
Molly has become my daughter, too.
And when she grows old enough to understand that I'm not the daddy that made her, but the daddy that raised her, and she asks about the framed photo on the mantle of her first birthday, with Stan grinning proudly beside her, I'll tell her that he was one of the greatest men that I'd ever known. He was my best friend.
And I'll miss him.
**Notes: October 19th is not the date that they drew in the draft lottery on December 1, 1969, but it is Stan's birthday. If any of you catch any inaccuracies, let me know. I researched and tried my best to make it historically accurate but everybody makes mistakes.