Soundtrack: After the Storm – Mumford & Sons
*Lyrics at end of story belong to Mumford & Sons
I'd always known that he was there. He was like…a fixture throughout my life: something quiet in the background that wasn't always noticed, but that life would be strange without. I didn't really talk to him, much. Nobody did but Jimmy and Butters, really. Tweek was in special classes with Jimmy and Butters was nice to everybody, regardless of their abilities. I never saw him in the hallways – they were crowded and that made it hard for him to move around. He had a cane – walking stick, whatever, I didn't know what it was called – that he'd hold out in front of him to guide his way in middle school, but after too many run-ins with bullies tripping him, his parents got him a guide dog instead. I think Tweek liked the guide dog more than the stick. The guide dog was something that helped him and loved him all in one.
I think he appreciated that. Not just in dogs, but in people.
I wondered about him sometimes. The thought always struck me at odd moments. Usually it happened when I'd be getting high with Jason and Token and Clyde, all holed up in Clyde's basement with a couple bags of Cheesy Poofs and a contraband six back of beers. I didn't like beer, but I liked weed. I always smoked the most, sitting back on Clyde's couch with my arms folded underneath my head. I'd think about how even though Tweek seemed to have some friends from his special classes, that he sat outside alone during lunch, running his fingers over a heavy book in his lap.
He had new ones a lot.
Braille books. They're expensive. More than regular books. I don't think that's really fair.
He even sat outside when it was cold or snowy, like he couldn't even feel, even though I think that he felt things more keenly than most people, because he couldn't see.
It was on one of those cold days that I finally broke off from our group. I wasn't hungry and I was thinking too much. Clyde used to tease me for that, getting real quiet and retreating into myself even when I was surrounded by dozens of chattering people. I used to sit upstairs alone at parties, finding some abandoned bedroom and locking myself in it with nothing but a joint and my own thoughts.
I'd set my backpack down on the mesh bench across from him. He'd startled, not looking up, but jumping at the noise. I sat down and kept quiet for a long while, wondering if he'd even know me if I greeted him.
He spoke first, looking up. His eyes were so light blue that they almost looked white in the light. He asked, "…Who's there?" His voice was so quiet that almost couldn't hear, and surely wouldn't have if there had been other people eating outdoors.
"It's Craig," I said, looking him in the eye, even though he couldn't see me.
"Craig Tucker?" he'd said, cocking his head.
"Yeah," I replied.
"What do you want?" he was guarded, but more than anything he sounded scared. I didn't understand why at the time – I was harmless. A little rough around the edges, maybe, but at heart I've always been calm. Some called it aloof. I was just detached. I still am, maybe. Not as much, though. No.
He seemed to shrink, and jerked back when I reached out to touch the hand he was resting on the table.
"What're you doing?" I asked, indicating to his book, even though he couldn't see my gesture.
"Reading," he replied, not sounding any less frightened.
I didn't understand Braille books at the time. Stupidly, I'd responded, "You can read?"
"No, asshole, I'm just jerking your chain," Tweek replied testily, "It's Braille, you dumb fucker."
I laughed, because I'd never heard him talk like that before to anybody – ever. He barely strung two words together when in the company of other people, if he was forced to be near them. He was the quietest person that I knew, though eventually I discovered he wasn't quite as quiet as I'd always thought. I'd asked him, "How do you – um, do that?"
"Read?" he asked, "I feel it. They're letters. You can touch it, if you want."
So I did. I reached forward and ran my fingers over the textured pages in front of him. I didn't know how to read to it, of course, but I wished that I did. I asked, "What book is it?"
"Harry Potter," Tweek shrugged.
"Which one?" I replied.
"The fourth one," he said.
I'd only ever read up to three, because I was kind of lazy and didn't read much. It couldn't hold my attention the way that porn and internet memes could, even though I did like the series. I'd seen all the movies, at least. I questioned, "I've never read that one. Is it good?"
"It's my favorite one so far," Tweek told me. He closed the book, then, and asked, voice suddenly sharper, "Why are you talking to me, anyway? We never talk."
"I dunno," I responded, "I see you sitting out here all alone. I guess I just wanted to talk you. And I'm kind of high right now." Weed tended to break down my barriers, make me more charitable than I was used to being. I could tolerate people that I couldn't stand sober, and slog through a school day without fantasizing about drowning myself at the end of the day – and I could talk to people that I'd always wondered about, but never had the courage to approach. I don't know why I'd been so cautious about speaking with him. Maybe it was that he seemed to live in a different dimension to me – but he didn't. He just couldn't see.
"I like being alone," Tweek said. He fidgeted. His light eyes were eerie. It felt like they were looking past me, or in me, or something creepily esoteric like that. I'm sure it was partially due to the bowl I'd smoked in the upstairs boys' restroom only minutes before lunch, but there was a grain of truth to it, I knew there was. Tweek could see people in a way that I – or anybody whose eyes worked – couldn't. He listened and understood more.
"Me too," I'd told him, and that was the truth, "But being lonely kind of sucks. You seem kind of lonely."
"I'm not," Tweek replied stiffly, "I don't – I don't like people."
"Yeah, people kind of suck dick sometimes," I agreed, "You mind if I smoke?"
"Um…okay. I guess," Tweek said.
And so we'd sat there together in silence while I lit my cigarette, taking in a satisfying drag. I knew I was on school grounds, but the staff never seemed to care. Most of the students at this school were trapped in this town, anyway. Most of us wouldn't be good enough to go places when graduation came around. That was just how it was. South Park had a way of keeping people there, trapped like an insect on flypaper.
When the bell rang, Tweek's dog helped him back inside, and I wandered to my next class, feeling a strange combination of satisfaction at finally talking to Tweek, and a need to do it again. I hadn't expected that. I'd thought that once we spoke I wouldn't need it again, but he felt a little like a drug. Something I was curious about, tried once, and needed again.
I sat with Tweek every day that week, even though it was brisk and the sun was out, burning the back of my neck on Thursday. Sometimes we talked, and other times we didn't. He'd read his book and I'd smoke, and we didn't need to talk.
"Hey," I'd piped up, "Would it be cool if I like, came over to your house on Saturday?"
Tweek didn't respond immediately. He tugged a little at his haywire blond hair and answered after a beat, "Why?"
"'Cause I like hanging out with you," I said, "And I'm curious." I didn't bother lying to Tweek. I never did, at least not for a long time.
"Curious about what?" Tweek asked me, crinkling his nose.
"You," I told him.
"Why? Because I'm blind? That's fucked up, man," Tweek pursed his lips, frowning at me.
"Nah, man. I dunno why. I'm just curious," I told him.
Tweek went silent again. Gradually, he spoke again, his voice back to being as quiet as it had been that first day that I'd sat down at the table across from him, "I guess…if you really want. I don't know what you think you're going to find out, though."
I grinned, "I don't either. That's the fun of it, isn't it?"
After school on Friday, I went with Clyde and kicked back in his basement. He microwaved Taquitos and we turned on some cartoon that made Jason laugh loudly every few seconds, like it was the most hilarious thing that he had ever experienced. Clyde passed the joint to me, and he asked, "Dude, what's been up with you sitting with Tweek?"
I looked down at him and shrugged, inhaling off of the end of the joint and letting it settle for a couple seconds before blowing out smoke. I handed it to Jason and answered, "He intrigues me."
"That's a big word for you, Craig," Token chuckled. I flipped him off.
"He's weird," Clyde said to that.
I argued, "Nah, man. He's not weird at all. I think he's more normal than anybody I know. He's like, enlightened." And whatever – I felt this way because I was stoned, but as everything was with Tweek, there was a grain of truth within it, even if I was far from sober.
They were stoned, too, and so they accepted my response as perfectly reasonable before Token brought out some expensive alcohol he'd swiped from his parents' liquor cabinet. We drank and talked and laughed as always, and as always, my mind was elsewhere. I was quiet, and that was okay, because Clyde and Token and Jason filled the silence just fine, sometimes nudging me to join in.
Saturday came. It started as my Saturdays tend to, with crappy off-brand cereal and arguing with my sister over the remote until I resigned myself to losing and retreated back up to my room, looking up sketchy internet porn and getting myself off before showering and dressing in something that smelled relatively clean. I never told Tweek when I'd be over, I realized.
I knew where his house was. Everybody knew where everybody lived in South Park. I smoked a cigarette as I walked over. Tweek's house was nice. It had flower beds planted outside of it, and was a shade of teal that probably made their neighbors shudder. What was remarkable were the wind chimes – there were at least a dozen lining the entire porch, only inches from each other. I occurred to me that Tweek couldn't see his house – so maybe he had to hear it.
I stepped up the walk and rang the bell. I brought over my pipe and weed, mostly because I didn't know what else to do. Other than internet surfing, I didn't do much. I liked gliding through life with as little conflict as humanly possible. It made my life and the lives of others much easier if I stepped back, didn't try to exert control over every little situation, and let the chips fall as they may. Maybe that's what Tweek was. A chip falling into place. I didn't know. I was just letting it come as it happened to – the path of least resistance, and all that.
Tweek's mother answered the door. There were shadows under her eyes and her smile was tight. She ushered me in and said, "I'm glad you're here. He's been frantic all morning – Tweek doesn't have friends over, usually."
"Mom!" came a protest. Tweek was behind her with his dog, a crease between his brows. He's quiet for a moment before saying, "Craig?"
"Holler," I said, knowing I sounded stupid but not caring. Tweek made a face.
His dog brought him to me. He didn't reach out for me, but supposed he knew I was there. He said, "You wanna go sit outside?"
"What is it with you and the outdoors, man?" I asked.
"I like being able to feel the wind," he said. It was a sentence that made more sense to me than anything any of my friends had ever said. I didn't know why at the time. There's no way that I can ever understand fully, I guess. But I think that I know what he meant more now than I did then.
I consented, "Okay." I was beginning to get used to expressing everything out loud. It was still strange. I was used to being silent, nodding or shrugging or flipping the bird. None of that mattered when I was with Tweek.
His dog brought him to a pair of lawn chairs on the back porch. Tweek felt along the armrest of the one on the left before sitting in it slowly. He relaxed back into it in a way I hadn't ever seen him do at school. There was a soft breeze, cold, but good. Wind chimes dangled from the back porch, too. They tinkled lightly, filling the silence between us.
"I brought some weed. You wanna smoke a bowl?" I asked. I got the feeling that Tweek's parents wouldn't mind if we did.
Tweek reprimanded, "You smoke too much."
"No such thing," I responded cheerfully.
Tweek didn't bother replying to that. I lowered myself on the edge of the porch, propping my legs up on the stairway down. There was a ramp, too, off to the side.
"Where are you?" Tweek queried, quiet again.
"On the stairs," I told him.
"Can you help me sit next to you?" he asked. He actually looked worried at that, like I would say no. Maybe people had told him no before – but I didn't want to ask him if that was the case.
I stood up and said, "Yeah, man. Sure." I walked to his chair. I lingered in front of him for moment, before I let my hands slide up the plastic arms of the lawn chair. I touched his fingers gingerly. They were warmer than I thought that they would be.
Tweek let out a soft gasp of air when he touched. He remarked, "Your hands are cold."
"Sorry," I said, meaning it.
Tweek smiled at that, and he said, "I like how they feel." That made my chest sieze up with feeling, something that I wasn't used to. It was stupid, feeling flattered that somebody liked how my hands felt, but somehow it felt like more of a compliment than being told I was attractive.
I helped him to his feet slowly, instructing him out loud when to step down and sit before I took my place beside him.
The guide dog looked at me with suspicious eyes.
I stuck my tongue out at it.
Tweek bounced his legs nervously. He must not have sat on the stairs much, or maybe he was nervous because of me – I couldn't tell. He blurted out, "Can I touch your face? Is that okay?"
It wasn't what I was expecting to hear, but I nodded all the same, before I realized that he wouldn't be able to see me doing that. I laid my hands over his, picking them up by the wrists, and bringing them to my face.
My breath shortened. I didn't know why, but my brain was reeling, thoughts flipping by faster than they ever had before. His palms were still on my cheeks for a long moment before he finally moved his hands, stroking his fingertips over my brow and up to the hat on my head, ghosting over my straight, slightly-too-big nose, tracing my cheekbones and the line of my jaw.
He remained silent as he explored, and I felt my eyes shutter down. The touch was strange – nobody had ever paid so much attention to the smallest parts of me, the fine bones in my ears and the stubble on my jaw. My heart beat up against my ribcage and my breathing quickened. I didn't realize that I'd been holding my breath until my lungs started to burn, and I let it all out at once.
Tweek whined in surprise, drawing back from me. He commented, "Jesus Christ, what the fuck did you eat? Sewage?"
"My breath is not that bad," I insisted, but I still held my hands over my nose and mouth and huffed into them experimentally. I wrinkled my nose and responded, "Wow, fuck, that's foul. My bad, man." I dug around in the pocket of my jeans and pulled out a crumpled pack of Orbit, unwrapping a piece and popping it into my mouth.
"You want some gum?" I asked.
"No thank you," Tweek said back, and then, "Do you ever shave? Your jaw is all – rough."
"I grow hair like Sasquatch," I told him, "Sometimes I can't be bothered to give a shit."
"My dad helps me shave," Tweek informed me, voice going soft again, "but he only has to do it like, every couple of months."
"I like it," I said to him impulsively, "I think it looks nice."
"I don't care how it looks," Tweek tartly said in reply, scowling a little.
"Can I feel it, then?"
Tweek paused at that and answered, "I guess so."
So I reached up and put my palms to his face, running my thumbs along the smooth skin there. It was the first time I noticed that I might be attracted to him, with a jerk in my gut, like some invisible something tugging me toward him. He wasn't flawless. He had little dips where acne scarred his face, and his cheeks were hollow and thin. Somehow none of this mattered.
I'd been sexually attracted to people before – but nothing quite like this. I was holding my breath as I drew my fingers over his skin and through his hair. He didn't close his eyes like I had. It felt as though I floated up out of my body while my hands ran over his face and down the skin on his throat. He swallowed when I touched there, making the knot in his throat bob underneath my touch.
"I…like the way that you feel."
My voice surfaced as barely more than a whisper.
Tweek let out a slow breath, his chest relaxing with it.
"I like the way that you feel, too," he told me.
We spent the rest of the day in Tweek's back lawn, lying in the grass with our bodies only inches apart, close enough that I could feel his body heat. I smoked a cigarette and he talked about reading Harry Potter. It was like how we were together at lunchtime, but different – closer, tighter – some change of feeling that I can't exactly describe.
That was how we carried on. Tweek didn't trust me, I don't think. But I liked being around him. Sometimes I even liked it more than I liked being around my friends. Being with him was different. With him I was cut open, and felt like he could see everything in me, even when he couldn't physically see at all. It confused me, but I kept coming back on Saturdays, lying with him in the lawn, even when spring faded and another school year ended, and being outdoors was hot and miserable, the sun beating down on my face and into my eyes.
"I like the sun," Tweek said, "I like when I can feel it."
"It's making my balls sweat," I complained back, and Tweek laughed. It was a quiet sound, but I liked it, and I liked that I'd been the one to do it.
Once, in mid-July, we sat in the grass together and held hands. It gave me that stupid, breathless feeling, but I didn't say anything about it. Instead I described the puffy clouds overhead to Tweek, who told me promptly that he didn't give a flying fuck what clouds looked like, because he'd never feel clouds and so they were irrelevant.
That was the first night that I spent at his house. It was impulse – I asked, "Hey, can I crash here?"
"I guess," Tweek said, sounding as though he thought I had an ulterior motive.
When the sun slid down below the horizon and the mosquitos came out, our stomachs started rumbling. Mrs. Tweak made us a boxed pizza and gave us juice boxes. It was different than Cheesy Poofs and cheap beer. I liked it.
Tweek's bedroom sat on the first level of the house. It was an odd thing to look at – the carpet was different than the carpet outside of it, all shaggy and longer. Tweek squished it between his toes as he walked with his dog. The room was filled with textured things, things to touch – and there were wind chimes on the ceiling. Things to hear.
Tweek wrung his hands as I stepped in. The bedroom didn't have a door – I supposed that those complicated things. Tweek and I laid on his bed. He had the ceiling fan on, and it made the wind chimes jingle just a little.
"Craig?" his voice was barely audible.
"Can I touch your face again?" he asked.
He asked this a lot, and I always said yes. I didn't understand why he liked to touch me. My face was stubbly and greasy and slightly unattractive if I thought on it – but none of that mattered to him. He shifted and started running his hands over me in the same way he always did, right at my brow, working down to my jaw, tracing like a kind of dance.
"Yeah?" I responded.
"Can I," – he went quiet for a beat, withdrawing his hands. He was shaking. I had my eyes closed but I could feel it, little tremors running through his skinny body – "Can I touch your chest?"
My breath caught in my throat. I nodded dumbly and then sat up. I replied, "Just let me take my shirt off, okay?" I drew it up over my head and let it drop to the ground with almost no noise at all, saying with the motion, "All right. It's off."
Tweek swallowed and queried, "Could you – help me?"
I took his smaller, warmer hands in mine and placed them against my collarbone. He shifted, kneeling on his mattress, and just – felt me. It was unsettling, and confusing, and arousing, and amazing. I pulled him up so that he sat astride my hips. This was how he looked at me, and I knew he was looking at me like nobody ever had and nobody ever would. His nails scraped over my nipples, which were hard. I felt like I should be embarrassed, but I wasn't, even as I got hard in my pants. I knew he felt it.
"This is turning you on," Tweek said, like it was something incredible that never happened – and to him, maybe it never had.
I swallowed to wet my dry throat and answered him, "I'm sorry." I wasn't sure that was the right answer.
"Why are you sorry?" asked Tweek.
"Because I – I don't know," I said honestly, "Because I like it."
Tweek's lips curled into a smile and he told me, "I like it too."
I pulled him back down onto the mattress, arranging him onto his back. I stroked a hand through his hair before I cupped his face in my hands, thumbs stroking underneath his light eyes.
I leaned down and kissed him.
There weren't any fireworks when it happened. It was earthy, and shy. I'd never kissed a boy before, and I'd barely kissed girls, anyway. Tweek's hands fluttered up and pulled my hat off of my head. He clumsily pushed his hands into my hair and pulled me in closer, my chest pressing into his.
When he drew back, he said, "I like how you taste."
I grinned even though he couldn't see it, and I told him, "I like how you taste, too."
We kissed again, little close-mouthed kisses that seared me down to the bone. He held onto me by my hair, and panted out, "Can I touch – just – touch you?" I knew what he meant. I whispered yes into the shell of his ear and unbuttoned my jeans, wriggling out of them and leaving them on the shag carpeting. I pulled off my underwear more slowly. I'd never actually been naked with another person before. I knew he couldn't see me, but maybe that made it even more intimate, the air all heavy and hot around us as I guided his hand to my erection.
"I don't know how to do this," he said.
I said back, "Neither do I."
He started moving his hand in jerky, ungainly strokes. It still disarmed me. I leaned into him, pressing my face into his neck and trying to keep myself quiet as he touched me. I couldn't – I moaned into his skin and huffed out his name, swearing quietly and sweating against him. I came into his hand.
He wiped it on me, and I shoved him, complaining, "Hey, man!"
Tweek responded simply, "I didn't know where else to put it."
I rolled my eyes, grabbing my t-shirt from the floor to mop myself up before I leaned into him, strokng his hair and asking, "Do you want me to do it back?"
Tweek brightened. He asked, "Would you really do that?"
"I really want to," I said.
"Okay. Yes. Do it," Tweek ordered.
I slid my hands up under his shirt first, pulling it over his head. He was skinnier than I thought, enough that I could see the faint outlines of his ribs under his pale skin. I skirted the tips of my fingers over them, and Tweek inhaled sharply, searching for something to hold onto. I moved his hand to my shoulder, stooping down over him to apply my lips to his, kissing gently. I closed my eyes and explored his chest as he had mine, all in deep strokes and slight, phantom-like touches. When I dared to look again, he was hard in his jeans. I reached down and unbuttoned them, working them off of his body.
At first I touched him through the fabric of his underwear, nerves clogging up my throat. He whined, his grip on my shoulder tightening as I stroked. I pulled them off – he was smaller than me, but good-looking all the same. I didn't think he cared what he looked like, though. I thought he cared what he felt like.
And he felt amazing.
He fit right in my hand. I worked him softly. He moaned and gasped and writhed. A sense of pride went streaking through me at the sounds, so I ducked down, pushing a kiss up against the hollow of his smooth cheek and murmuring, "I like the way you sound."
Tweek cried out against my lips when he came, and heaved out, "I like how you sound, too."
I cleaned him up with my t-shirt, and pressed close into him, our naked bodies side by side. My shoulder stung as though his nails were still digging into it, and I loved it. I loved everything about this. I loved the press of sweat and skin. I loved the musky smell and the soft sound that Tweek let out when I wrapped my arm around the small of his back and brought him in so that we laid cheek to cheek.
That was how we fell asleep.
The next year passed quickly, a haze of responsibilities and kisses with my eyes closed. Tweek and I saw each other every Saturday, kissing and touching and sometimes sucking. There was a lot of talk of college applications and the future at school, but I didn't like to think about it. I didn't know what I wanted. Tweek didn't seem to know, either. Fall faded into winter. Even with the cold, Tweek and I sat in his lawn in the snow wrapped up in each other's arms to keep warm, not talking, not needing to.
"Have you thought about what you're going to do after we graduate?" I asked. My teeth were chattering. I moved my face to hide against the crook of his neck.
I'd been squirreling away money for years now, but I didn't know what I wanted to do with it. The thought of going to college made me feel a little queasy. I didn't like the idea of paying for more classes that I'd probably sleep through, and to meet more people that I'd find high-strung and overcomplicated. I didn't like the idea of the future in general. Most days I just wanted life to stay the same, frozen in moments like this one, with Tweek and I curled up in the snow, not needing any time but the present. The past and future were irrelevant here.
"I want to stay here," Tweek said, shivering, and rolling in closer to me.
"We can go inside," I told him. I pulled my hat off of my head and tugged it over his. His ears were cold to the touch.
"No, I like it out here," he quipped back – his typical response.
"Why do you want to stay here?" I asked. I didn't understand. I'd spent my entire life eager to get away from South Park. It was a tiny hellhole in the middle of nowhere, and I wanted to know more of the world than this tiny valley in a small section of the Rocky Mountains. I'd dreamt of escape as long as I could remember, but escape on my own terms – nothing like a family vacation or the bullshit that Stan Marsh and his friends liked to drag me into.
"I like it here," Tweek responded, "This is home. It's safe, and I'm happy here. Aren't you happy?"
"I don't know," I said, "I don't know if I want to stay."
"I want you to stay," he crisply said.
I tightened my grip on his slender back and replied, "I probably will. I don't – I can't do anything useful. I don't know what I'd do if I went to college."
"You can do lots of useful things," Tweek clipped. He seemed annoyed at the suggestion that I was as much of a lump on the whole of humanity as I knew I was. He went on, "You can read Braille." That was true – he taught me how to do it, and sometimes I read his books out loud to him. It was strange at first but fun once I got the hang of it. He added, "You're good with animals. And you're the only person in this whole fucking town that treats me like a human being."
"What about your parents?" I queried.
"They love me," Tweek said simply, "but I make them tired."
After that day, I thought about what he said. Somehow, he made me think that maybe I had purpose – which was stupid, wasn't it? But I couldn't get it out of my head. The money was on my mind, too. I'd saved up thousands – I'd only ever spent it on weed and cigarettes from Kenny. The rest was locked up in my bank account. I could do something with that. I could do many things with that. I could go to school, or I could buy a car, or I could buy something frivolously expensive just for the hell of it.
And then the idea hit me.
This was my chance to escape. I could go anywhere.
A handful of days before graduation, I browsed for plane tickets. I bought the one to the first destination that I could think of. Everything from there would be what it was – I would take my escape as it came to me.
I didn't tell anybody.
Token drove me to the airport. He kept asking if I was sure, and did Tweek know that I was doing this, and was I sure that I didn't want to walk across the stage at graduation and accept my diploma?
Tweek did not know, and I didn't give half a shit about graduation. I'd get my diploma whether or not I was wearing a gown and walking. It didn't matter, it was all a display, something that said you followed the rules and did it right. It wasn't like Tweek would see me crossing the stage, anyway.
A tiny seed of guilt nestled in my gut at the thought of Tweek not knowing that I wouldn't be returning the next Saturday to lie in his backyard and kiss and touch. I would miss it. I would miss his warm hands and his soft voice and keening noises when we touched. I would miss his textured books and his wild hair.
But somehow, I knew that I needed to do this.
Now, I've seen many things.
I have made my escape.
I've spoken many languages, but somehow everything I've seen and done is not enough.
I would stay across the ocean if I could, but my empty bank account has dictated otherwise. It's been an enlightening two years. I haven't spoken to anybody back home, only Token. I called him from a payphone in Gare Du Nord, asking if he'd be able to give me a lift back to South Park when I flew into Denver in two days.
"Jesus, Craig," he said to me, "You vanish for two years, and the first thing you do when I hear from you again is hit me up for a ride?"
"Sorry," I said, but I wasn't.
Disembarking from the plane is surreal. The airport looks the same as ever, sleek and filled with people hurrying to loved ones. I spot Token among the crowd – he's grown his hair into dreads and has glasses perched on his nose, but otherwise looks the same. Same knowing smile, same capable arms crossed over his chest, decked with an expensive-looking sweater.
I look grungy in comparison – my hair is down to my shoulders, and I haven't had the chance to shower in a few days. My shirt is something that I nicked from a hostel in Germany. I don't even know what it says.
"It's good to see you, man," Token's face splits into a grin. He wraps his arms around me and I hug him back, clapping him on the shoulder before I pull away. When he draws back, he remarks, "You never told me where you went."
"Everywhere," I say, which feels as though it's true, but not nearly true enough.
Token interrogates me all the way to his car, asking about what sights I've seen and what I've done and the people that I've met, and I don't know how to answer. I just say everything, everywhere, everyone. I have questions of my own, but I'm afraid to ask them. I want to know what happened to Clyde and Jason, but –
The question burning on the tip of my tongue is about Tweek.
Maybe Token sees this, because he says to me, "He's been okay, man. I think – I don't know. When you left, he – he took it hard. I didn't see him for like, months. But he's been better lately. Back to being quiet, though."
I don't know why this hits me as hard as it does, but I shrink into the passenger's seat, feeling guilty. I think of the way that he smiled at me when we touched, and I think of how he looked past me when his eyes were on me. I think of holding hands while we laid in the snow for almost an hour. I think of warming up in his bed with careful touches and kisses that felt like burns.
I'm exhausted – I haven't slept in over twenty four hours. I pass out in Token's car, only waking when he's parked at the curb in front of my house, and Token shakes me into consciousness. I start, and stare at the house. It feels surreal to lay eyes on it again. It's a place that I thought of a lot, during my escape.
Not quite as much as I thought of Tweek, though.
My mother screams when she sees me. It isn't exactly the welcome I was expecting, but it does make me laugh, even as she hits me with the newspaper from the kitchen table before she holds me in her arms. She looks the same as she did when I left, with grey-blond hair and crow's feet at the corners of her grey eyes, the eyes that she passed onto me.
"You reek," she tells me, sizing me up with a frown creasing her face.
"I know," I say, pushing my hair back from my forehead. I take this as a sign to shower. My bathroom is almost completely untouched. The shampoo and conditioner bottles on the rim of the tub are the same ones that I left behind two whole years ago. I stay under the hot water for almost an hour before stepping out. Hot water hadn't always been a guarantee while I'd been overseas. The spray works the kinks out of my back and washes the smell of a thousand places out of my skin. It's strange to think of how my the scent of my own shampoo brings me back into myself, corralling me in.
I'm a combination of wired and ready to collapse, but when I slip into my bedroom and dump my backpack onto the carpet, climbing onto bed, I can't sleep. The sheets smell musty and my brain is restless, wrought with thoughts of wild hair and light eyes and warm hands.
I can't sleep when I know that Tweek doesn't know that I'm home.
I feel so full and small when I think of him. I thought that maybe when I made my escape that he would slip away from me, but instead, I spent countless nights wrapped up in thin blankets, thinking of how much I wished he was there with me. I toss my legs over the edge of my mattress, and I redress in old clothes that I find tucked in my dresser. They smell musty and untouched, but they're still soft.
"I'm going out," I tell my mom.
"Just make sure you don't take two years to come back, Craig Tucker," she snips back. I laugh and promise to only be a couple hours, back in time for dinner, at least.
I smoke a cigarette on the walk to Tweek's house. There's a breeze. I close my eyes to feel it. It's cold, but I love it.
There are still wind chimes lining their porch. They tinkle with the wind, uprooting memories like weeds in my mind. It makes it hard to breathe as I step up onto the stoop.
I knock on the door, familiar nerves, but nerves that I haven't felt in quite some time, making my throat clench up. Mrs. Tweak opens the door. She gasps when she sees me, and then takes me into her arms. She chants, "You're home, you're home, you're home," before pulling me inside. She hugs me, and kisses my cheek, and tells me that my hair is too long.
My heart stops.
Tweek's dog trots into the front room before Tweek does, barefoot and light-eyed.
"Craig," he says.
At first I think that he can see me.
But I know better than that.
"How did you…" I manage.
"I can smell your shampoo," Tweek quietly tells me.
I can smell him, too, when I close my eyes and concentrate. He smells like incense and coffee, and the handmade soap he buys from a bearded man in Buena Vista.
"I love how you smell," he says.
I can't decide whether to laugh or to cry, so instead I just squeeze out, "I love how you smell, too."
We go silent. Mrs. Tweak seems to sense that she should leave us alone – she bustles out of the room and opens the back door, sliding out onto the patio. Tweek's dog sniffs at me and looks at me with its suspicious eyes. I don't mind anymore. The dog and I are at peace.
"I'm sorry," I finally say.
"I wanted to die when you left me," is Tweek's answer, and the words are like a boot to stomach, until he adds, "but I'm glad you left."
I don't say anything. I run my knuckles over the hollow of his cheek, instead. His light eyes are wide as he says, "I had to learn how to feel like a whole person without you."
"And do you?" I ask.
"I do feel whole," Tweek says softly. I wonder if this is what I want to hear, if this news means that he doesn't need me, or doesn't want me, or both. But then he goes on, "but it hasn't changed that I love you."
I feel my lungs and eyes and heart burn up all at once at those words. They're words I've considered, wondering if I should say them to him, but never quite coming to a conclusion. He takes a step closer, and asks, "Can I touch your face?"
"Yes," I say, bringing both of his hands to rest on my cheeks. He explores me, with fingertips and palms and knuckles, memorizing my face, or maybe remembering it, the way that it used to be.
"I love you, too," I finally say.
And all the pieces have fallen into place.
And I took you by the hand
And we stood tall,
And remembered our own land,
What we lived for.