It's a few days before Stan works up the nerve to contact Kyle again. He'd hoped, a little desperately, that Kyle would call him, or at least come by the gas station again. Kyle does neither, and it's just like it used to be: Stan going through his day in a depressed haze, knowing that Kyle is in town, and too afraid to do anything about it. It's been like this every time Kyle comes back from college, and it kills Stan every time.
But this time, it's worse. This time, he can't go on pretending that things would be the same if they ever met back up, because Kyle's going to get married. While Stan's spending his days wasting away thinking about Kyle, about what he could have done differently to save them, all the little things he fucked up over the years, Kyle's probably sitting around making wedding plans and spending time with his darling Richard.
The name makes Stan feel physically ill, a full body shudder coursing through him every time he thinks of it. By Wednesday, it's bad enough that he calls in, and tells his angry supervisor that he has a raging fever and can't possibly get out of bed. It's a huge exaggeration, since he's really just jealous and a bit heartbroken, but he didn't think his supervisor would accept that reason – he barely accepted the fever.
But it's done, and Stan tosses his phone to the floor. He burrows deeper into his nest of quilts, finding a temporary comfort in the warmth. He remembers when he and Kyle used to have sleepovers, how they'd share a bed and somehow wind up with their limbs tangled together by the following morning, and how they'd be too tired to move apart. That used to be Stan's favorite part about their nights together: the warmth, the closeness, the soft whispering as they tried to wake up.
Suddenly three quilts and his own body heat aren't cutting it anymore, and Stan feels cold despite it all. Nothing can really compare to how things used to be, how he felt when he was with Kyle. They were perfect together, even if they were never meant to be more than friends – even their combined body heat was warmer than anything else.
That's what finally motivates Stan to get out of bed. This isn't like the other times Kyle came back to town, because they had actually talked, and Stan still feels better in Kyle's presence, even if he's not the most important anymore.
He finds his phone in a pile of dirty clothes, and he doesn't even know what he's going to say to Kyle, but he doesn't give himself time to talk himself out of it. He goes to his recent calls list, Kyle's number is still at the very top, and hits the dial button.
It takes Kyle a while to answer, just like last time, and Stan's already anticipating the sound of a voicemail message when the ringing cuts off with a distant click, then a muffled sigh.
"What?" His voice is too muffled for Stan to get a grasp on his mood, but he's intimidated suddenly, because he has no idea what to say.
"Hey, Kyle." Stan knows he sounds pitiful; the kind of voice a lost dog would have if it could speak, and he almost wants to hang up and save himself the humiliation.
"Ugh, who is this?"
"Dude, it's Stan." He has to sit back down on the bed, because he's stupidly shaky, a cold sweat starting to accumulate at the back of his neck. The small amount of willpower that he had gathered up to call Kyle in the first place is quickly seeping out of him, and he thinks he'll be grateful if Kyle hangs up on him.
"Okay," Kyle says. "What do you want?"
"I don't know." His feelings are hurt, and he doesn't know why Kyle's talking to him like this, but he already regrets calling. "I'm sorry, I'll leave you alone."
"Good." The line goes dead, just like that, and Stan falls back over on his bed and moans into his pillow. It shouldn't hurt this much – they haven't been friends in so long – but it still feels like a knife has been plunged into his heart. Crying would make him feel even more pathetic, which is exactly why he squeezes his eyes closed to force out a few tears, wallowing in his failure.
He wishes he had someone to talk to, someone who had been there since the beginning, but there's no one left. He doesn't even know if anyone he went to high school with is still in South Park. Surely some of them are, but Stan can't remember the last time he saw any of them, and shortly after graduation, he deleted all their numbers from his phone in a fit of drunken bitterness. The only people Stan sees regularly now are his coworkers, and a dirty, 70-year-old drunk named Fred who comes into the gas station every few days and babbles at Stan incoherently as he buys cheap beer and boxes of condoms.
He doesn't know how long he stays there, his face pressed to his pillow, but he has no motivation to move. He hadn't realized how alone he had become over the years; he had mentally remained in high school, and if anyone had asked him if he had friends, he would have said, "Yes, a lot of them." But it's not true anymore. He doesn't even have his parents – they moved off to California to be closer to Shelly, because maybe she had always been the favorite (she was certainly the more successful one, if working security at any event she could manage could be called success). They told him he should move, too, but he had been independent for a long time, and he knew moving back in with them wouldn't be an option. He couldn't afford it, and they left him behind without much remorse. He'll get a call every month or so, if he's lucky.
He stares at his phone, tapping his contacts list. It's pathetically small: Boss, City Wok, Dad, Kyle (it's Kyle's old, inactive number from high school, but Stan doesn't have the heart to delete it), Mom, Shelly, and Uncle Jimbo. He never really talks to Jimbo anymore – Stan will call him on holidays if he remembers, and sometimes Jimbo will call and offer to take Stan on a hunting trip, which is always declined. Stan hasn't held a gun since he was eight years old and he shot Skuzzlebutt on live TV, and he still hasn't quite gotten over the guilt. But Jimbo hasn't given up the hope of making a man out of him, because real men hunt.
They're on good terms despite their differences, and Jimbo is the only family member Stan still feels comfortable around. So Stan calls him, because there's no one else to call, and he just needs to hear a friendly voice.
Jimbo answers after the second ring. "Well, hey there, Stan! I hope you're not in trouble, because I'm waiting for Ned to get his root canal taken care of, and he won't be too happy if I leave. He's a big baby about teeth, you know."
"I'm not in trouble." It feels like a stupid thing to say, because he knows he sounds like shit. Jimbo, however, sounds chipper as ever.
"Well, then! To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Nothing, never mind. This was a bad idea."
"Woah, hey…" Jimbo's voice lowers in concern. "What's going on? If you need me to shoot somebody, I will."
Stan doesn't doubt it, and he breathes out a laugh despite himself. "Yeah, that might actually fix everything."
There's a shifting sound on Jimbo's end, a clang of a door opening, and then Stan can hear the wind blowing against the phone. "Okay," Jimbo says. "Start at the beginning."
Stan rolls over onto his back, throwing an arm over his eyes. "Ugh, it's so stupid."
"If it's bothering you, it's not stupid. Unless you're Ned, and you're bothered by the fact you have a voice box, in which case it's your own goddamn fault for smoking too many cigarettes. Then it's stupid."
"It's kind of my fault," Stan admits.
There's a sigh from the other end, but it sounds more sympathetic than impatient. "Well, tell me what happened."
Stan tells him, every detail, including his and Kyle's encounter in high school. Jimbo takes it all in stride, listening without any interruption, except for the occasional sound of acknowledgement. It feels good to say it all out loud, and even the tears that start pouring down his cheeks are a relief. It's like everything he's been bottling up for all these years is finally coming out, and suddenly he doesn't care if Jimbo has anything worthwhile to contribute. Stan needed this. Desperately.
It takes him half an hour to finish, and he tells Jimbo about his and Kyle's not-quite date, about Richard, and then that horrible phone call with Kyle.
There's a long moment of silence, and if it weren't for the crackling sound of the breeze against the speaker, Stan would have thought Jimbo had hung up. Then, finally, "I'll get my shotgun."
"Jimbo, no," Stan moans. "Just – please? I need like, advice or something. Okay? Please."
"Okay, let's see here." There's another long pause. "I always knew you and Kyle were a little funny, and frankly I expected you to end up ages ago. But listen, Stanley, the thing you need to keep in mind about boys is that they're not girls."
"Wow, thank you, I had no idea."
"No, no – hear me out. You see, with Ned, all it takes is a six-pack and some time in the woods to win him over. With ladies, oh boy, ladies are different. They need chocolate and emotions and flowers… all that frilly stuff, you know? You gotta fake your way through it with them, be all sensitive and stuff. If Chef were still around, he'd tell you – he was a pro at this."
Stan's chest aches at the thought of Chef; there's still a void where he should be. Every time something goes wrong, there's a part of Stan that still wants to turn to him, surprised every time that he's gone. "Okay," Stan says. "But Kyle's not a girl."
"Exactly! So you gotta stop treating him like one."
"But I care about him."
"Then bring him some beers and sit down and watch some football. Take him out hunting, or bar hopping – for God's sake, don't call him to talk about your feelings."
That stings a little. "That's how I am."
"Okay, well, stop it. No one likes a pansy, Stan. You gotta man up. This Richard fella – I bet you anything he's a man's man. Confident, carnivorous, tough, the whole class act. And now it's your job to outdo him, puff up like an animal and make yourself look bigger."
It's horrible advice, in Stan's opinion. He doesn't want to be someone he's not, if for no other reason than the fact that Kyle would be able to see right through it. Stan is never opposed to drinking, though, and he can't imagine anyone making it through college without picking up the habit – Kyle included.
"Maybe I'll take him out for drinks."
"Not sissy drinks," Jimbo says, and Stan sighs.
"It'll work out. I gotta go check on Ned, but give me a call if you need anything else, okay?"
"I will," Stan promises.
The silence that falls after they hang up feels extra heavy, and Stan lets his phone slip from his limp fingers. It bounces on the carpet, tumbling somewhere under his bed. He doesn't care. He'll get it later, when it starts making its low battery sound. No one is going to call him anyway.
He goes to the kitchen and grabs a beer out of the fridge, then plants himself in front of the TV. It's where he'll stay for the rest of the day, watching shows without quite comprehending them, dwelling on the past.
Stan decides to go to work the next day, despite every temptation to stay in bed and mope. He wants to call in again – call in for the rest of the week – but he needs the money, and heartsickness isn't exactly excusable. He was lucky that someone was available to cover for him at such short notice yesterday, and he doesn't want to press his luck with his manager again.
He rolls out of bed with the same reluctance as usual, five minutes before he has to leave. He works an annoying shift: noon to seven. If he were a morning person, he'd get up and eat before he left, but he never wants to cut into his sleep. Unfortunately, this means he doesn't get to eat anything until after the lunch rush, which starts as he arrives and ends around three or four. He doesn't get an actual break – he just has to sneak in a quick meal when he has the chance – so he prefers to eat when there's no one around. The only plus side is that, in such a small town, when the station is dead – it's dead. There have been stretches up to two hours where no one came in. Though it can get a little boring, Stan doesn't mind it, because it gives him plenty of time to eat and get things done without a line of inpatient people standing at his register, coughing and sighing in his face, one after another.
It's really a shitty job, he realizes as he slides into his car. He's been indifferent toward it since he started working there seven years ago. It feels like a long time, when he thinks of it that way, but the days had blurred together, each one the same as the last. He was trapped by the money, the familiarity, and it had never occurred to him to look for a job anywhere else. But maybe all jobs are shitty – he really has no way of knowing.
He gets there right on time, pulling into his usual spot behind the building. He comes in through a back door and clocks in, running his fingers through his hair as he makes his way to the front of the store. He had forgotten to comb his hair that morning, or even look in a mirror, and he can only hope he looks presentable enough.
Stephanie, the sweet little high school dropout who works the shift before him, is already dealing with a long line, and she looks toward him frantically. "Stan!" she calls, panicked. She's only been working here for a month, she's young and this is her first job, and Stan feels sorry for her. He doesn't know why she dropped out; she's smart and pretty and ambitious, already asking about how to get a management position. But her personal life isn't something they talk about in their few minutes of overlap.
"I got it, don't worry," Stan says, reaching in front of her to log her out of the register. The customers are getting restless, sighing and complaining, but Stan's dealt with it for so long he barely hears it. He pops the drawer out of the register, handing it over to her to be counted down.
"Let me know if you need anything," he says, though he knows she won't. He wouldn't have time to help her anyway, but it's a nice thing to say. The manager should be back there somewhere, and will take it from here.
"Thanks," she says, taking her drawer and leafing through some of the bills. Stan sometimes worries that she might be pocketing some, but they don't talk about that either. "Oh! Some old guy missed the toilet earlier. It was – uh – number two. I didn't have time to clean it up. Sorry." If she had time to see it, she had time to clean it up, but Stan lets it go.
"I got it," he repeats. "Have a nice night." He won't be able to do a thing about it until he makes it through the rush, and he doesn't really feel too bad about leaving a pile of shit on the bathroom floor for hours. He'll take care of it when he can, and no sooner.
He puts his fresh drawer in the register and logs in, but he doesn't acknowledge any of the customers until he sees Stephanie make it safely into the back. Robberies aren't too common, but Stan's been held up at gunpoint at least twice since he started working here, and he can never quite get over the terror of it. The fact that they let a young girl work here by herself boggles his mind, but she seems okay with it, taking offense when Stan occasionally suggests that this isn't a good place for her.
After that, she completely leaves his mind, and Stan starts clearing the line with nary an apology for the wait. He more or less gave up on customer service years ago, because it's harder to be friendly and get shot down than it is to tune out completely.
His stomach is churning angrily the whole time, a mix of hunger pains and nerves. Eating might make him feel better, but it has just as good of a chance to make him puke, and he's not sure if he should risk eating his lunch at all.
Hunger wins out in the end, and as soon as the crowd clears out and Stan is left alone, he grabs his lunch from beneath the counter and sits down, desperate to relax. There's a small, cheap TV behind the counter for slow periods, but Stan usually doesn't turn it on, because the reception is painfully shitty. He'd rather enjoy the silence, staring at nothing as he picks apart his sandwich, and his mind inevitably drifts to Kyle.
He wonders what Kyle's doing right now, at this very moment. It's 3:30 – what do normal people do at 3:30? Stan can't remember. He doesn't think Kyle has started his internship yet, but it seems a little strange to think that Kyle might just be sitting around at his parents' house all day. It's much more likely, Stan realizes, that Kyle is spending this time with Richard, making trips into the city to shop for tuxes and wedding shit. He always imagined that Kyle would be something of a Bridezilla, and he can't help but smile a bit, hoping that Richard is getting the full brunt of it. Fucker deserves it.
Back in high school, no one had been able to handle Kyle's temper the way Stan could. Kyle would get so angry that he'd shake, violently, and his inhibition would completely desert him. The effect made a lot of their classmates think Kyle was crazy, and maybe he was. He'd been sent to the school counselor a few times, though nothing had ever come of it, but he'd go home with Stan and bury his face against Stan's chest and cry. It made Stan feel kind of special, in a selfish way, because he had always been the only one allowed to see Kyle break down like that.
Stan was the only one able to nip the anger in the bud, too, if he was around when Kyle was getting worked up. A gentle touch on the shoulder, or a hug from behind – it brought Kyle back to reality, grounded him, and Kyle would let Stan lead him away so he could calm down.
He wonders if Richard can calm Kyle like that, if he keeps Kyle anchored the way Stan always did. It seems unlikely, because Kyle usually lashed out at anyone else who tried to pacify him, including his parents.
The only time Stan's touch hadn't helped had been after their bathroom encounter, when Kyle had left in a rage that Stan was completely powerless against.
He had just taken another bite of his sandwich when it hits him: That was probably when he had lost his power over Kyle entirely. The bite turns to poison in his mouth, and Stan knows he'll vomit if he swallows it. He bends down and spits it out in the trashcan between his feet. He stays hunched over like that for a long moment, head between his knees, staring at the partially chewed mess of bread and turkey and cheese in the trashcan, the nest of wadded up paper and banana peels it rested upon. The peels are probably from Stephanie, because she goes through bananas like a monkey, one after another, as often as she can get them. It's one thing about her that makes Stan resent her a little, because Kyle hated bananas so passionately that Stan couldn't help but associate him with them.
In the end, it's the smell of the bananas that get him, and he clamps a hand over his mouth and runs to the bathroom, only to get hit with an overpowering smell of shit as soon as he opens the door. He almost pukes right there, and he gives himself a moment, standing weakly in the doorway. He swallows thickly and backs out of the bathroom, deciding to go make up some mop water.
Stephanie had under exaggerated the mess: It's all over the sides of the toilet and the floor, and somehow there's even some on the wall. Stan cleans it up, slowly, methodically, his shirt pulled over his nose and gagging to himself the whole way through. He never really had Kyle's obsession for cleanliness, but even Stan can't bring himself to kneel down and puke in the midst of this mess. He feels ashamed, suddenly, thinking about Kyle while he's mopping up shit. What would Kyle think of him, if he saw him like this? Would he care at all?
Kyle had always believed in Stan's potential, for some reason. He used to tell Stan all the time that he could see him as a doctor, or even a vet. Stan admittedly had a knack for taking care of Kyle's numerous health problems and illnesses, but he had never been fully convinced that he'd do well taking care of anyone else. He just didn't care about anyone else, that was the problem. He didn't want to spend his life listening to people complain about what hurt them, and where, or suffering through descriptions of the color and viscosity of their snot.
Then again, Stan doesn't want to spend the rest of his life making minimum wage to mop up shit and worry about guns getting waved in his face, but here he is. There are certainly perks to pursuing some kind of medical career, but that would involve going back to school, which would take money and time and effort – three things that Stan usually isn't willing to sacrifice. This job? It sucks, but it's easy. He comes in for seven hours, five days a week, and then it's over. When he goes home, the gas station and all its shitty customers cease to exist, and Stan is free.
School isn't that easy. The work would follow him home, day after day, and he'd always have to stress about a paper or an exam – it would never end. He'd have to be in school for so long to be an actual doctor, too; Stan doesn't have that kind of commitment to anything.
By the time the mess is cleaned up and Stan rolls the mop bucket back into the storeroom, his stomach has somewhat settled down. He still feels kind of fragile, and he carefully eases himself back into his chair. Even though he washed his hands profusely, he still feels contaminated, so he uses a napkin to lift his sandwich back up, staring at it thoughtfully. It's probably stupid to give it another try, but he's starving, so he goes for it.
He only gets to take a couple of bites before people start filing into the store again, the distant, bitter smell of gasoline wafting in with them. It makes Stan feel a little sick again, and he hates that he doesn't have the luxury of being alone this time. Customers, inexplicably, always came in packs. The three that had just entered didn't seem to know each other, having arrived at the same time by pure chance, but now that they've broken the bubble of solitude, more and more people will start to come. That's how it's always been.
It holds true even now, and Stan stays unusually busy for the rest of his shift, though not overwhelmingly so. At one point he sneaks a bag of pretzels behind the counter, snacking on them between customers, and that helps his stomach a little.
The gas station will probably stay extra busy over the next few weeks, as the winter holidays approach. Every year Stan has to deal with lost travelers who somehow made their way this far into the mountains, and they always want snacks and maps and souvenirs. Stan gets bitched at for the latter, because the gas station doesn't sell South Park mugs, and somehow everyone seems to think that's his fault. He also gets blamed for the lack of pillows and blankets for sale, and the gas prices, whether they're good or bad.
Stan's used to all of it, but he finds himself dreading it more than usual. Maybe it's because he's hyperaware of his proximity to Kyle, or because he knows Kyle has made significant strides in his law career. Either way, Stan is feeling pretty shitty by the time he gets into his car.
He didn't see Kyle today, which is more disappointing than it should be. He's seen Kyle once in seven years; those aren't good odds, but for some reason Stan really expects him to come back. It's not going to happen, especially after their final phone call, but it's not quite that easy to accept.
Stan takes his time driving home, making his way down the dimly lit streets, and he doesn't realize he's gotten off his usual route until he rolls to a stop in front of Kyle's house. There's a light on in Kyle's bedroom, but the curtains are mostly drawn, and Stan can't see anything interesting. From what he can tell, the walls are the still covered in the same blue paint from when they were kids. That makes Stan smile, and a part of him hopes the whole room is the same, covered in memories they shared.
He'd kill to catch a glimpse of Kyle, even if it's just for a second. But this is creepy, and Stan feels like shit for it, so he grudgingly eases off the brake and pulls away, keeping his eye on the house in his mirror until it blurs into the darkness.
He decides right then that maybe Jimbo's advice isn't all bad. It might be worth it to pick up a case of beers after work tomorrow and drop by Kyle's on the way home. Maybe they'd actually be able to hang out and enjoy each other's company, like they're supposed to.
There are also a lot of ways that it could go bad, really bad, but Stan doesn't want to think about that. Their relationship is fucked up enough as it is; he doesn't have much to lose. But there's so very much to gain.