It was starting to rain now, which supposedly signaled the fact that spring would soon be coming to South Park. This rain chilled, though; as it was only a degree or two above freezing, snow would be more tolerable. The wetness soaked through clothing, through skin, and – some people would say – right to the bone. Colorado's weather had no mercy.
Kenny drew the strings on his parka, but the rain had already soaked through it, so the gesture was useless. Just behind him, Stan held his backpack over his head like an umbrella, attempting to keep some of the wetness at bay. This only created a sort of siphon for the water, though, which collected on the top surface of the canvas bag and eventually dribbled down in a stream all over Stan's head. The black-haired boy sighed.
"We're almost there," Kenny said, squinting. Through the rain, he saw his home just beyond the railroad tracks.
"Yeah, yeah, we shoulda done this at my house," Stan said, looking over his shoulder as a crack of thunder sounded from above. "It was closer. I mean, if all the books and stuff weren't... at your..." He sighed again.
Together, the two of them had been assigned to complete a spring science project. Kenny's brilliant idea was to test various household materials on plants, which, of course, meant that there were plants all over the damn house. With Stan's mother objecting to the rather messy setup, everything had to be moved into Kenny's unused garage. With a little creativity, he and his project partner managed to rig up a really effective greenhouse that not only kept the plants alive, but caused them to thrive. It also kept out the cold, which persisted ten months out of the year in the mountains.
As always, Kenny looked both ways before stepping onto the railroad tracks. Then he did it again, because trains had the strange habit of coming out of absolutely nowhere and killing him even if there hadn't been a train around at all before. Stan hopped up onto the rail after him, looking up at the dark clouds. "Dude, this is gonna be a hell of a storm," he noted as he stepped down to the opposite side of the tracks and headed toward the nearby home. Pausing, Kenny glanced upward at the angry, churning, black clouds.
As he turned toward his house, he was engulfed by a blinding white light. The powerful shock of electricity coursed through his body, and he barely had enough time to register the fact that he'd been struck by lightning before he felt nothing at all.
Mornings typically always began with comfort, because death and subsequent resurrection always removed the aches and pains which came from passing on. Kenny actually started to look forward to waking up the mornings after his deaths, since he felt such an intense sense of safety and security at those moments that dying almost seemed okay.
Instead, he awoke in intense pain, blinking open eyes that were blurry and unfocused. The room around him seemed to spin; the stinging feeling in all his limbs wouldn't allow him to close his eyes again.
"Oh, fuck..." he muttered, voice rusty, lower, and dry. Someone had taken his parka off, which made sense, considering what had happened. At least he didn't feel burned. He hated feeling burned. "Can't believe I..."
Grunting, he tried to push himself up. Over the years, he'd kind of grown accustomed to high doses of pain, even though he didn't LIKE it any more than he ever did. It all felt wrong, though. Like his neurons weren't all deadened from years of being stabbed, shot, run over, boiled and crushed.
...And eviscerated, maimed, run through, lasered... et cetera.
Burned and blackened hair fell into his eyes. It must have been some current to char his hair. As he focused on that, he noted that Stan's parents were standing just in the periphery of his vision. Even though it was still hard to stare at anything, he turned his head to look at them. "How's..." He tried again, clearing his throat.
Mrs. Marsh poured a glass of water from the bedside table. "Here. This might help."
The heart monitor indicated the increase in Kenny's pulse. If Stan's parents were here – near HIS bedside – then that meant that Stan was either fine or... dead! Oh god. Jesus. Kenny's bad luck hadn't ever led to another of his friends getting killed! He winced, looking around the room. Kyle was asleep in one of the chairs, his orange coat draped over him like a blanket. Thrown over the back of that chair was a rather badly torn and singed orange parka. Under that?
A brown coat. Stan's coat. Equally shredded and burned.
Kenny attempted to swing his legs off the bed, but Mrs. Marsh quickly guided him back, pulling the sheet over him. Even that little bit of movement was far too painful, so it was impossible to resist when he was returned to a more restful position.
Taking the glass of water from Stan's mother, Kenny took a sip before setting it down. He wasn't really thirsty, in light of the bigger problem that was on his mind.
Across the room, Kyle blinked awake. Blearily noting that his friend seemed to be awake, he slid off the chair. "Hey, dude. How you feelin'?" he asked as he climbed up onto the bed, sitting at the foot.
Mr. Marsh interjected. "We'll leave you boys talk for a bit. Don't worry, we'll be right back. I just want to go check out the cafeteria. I hear they have a big screen TV!"
Sharon appeared somewhat irritated.
"Y—yeah, whatever," Kenny muttered, pushing the charred hair out of his face.
Something just felt... wrong. As Stan's parents left the room, Kenny looked back to Kyle. "I'm okay. But what about..."
Kyle nodded to the other bed in the room. Under the covers, head almost completely bandaged, was a boy about his age, judging by his size. It must have been Stan. Thank God. "He's fine," Kyle said. "Hit his head pretty hard, but his mom found you both. She said she just had this... instinct. Like something was wrong. So she came outside and there you both were... If they hadn't gotten you here, you would have died. You weren't even breathing, dude. It was sweet. What's it like to come back from the dead?"
Kenny rolled his eyes. If only they knew.
"Anyway, I still think it's pretty cool. I'm gonna tell everyone in school you're okay. They'll be really glad to hear." He paused, looking up at the hospital room's clock. "Damn, dude, speaking of, I better go get ready. You guys were comaed out all night!" He hopped down off the bed, stretching. "I'll make sure I stop back later tonight, all right?"
"Yeah—" Kenny fought for words, but his mind still felt all fuzzy. "Yeah, we'll be here." He leaned back against his pillow, closing his eyes as Kyle's footsteps receded. After a few minutes had passed, he couldn't stand it anymore. Despite the pain, he slid down off his bed, grabbed the IV stand, and pulled it over toward Stan's bed. He had to make sure the other boy was okay too.
"Hh. Jesus," he muttered. Each step felt like fire. Dimly, in his fuzzy memory, he could remember another time he'd been zapped like this, but it had been remarkably painless. Maybe that was just luck, and this time illustrated the cold reality that getting struck by lightning fucking hurt. This was how most people reacted, after all. There were stories in the news of the victims being thrown hundreds of feet, their shoes blown off their feet in the opposite direction. That's what he felt like now; pausing, he leaned against the IV stand, using it as a crutch. Why did Stan's bed seem like it was miles away?
When he finally made it, he still had his work cut out for him. Kenny was used to the pain, though, and he pushed through it. Climbing up onto the bed was a bit of a struggle with his sore limbs, but eventually, he was able to do so, and pulled the blanket down from his friend's face.
He wasn't sure exactly what he expected, but he certainly didn't anticipate the... condition... Stan was in. At first, he even wondered if he was still dreaming. Kenny touched his own face, rolled his eyes upward to look, and then reached for his own hair... The 'blackened ends' weren't burnt at all, because his hair was now actually black.
Because it wasn't his. It was Stan's. Stan's hair was on his head.
Mouth agape, he looked back down at what appeared to be his own face, lying in the bed. It was bandaged, with a few bits of dirty-blond hair poking through here and there. "Holy ... holy shit..." He swore. Still dumbfounded, he reached forward toward the face lying in the bed, brushing the blond hair away from the closed eyes. The boy lying there stirred, but didn't immediately wake. Despite the fact that there wasn't a whole lot that could spook Kenny, seeing his face on someone else was quite high on that short list. Normally, he wouldn't have pulled someone's eyelids open as he did at that moment, but he had to see – he had to know for certain. The ocean-blue eyes that slowly contracted as the light hit them were supposed to be his. But they weren't. "What the—"
The boy in the bed gave Kenny a shove, though it was weak. Following the motion, he grunted in pain, blinking as he awoke. Was this—"Stan?" Kenny asked.
As he awakened, he seemed frustrated by the bandages that criss-crossed his face, and pulled them away like one would remove a mask. As he did so, Stan's eyes focused, and, inevitably, his gaze fell upon Kenny.
It must have been disconcerting to wake up after a painful accident and see your own face staring back at you. Stan was suddenly wide-eyed and staring. "What—" he started. One hand went to his throat, because, of course, his voice was notably higher than it had previously been. Unlike Kenny, who thought it logical that his voice would sound lower and rustier after being struck by lightning, Stan probably felt that it was weird that his voice would sound higher. He patted it a couple times, trying again with the same word and, of course, getting exactly the same result.
Stan blinked, pushing himself painfully upright into a sitting position. Kenny reached for one of his shoulders, unsure of what the hell he was going to do to calm his friend down, since he was somewhat lost at the moment, and, arguably, equally as panicked.
"Am I—I mean, is this—" Stan's eyes darted around the room, before finally settling on Kenny again. "...Some sort of ... out of body experience, and I'm dead."
Kenny shook his head, opening his mouth to explain...
"Huh?" Stan said. A moment later, Kenny realized he was supposed to be Stan at the moment, and turned to guiltily look back at the returning Marshes.
"Get back in bed!" Mrs. Marsh stated, her voice managing to contain both anger and worry at the same time. "Here, let me help you." She approached the bed, arms held out as if to pick Kenny up, when she noticed that the other patient in the room was awake. Perhaps she had enough decorum to not drag her 'son' back to his bed when his friend was awake, or maybe she just felt like they needed each other at the moment. At any rate, Kenny managed to remain sitting next to Stan for the time being.
"How do you feel, Kenny?" Mr. Marsh asked.
Stan didn't reply, so Kenny gave his shoulder a little nudge.
"Huh?" Stan responded. Again.
It was weird, watching realization dawn across someone's face, but Kenny got to experience the entire show with a front-row seat. Initially, Stan's eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and then there was a very brief second of a surprised horror when he understood their situation. He met Kenny's eyes, and then looked back to his parents. Stan had always been rather level-headed, and although the combination of being hit by lightning and waking up to find his face on someone else was jarring, he adapted. At least he had an excuse for being jittery. "I'm. Uh. I'm fine, just..." He looked back at Kenny. "Wow. Uh—Fine, just really... tired."
"Well, you hit your head," his father replied.
Despite the fact that Stan's parents did have every right to be here, Kenny really wanted to talk to Stan without any interruptions. "Look, you guys are tired. Why don't you go home and get some sleep and... You can come back a little later. Kyle said you'd been here all night."
"He's right," Randy said. "I could use some sleep, Sharon."
Stan's mother sighed, considering. "Come on, Stan, let's get you back to bed."
Kenny allowed himself to be helped down from Stan's bed. In all sincerity, he was appreciative of the help, since moving hurt so much at the moment. Stan's mother picked him up and made sure he was securely tucked into his own hospital bed. "You're right, Stan, we have been here all night." She sat down on the bed, running her fingers through his hair. It was an uncomfortable moment, not because he didn't want the attention, but because he just wasn't used to it. It made him wonder where his own parents were. As if reading his mind, Mrs. Marsh answered that for him. "Kenny's mom and dad left about an hour ago. I'm sure they'll be back, you know, if they aren't too drunk to find the hospital."
He couldn't help a "Hey!" even if he was supposed to be Stan. It was all he could muster, though, since Stan's mom was probably right. They were probably already halfway to a buzz, knowing them. It made the closeness with a mother that actually cared all the more bittersweet. This wasn't his to have, and yet here he was, enjoying the attention of someone who cared.
Kenny glanced at Stan. His head was slightly tilted as he watched this exchange. "It's okay..." Kenny hesitated before adding, "Mom. Get... get some sleep. I'll see you later."
She kissed him on the forehead. He tried not to shrink back from it, but he was unused to the closeness. As Stan's mother turned around to chastise Mr. Marsh for being so impatient, they both exited the hospital room, leaving the two boys alone with the sounds of machines and beeps and some other patient's TV somewhere down the hall. It was a long time before Stan broke the silence.
"Yeah. I know," Kenny replied. He glanced over at Stan, who was staring cross-eyed at a shock of blonde hair that he held out from his head.
"I just remember walking up to your house, and then this... jolt. I don't know what happened, but I think I passed out..." Stan released his hair and settled back down, staring instead at his hands, which he turned over a couple times. He looked awful. Streaks of red ran across his face, his eyes were heavily shadowed and sunken, and some of his currently-blond hair actually was singed. His hands were equally reddened, and each had been bandaged at the fingertips. The energy had to go somewhere; Kenny knew all too well what electrocution did to a person, and it wasn't pretty. Of course, he normally died from it.
"I got hit by lightning," Kenny explained. "You must have been close enough to absorb the shock. That's probably why we're both alive instead of six feet under." He was glad he'd been hit first, at least. Maybe it was because of his stubborn ability to not die that they were BOTH alive right now. If Stan had been hit... Shuddering, he closed his eyes and leaned back. "You really dodged a bullet, Stan."
"Huh?" he asked again. Kenny waved him off. Eventually, Stan added, "So how does being hit by lightning cause two people to switch bodies? It shouldn't be possible."
Kenny could easily think of a hundred things that shouldn't be possible, but happened anyway, all right here in the Park County area. Somehow, though, he had to agree with Stan. Their minds had ended up in the wrong person, with no logical explanation as to how. Already, Kenny was starting to wonder if his origins had anything to do with this. After all, he had a somewhat unique soul, to put his ability into a more simplified term. No matter how many times he died, he always came back.
"You're totally zoned out right now, aren't you, dude?" Stan asked.
Drawn out of his thoughts, Kenny looked over at the other boy, who had a half smile on his face. "Yeah. A bit. Look, We'll figure this out. Just as soon as I get over how fucking weird it is."
"I hear that," Stan muttered, leaning back and closing his eyes.
Discussing things in a bustling hospital was, unsurprisingly, not easy. Once the personnel knew that the boys were awake and trying to get out of bed, they had the room under fairly regular surveillance. Doctors and nurses came in and out several times an hour. If they weren't attending to Stan, they were taking Kenny's blood pressure, or vice-versa. The only conversation either of them could really manage was the occasional meaningful glance exchanged between them, which signified a promise to chat as soon as they were given the smallest amount of time to do so.
But time was something neither of them ever got.
Kyle returned to the hospital for a visit the first afternoon, along with Cartman, who really only seemed interested in telling Kenny how damn poor he was, and that the fates were aligning in order to eliminate the youngest McCormick child in order to bring the rest of the family above the poverty line. This was all said to Stan, of course, while Kenny silently seethed in the other bed, even as Kyle tried to cheer him up.
Butters came by later, with hand-drawn cards for each of them. The next day, Craig and Clyde stopped by, and apologized for Tweek, who couldn't make it since he wasn't allowed near any sensitive equipment that he could potentially break. Wendy also came by to see Stan, which was an extremely awkward moment which both Kenny and Stan swore to never speak of again.
Interspersed among all these visits were various blood tests, x-rays, MRIs, and, of course, the constant vigilance of their parents, who would inevitably show up just as soon as there was a lull long enough where they would have been able to chat.
Despite the normal seriousness of the injury, neither of the boys were so badly hurt that they needed a lot of time in the hospital. The doctors surmised that since the shock was absorbed by both of them plus the metal rail of the tracks, the results were a lot less severe than they could have been. Even though it was Kenny who was struck, Stan suffered the worst of the pain, which, he'd commented earlier, seemed surprisingly easy to deal with. On the other hand, Kenny felt like a whiny little bitch in comparison. Once the initial shock was over and his injuries became his main concern, he really started to resent the fact that Stan had the better portion of his tolerance to pain at the moment.
The prognosis for each was good. And aside from some minor internal bleeding and surface bruising, both were released with the stipulation that should anything seem out of the ordinary, they were to be brought right back to the hospital for a follow-up check. It was actually the first time in recent memory that Kenny could recall leaving a hospital alive.
In the back seat of Randy Marsh's car, the boys looked at each other nervously. They had no plan of attack or even the vaguest of ideas as to how they were going to handle their upside-down lives. Clearly they didn't want to be each other. Kenny couldn't handle Stan's mother's doting... He knew that, in their own way, his OWN parents loved him, and he was used to that sort of minimal attention. On the other hand, he knew that Stan would be unused to the McCormick's hands-off way of raising their children. As for school...
"Ooh, I LOVE this song!" Mr. Marsh stated, turning up the volume on the radio, and singing along – badly – with Cher.
Taking the opportunity, Stan leaned closer to Kenny. "How're you doing?"
"Fucking nervous," Kenny replied. "You're gonna have it easy. My parents usually just ignore me, so all you have to do is exist to fool them."
"Dude, relax." Stan reached back, pulling the hood up on the orange parka. He looked at it somewhat disdainfully... The McCormicks wouldn't be able to actually afford to buy their son a new coat until they received their welfare check, and so the burnt and torn parka that had actually survived a lightning strike was now patched. Badly. "Don't swear at the dinner table, do your homework, and stay out of Shelley's way. You'll be fine. I'm not sure how you think I'm gonna have it easy. I mean, I'm used to a whole... you know. Dinner. And video games, and—"
"Yes! I do believe in life after love!" Mr. Marsh sang.
"How am I going to get along with HIM?" Kenny whispered, nodding toward the driver's seat.
Stan bit his lip before pulling the strings tighter on his hood. It effectively hid his face completely. "He's harmless. Usually. If he tries to take over the world again, just call me."
It took Kenny a moment to figure out what Stan had said, since he was used to speaking through the parka, not listening to what was said by its occupant. "Take over the world?"
Kenny leaned forward, tapping Mr. Marsh on the shoulder. "Uh... hey, can I stay at Kenny's house for awhile?" He wasn't sure he was ready to deal with Stan's parents just yet. Given his previously carefree existence, where he really did whatever he wanted and had little structure provided by his parents, he just didn't feel comfortable diving in headfirst.
Stan must have felt the same way. He leaned forward, too, and his voice, muffled through the parka, added, "Yeah, me and Stan can catch up on the homework we missed."
Randy stopped singing, taking a second to look back over his shoulder. "Well, as long as you two take it easy, I don't see the harm. Just make sure you're home before bed time, Stan."
"Okay," Stan replied. Kenny elbowed him.
"Sure, whatever," Kenny said.
A few minutes later, they were at the McCormick house, and Stan and Kenny got out of the car. As Randy's car drove away, Kenny looked up at his own home. It felt good to be back here, but he could understand why Stan would be so reluctant to spend any time here at all. The roof leaked. There would be nothing but frozen waffles or pop tarts for every meal. The only video games in the whole house were extremely dated and boring. And on top of everything else, he'd have to witness the rather brutal fights Kenny's parents had on an almost nightly basis.
"Home sweet home," Kenny muttered. Stan grunted something in reply as they headed in.
It was a cold spring morning in Colorado as Kyle Broflovski stepped off the bus and carefully headed up an ice-covered walkway into school. The temperature had once again dipped below freezing the night before, just in time for a storm to coat every fucking thing in their little town in a thin sheet of ice. Sure, the denizens of South Park were more than used to it, but most of them often wondered why they all didn't just pick up and move somewhere warmer.
It was freaking April, for crying out loud.
"Hey, Stan," Kyle said as his best friend meandered past his locker. He couldn't help thinking that Stan seemed just a bit confused, especially since there was no response at all to the greeting. Without responding, the other boy almost aimlessly turned the dial on his locker without ever managing to open it.
Blinking, Stan finally looked up. "Oh. Hey. Hey, Kyle."
"You all right, dude? Are you ready to be back here? I mean, I don't think anyone would fault you if you and Kenny took another day." He paused, looking over Stan's arm at the combination he was attempting. "Not to sound dickish, but... You can't even remember the combination to your own locker."
"Yeah, no, I know it. I just... Focusing is..." He blinked down at the dial, briefly looking back over his shoulder, not at Kyle, but at Kenny, across the hall. "Numbers. Numbers, man. They all kind of look the same." He gave the locker a pointless shove, before rubbing his face.
"Here, I got it." Kyle gently guided Stan off to one side.
"You know my combination?"
"Well, yeah. You and I exchanged combinations at the beginning of the year. You know, in case something like this happened, and one of us was out of school for half a week." Pausing midway through entering the numbers, Kyle narrowed his eyes at his best friend. Maybe he should skip this and go tell the nurse that he didn't think Stan should be in school at all. Maybe Kenny was having the same issues. Before he could make the decision, though, Stan pointed to his locker.
"Right, yeah. Damn, I'm forgetting everything. Could you...?"
Kyle couldn't fault Stan for the forgetfulness, since he'd been struck by lightning a few days ago. It was a little worrying, but apparently his parents thought he'd be all right to leave the house like this. "Sure, man. Hang on a second."
As he entered in the numbers, Stan watched over his shoulder. "It's just that... they say unimportant stuff like this is the first ...stuff to go when you forget... stuff."
"That's what they say, huh?"
"Uh-huh. That's what they say."
When the locker was opened, Stan muttered a quick thank you before digging through his very unorganized pile of crap and pulling out the books he'd need for his first few hours. "Thanks, man. I'll see you in a few," was his only farewell as he turned his back and headed for class.
Left confused, Kyle turned to fish his own things out of his locker, even though his mind was on other things. He could anticipate some strangeness, but within their exchange was a certain standoffishness that he'd never expect from Stan. He liked to think that he really knew the other boy, considering they'd been friends since they were babies, and yet, he was reluctant to judge his actions as being out of the ordinary. As a diabetic, Kyle was sometimes prone to certain illnesses, and he knew that when he was in pain, he could be a bear to deal with. That must have been it – Stan was just in pain, and didn't feel like talking. Even so, something just didn't feel right.
His locker snapped shut behind him, which cause Kyle to jump. Cartman stood there, hand still on the locker door, scowling. "Dude," he said, speaking conspiratorially. "Dude, I told the best joke today to Clyde and Kenny, and Kenny said, 'shut up, Fatass.'"
"That's because you're a fatass," Kyle pointed out. He rubbed his temple, trying to get his racing heart back under control.
"God dammit, Kyle."
"No, I know what you mean. Stan's acting weird, too." He shook his head, waving a hand. "This has got to be from the whole lightning thing. They're probably pissed off that they have to be back in school. I would be too. I mean, come on, they had like a billion volts of electricity running through their bodies and now they have to learn? Not cool." After a moment, he added, "And then, Kenny comes back and has to deal with your stupid lame-ass jokes. I'd be in a bad mood, too."
"Kyle, I swear to GOD, I'll beat the shit out of you—"
Rolling his eyes at the threat to which Cartman would never be able to follow through, Kyle made sure he had all of his books and started toward Garrison's class. "We just have to give them a little space. They'll be fine. It's just... you know."
Cartman grunted something in reply.
As the bell rang, Kyle slid into his seat. Next to him, Stan still looked out of it, as he shuffled through papers that seemed foreign to him. Now that he really thought about it, he certainly knew how his best friend reacted when he was sick or in pain. Hell, with all the sports Stan played, he always ended up in some sort of accident, or with some kind of sprain or bruise or whatever, and this was just ... completely different. Then again, how could anyone really anticipate the effects being struck by fucking lightning would have on someone?
"All right, class," Mister Garrison droned, starting to write something up on the board. "We have a lot to cover today, so try to keep up. Now, we're going to start with our history lesson right where we left off – in the Civil War. Now, you'll remember we were discussing slavery in America..."
As their teacher droned on, Kyle glanced around the room. Given the fact that Garrison was somewhat of an ass when it came to various subjects in school, it was no surprised that Token shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he looked down at his book. Most everyone else looked bored. Clyde was passing a note to Bebe, Kevin and Leroy were looking through a Star Wars comic, and Kenny was taking notes on the lesson.
Kenny was taking notes on the lesson.
He elbowed Stan, about to point this out, when he saw that Stan was drawing naked women in the margins of his notebook.
What the hell?
"And that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor in the year 1974," Mister Garrison went on. "Which was preceded immediately by—"
"Stan, what the hell are you doing?" Kyle whispered.
Stan covered up his doodles. "Just... taking notes."
"Those weren't notes, dude."
Flipping the page over in his notebook, Stan drummed his pencil on the paper as the lesson continued. Though he wasn't taking notes, he was no longer drawing, either; and moreover, Kenny had stopped writing anything at all.
"And then," Mister Garrison went on, "A group of sex-deprived women created General Hospital, which is one of the longest running soap operas on television. So you see, children, the Civil War ultimately led to the degeneration of American Television into mostly unrehearsed trash where relationships change on an almost daily basis. And despite the fact that everyone gets laid all the time, no one is ever happy."
For several long seconds, everyone in the classroom was of one mind: What the hell was Garrison on about this time?
Then, Stan raised his hand. "Mister Garrison. If they were all so unhappy all the time, why didn't they all just get into a huge pile and start humping each other? I mean, they all wanted to do each other anyway. It would have fixed a lot of issues."
The reaction was immediate. Most of the class dissolved into laughter, some at the surprise that it was Stan who would bring up such a thing. And as Stan was looking proud of himself for the comment, and Mister Garrison was at a loss for words, Kenny kicked his chair. Hard.
Kyle looked back over his shoulder to see Kenny pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Jesus. Fuck," Stan muttered, sinking down into his chair.
Kyle couldn't believe that he and Cartman were actually sort of thinking along the same lines here. Their eyes met, and while Cartman was wearing a stupid grin on his face from Stan's outburst, it was clear, too, that the fat tub of lard also realized that something wasn't quite right with Stan and Kenny. In fact, Kyle was starting to allow his mind to wander into the realm of the supernatural, even if he prided himself on being one of the most grounded of all their friends. The lightning strike had done far more to their companions than shock them.
Kyle actually started to believe that neither of them were who they appeared to be.
"...Stan, I think you need to go see the counselor immediately," Mister Garrison stated, concealing some concern within his irritation.
Stan slid out of his seat, mumbling something like a "Sure, yeah," as he slunk toward the classroom door.
The early morning classes eventually gave way to recess. Unsurprisingly, Stan wasn't out on the playground, and when Kenny noticed this, he headed back inside the school to see what was going on. Some of the other kids were already commenting on how awesome Stan's comment had been earlier, and, truth be told, had it been heard by someone who hadn't known him forever, it really would have been awesome. That's why no one else realized anything was wrong.
Kyle didn't even want to vocalize what he was thinking, because he prided himself on being the most down-to-earth out of any of them. He didn't accept the supernatural, even if it happened around him every single day, because to accept it – to allow himself to believe that the world wasn't as cut and dry as he wanted it to be – would have been accepting that there were things beyond his own physical control. As always, though, when things went too far, he had to make himself believe that maybe there was a power at work here that couldn't be explained by simple logic.
"What's up, Jew?" Cartman asked offhandedly.
"I want to follow Stan and Kenny home after school. You in?"
For once, he didn't argue. Sure, there was a moment of consideration clearly written across his face. Perhaps he was trying to come up with some lame disagreement. In the end, his answer was a simple "Totally."
And so it was settled.
"Well, that was the day from hell," Stan muttered as he and Kenny headed back to Kenny's house. "Excellent work, by the way. The idea of a soap opera orgy was classic McCormick."
"Look, I'm sorry," Kenny replied, at least having the decency to be somewhat mortified by the entire experience. "I couldn't help it. It came up and—It was like a once in a lifetime chance. I just had to go for it, you know? The opening was there. Garrison just... Look, I had to say something."
"You also drew boobs in my notebook," Stan added. "I know Kyle knows what's going on. He figured it out like, five minutes into the day. He knows us, dude. We might as well just tell him."
"C'mon, man. We better check on the plants first. We're already days behind." Kenny looked at Stan, whose face was still streaked with faint red lines. It reminded him that there were probably a few things that Stan should know.
He pulled on the side door to the garage. It stuck, but when he pulled harder, the entire thing came off its hinges. Grunting, Kenny let it fall to the ground. He'd have to have Stan tell his father that it fell off again, so the plants didn't get too frostbitten.
Stan was first into the garage, pulling back his hood. "Looks like all of them made it. Guess we should water them..." He pulled back the plastic over them that served as a greenhouse, but Kenny grabbed his hood and pulled him back.
"Look, there's something I need to tell you first," he said. "You remember that time we were all in Cartman's basement and I told you I had a super power?"
"C'mon, dude. I'm serious." Kenny crossed his arms.
Stan looked back at him with an odd expression on his face, before running his hands through his hair. "This is so weird. It's like looking in a god damned mirror. I mean, I can't even look in a real mirror yet, you know, Because... Because I think that'd just make me freak out for real." He climbed up onto a stool that had one leg taped back on. "What're we gonna do?"
"I think you should let me talk to you about—"
Stan waved him off. "I'd remember if you died, dude. It's kind of a big deal!"
A long time ago, this flippant attitude toward the whole dying and rebirth cycle didn't bother Kenny. As he got older, though, and as the deaths happened more and more often, he just wanted someone in the world to realize that he did, indeed, die a lot. It was painful. It was mentally traumatizing. And the scariest part is that he was personally becoming numb to the whole thing, which made him wonder if he'd eventually become numb to everything that happened to him in life, too. Or maybe he'd start to resent life, and he'd destroy everything in the world like Cthulhu tried to do!
Hey. They were legitimate concerns.
"Let's just say, hypothetically, that I was telling the truth," Kenny said through his teeth. He wanted to grab the collar of Stan's patched parka and shake him until he listened. Thankfully, he had a little self-control. "I don't know if it'll happen to ME because my soul is in your body, or if it'll happen to you because you're me at the moment!"
Suddenly concerned, Stan hopped down from his seat and put a hand on Kenny's shoulder. "You really believe that this happens to you, don't you?" After a pause, he added, "Why wouldn't I remember? I mean, me and Kyle and Cartman are your best friends. We're around you all the time. We'd—"
Kenny shook his head. "You guys do, kinda. Sub-consciously or something. You get into this... repetition. I've heard it a couple times when it's happened. You yell about how 'they' killed me, Kyle yells about how 'they' are bastards, and then the next day, you both act like nothing happened. That it's not weird at all that I'm okay."
Stan scratched his chin, obviously puzzled.
"Look, you guys really don't remember when I was sick and in the hospital with a terminal muscle disease?" Kenny turned to face Stan, putting his hands on the other boy's shoulders, and looking at his own face. Just like looking into a mirror, indeed. "I was really sick. I died. You wouldn't come and see me. Remember?"
There must have been some sort of recollection there, because Stan suddenly seemed uncomfortable. "Wh—I remember you being in the hospital, but I don't... There's... They released you. I'm sure they did."
Kenny sighed. He knew he couldn't make Stan get it if there was something out of his power blocking the memories. It just seemed so obvious, so easy to understand. How could it be possible that someone could forget death? Painful death... GRAPHIC death? "Okay, look..." he started to explain, when he was interrupted.
From just outside the garage, someone said, "What the fuck are they talking about?"
The voice was familiar, because it was Cartman's. Standing just next to him, expression almost blank, was Kyle. When Kenny narrowed his eyes, they suddenly seemed to feel the guilt of eavesdropping on someone's conversation and looked away, though Cartman still stated, with obviousness, "Damn. We've been spotted."
"That's because you couldn't keep your mouth shut, fatass!" Kyle replied.
There was silence among them after that, where no one seemed inclined to move or speak. Kyle and Cartman remained outside the garage, while Kenny and Stan sat inside. The proverbial ice seemed to break little by little as their eyes became more willing to meet; At first, Kyle glanced between Stan and Kenny, until his eyes finally rested on the former. Within them, Kenny could see the recognition – the familiarity and concern one would reserve for their closest friend. Along with that, there was confusion and hurt – why hadn't anyone told Kyle sooner?
"Damn it," Stan muttered.
Cartman invited himself into the garage. "Don't know what the hell kind of game you two are playing, but it's kind of weird."
"No, wait a second, Cartman," Kyle said, following his rather large friend into the garage. "Everything was just... off... All day. I mean, with what Stan was saying in class, and... And Kenny taking notes. NOTES. You guys must have known that we'd figure it out. We're friends, guys. We've known each other for forever, like... Like a hundred years." With hesitation, Kyle approached the black-haired boy who appeared to be Stan, and met his eyes. "...You're Kenny. Aren't you?"
With a long-suffering sigh, Kenny replied, "Fuck."
Cartman was catching on. "Oh my god, you guys. You guys! No way!" He ran up to 'Kenny,' grabbed the boy's head, and yelled into his ear, "STAN! ARE YOU IN THERE?"
Stan gave Cartman a shove. "Knock it off. Look, you guys can't go telling everyone, okay? We've got to figure this out ourselves. I mean, if our parents knew, it'd just complicate everything."
"We could charge money! We could have our very own freak show, you guys—" Cartman started, then suddenly stopped when Kenny kicked him right between the legs. He doubled over, ending his tirade with something that sounded vaguely like "Screw you, Kenny."
"So you guys woke up like this?" Kyle asked. "Why didn't you just tell us?" When Kenny pointed to Cartman, who was still writhing on the floor of the garage, muttering various curses, Kyle amended: "Why didn't you just tell ME?"
Stan sighed. "Kenny and I were just gonna try to figure it out ourselves, dude. Besides, we didn't want Cartman in on it."
"I was hoping it'd wear off," Kenny added.
Cartman climbed slowly to his feet, leaning on one of the plant tables. "Right, you guys. I'm ... I'm seriously. Your secret's safe. Mostly because I haven't figured out how to get people to believe me yet. But—But when I do—Jesus. God. My BALLS."
He doubled over again, staggering into one of the tables. A couple plants slid onto the floor.
"What are you guys doing here, anyway?" Kenny asked, scowling. Picking up the plants, he scooped dirt back into the pots.
"What do you think we're doing here?" Kyle asked. "You guys were acting so weird. I mean, you could have at least TRIED to act like each other if you didn't want us to figure it out. We're you're friends, dudes. Five minutes into the day I totally knew something wasn't right."
Smugly, Stan noted, "See? Told you."
The beginnings of another storm were brewing outside. The wind was picking up, causing the old garage to creak loudly in protest. Kenny glanced toward the door as the first few raindrops started falling. He wished he could put the door back on so they'd all at least stay dry. Considering, he pushed the door upward until it was leaning on the frame, which took care of most of the rain. It still let the cold wind in, though. Granted, the boarded up car door also let a good deal of rain and wind in, so the gesture – although done with good intentions – did very little to alleviate the chill of the weather. Glancing at Stan, he suddenly got the feeling that maybe they shouldn't be in the garage...
"What's it like to be poor, Stan?" Cartman asked. Everyone ignored him.
"What's it like to be in the wrong body?" Kyle asked.
Stan was the first to answer. "Weird, I guess. We're just kind of... uh. Dealing." He ducked under the plastic and started turning the plants so that they'd get a little sun on their other sides. There was only one unboarded window in the garage, after all, so they had to make sure their plants got enough light. "Everything's different, but we're getting used to it."
"Yeah," Kenny agreed. "Hey, you guys want to go into the house? It's starting to get cold in here."
"Can't we go to Stan's house?" Cartman asked. "He doesn't have rats crawling around on his floor!" Despite his protests, he started to head toward the door, pushing his way out through the sliver Kenny had left for just such a purpose. Perhaps the groaning of the old structure was worrying him, as well. Kyle followed after.
Kenny could see it coming. He could feel his hair practically standing on end. It wasn't foresight... more like a distinct sense of history repeating, which he'd felt before on countless occasions. Conditions were perfect for catastrophe, and all the signs were there. "Stan—"
"I'll catch up in a sec," Stan said. "Might as well finish turning these plants."
The garage creaked again, almost appearing to rock on its foundation as the planks that barely held it together started to splinter and crack. Despite the howling wind, the shattering of the old structure thundered loudly around them, and Stan, suddenly more concerned for his safety, gazed around with a newly realized fear. "...Maybe I'll turn these later..."
Slowly, he backed away from the table, as if moving too quickly would bring the building down on him. Kenny pushed Kyle and Cartman back, though they were already retreating on their own. With urgency, Kenny shouted, "Stan. Run. NOW."
As Stan's pace quickened, a crack like a whip split the air. Both he and Kenny saw the beam; there was a single moment where their eyes met, where the doomed boy realized that all his friend had said was entirely truthful, before the sharp plank found its way through Stan's belly.
Kenny had never witnessed one of his best friends dying, and, of course, he hoped – previous to this moment – that he'd never have to. He could bear the brunt of that burden, even if he hated it sometimes. He liked to think that maybe his constant deaths and resurrections somehow protected the others from the craziness that was their lives. Now, he stood there, staring at the horrified, pleading look on Stan's face as the light faded from his eyes.
A moment later, the garage collapsed around him.
"Man, that sucks, dude. You're going to have to start your project over," Cartman said.
It was difficult to keep Kyle from running into the wreckage to dig Stan out. Kenny held him back, and Cartman, who'd never seen Kyle so god-damned frantic before, actually helped. As Kenny held Kyle's arms, calmly whispering that Stan was, indeed, dead – and that he'd seen said death happen – Cartman used his bulk to their advantage and blocked Kyle's view of the garage.
The fire department arrived quickly. By that time, Kyle had calmed down enough to become angry at Kenny for various reasons, namely that he'd have to look into Stan's face every day now, knowing that his best friend was actually dead. Kenny bore all this rather stoically, knowing – hoping, really – that tomorrow, everything would be okay, and that this whole thing would be forgotten by all. Of course, at the moment, It WAS just a strong hope, as with the current situation, it was hard to be absolutely sure that Stan would be okay.
There was a gathering in the McCormick's front yard. Everyone comforted Kenny's parents. Everyone tried to make them feel okay. That was almost the most difficult thing to witness, knowing his mother, father, and older brother were in so much pain. He couldn't stand to see it anymore.
Kenny eventually just walked home to the Marsh's in the cold rain. Stan's parents were still at the McCormick's; Sharon offered to make dinner for them as someone called the coroner. It was all kind of surreal, because this must have happened so many times in the past. With plans being made quickly, how did everyone just drop the tragedy from their memories? Were records altered along with peoples' memories? They must have been. No one had ever come up to him and mentioned such things.
Hardest of all was the fact that when Kenny closed his eyes, it wasn't his own face he saw in the throes of death, but Stan's.
He made his way up to Stan's bedroom, pausing only to look in the dresser mirror. His eyes were puffy and red, indicating that he'd been crying, even if he couldn't remember it. Did he really make his friends this upset every time he died? No, they must have gotten used to it by now. Like he told Stan, there was some sort of subconscious memory that they all shared. On some level, they all knew, even if they claimed they didn't.
Tomorrow, he'd have to help Stan through this. For now, all he wanted to do was lie down for awhile, close his eyes...
It was seven o'clock in the morning before his dreams were filled with earthquakes, which lasted momentarily before he realized that he wasn't experiencing earthquakes at all, but was, instead, being violently shaken awake. In the relative darkness of the early morning hours, he could make out his own face, staring down at him in abject terror.
As soon as Stan realized that Kenny was awake, he stumbled away from the bed, clumsily reaching for the floor as if it were something unobtainable. Eventually, through some feat of acrobatics and skill, he actually managed to sit down, with such a lack of grace that it would have been hard to do it on purpose.
"Fuck, dude, are you okay?" Kenny asked.
Stan compulsively gripped at his stomach, hands searching, eyes wide and shining in the pale light that permeated from the outside. "I broke in. To my own house. I don't even—Don't even remember how I got here. I—uh. I think I ran."
For the first time, Kenny noted that the boy in the orange parka was barefoot. He narrowed his eyes, rubbing one hand across them to banish the sleepiness. His half-awake brain couldn't make sense of what he was seeing, because obviously, Stan was agitated, but there didn't seem to be any reason for it. "Stan, what happened? What's wrong?"
"What? What do you mean?"
Kenny transferred himself from the relative warmth of the bed to the floor. Reaching out a hand, he placed it on Stan's shoulder. His friend was shaking like a leaf; every now and then, he'd tremble violently, stop for a few seconds, and then repeat. When Kenny didn't respond immediately, Stan turned dark blue eyes to him, realization dawning. "The garage."
Kenny rubbed the back of his head, sitting up, trying to figure out what Stan was going on about. The garage had collapsed, yes. But they were all outside. Weren't they? He could recall other times when HE had died that the others asked why he'd run away, or why he'd gone home early. In this case, Kenny could very clearly picture Stan outside of the garage WITH them...
Blinking, suddenly realizing, Kenny exclaimed, "Holy shit, dude. I can't ... I can't remember!"
"But you were there! You saw it! You have to believe me. I really, REALLY need help right now."
"Hey, it's okay, man. I'm here." He hadn't ever experienced this from the other side. Of course he believed that it had happened, though; with Stan's obvious fear, it could have only been one thing. The problem was that some cosmic happenstance had erased Kenny's memory of the whole thing. He honestly couldn't recall the even at all, not even a little. "You remember when I told you that no one ever remembered?"
Stan nodded. "Yeah. I do. But..."
"But you were still in the garage," Kenny finished.
"We both saw it, Kenny. It just..." He paused to press his hands to his stomach again, just before another abrupt fit of trembling. Gagging, Stan threw up.
"Dude," Kenny muttered automatically.
Stan looked to be in the verge of tears. "How the fuck do you deal with something like that!? You... told me it's happened to you a lot. It hurt. I could feel myself dying, and then I ... I don't even know what I saw." He closed his eyes, fingers threading through uncombed blond hair. "What do you see when... when you die?"
Kenny grimaced, pulling Stan away from the mess on the floor. He cared, certainly, but he'd gone through this so many times himself in the past that it was hard to show a lot of emotion. It wasn't that he was indifferent to it, but he'd built a wall up about himself to shut out the bad stuff – fear, worry, uncertainty. "Usually? Hell," he responded. "Since God usually only lets Mormons into heaven."
"It's true," Kenny said. "Sometimes I see heaven, sometimes it's just a limbo. It's really kind of random. It's cool, though. I'm on a first-name basis with Satan."
"Him, too." Reaching behind him, Kenny pulled Stan's blanket off the bed and draped it over his shoulders. "I'm sorry it happened. I'm sorry you died. We're gonna have to figure out a way to get us switched back before you get to be as messed up as I am."
"Messed up as you are?" Stan asked. He was still shaking, though he seemed more collected than he was just a few minutes before. Apparently, vomiting had helped alleviate the tension a little.
"The reason you guys were even my friends in the first place was 'cuz Cartman thought it was hilarious that I was so jumpy. That was back in pre-school," Kenny said. "And, I mean, eventually we all found out that we had stuff in common, but that's what started it all. I was a jittery toddler, and you all thought it was hilarious. Then there was this whole... span of time that I just couldn't take it anymore. I shut down. I thought I could hide under my coat and everything would be okay, you know? But it just kept happening."
"No. No, I can't..."
"I know you can't."
Now that Stan's initial outburst was over, he sat there, stoically, breathing deeply and trying desperately to get hold of his terror. Every now and then, though, he'd shake, teeth gritting together as he tried to banish the uncomfortable sensation. His eyes were watery, but he wasn't crying; by holding back, Stan just kind of looked angry. It wasn't hard for Kenny to forget what waking up post-death was like, even if he'd first experienced many, many years ago. Things like this stuck with a person for their entire lives, and this would affect Stan for a very, very long time.
Even though Kenny wasn't really the hugging type, he draped an arm over Stan's shoulder and pulled him closer. "It's gonna be okay. We're going to find out what's going on and fix things."
"I have no idea." Kenny climbed back up onto the bed. "Nothing like this has ever happened before. I mean, that I know of. We could ask Mephisto. I'm sure he'd have a few things to say, and he might even be able to re-create what did this to us in the first place."
Stan shook his head, and, following that, the rest of him shook, too. He was still terrified, and, perhaps unwilling to be so far away from human contact, he followed Kenny up onto the bed. "All I want to know is why this happens to you? What'd you do to piss off God so much that he has to kill you all the time? I don't get it. And now it's going to happen to me, too, and I can't..."
He trailed off, taking a deep breath as he calmed himself. Kenny tried to explain. "It's not God. I don't think He has anything to do with it. My parents were in that cult before I was born, and... They don't remember what happened in it. They said they were drunk most of the time. All I know is that Cthulhu's what's called an Old One... he's immortal. Whatever my parents did when they were at those cult meetings, it made me immortal, too, except instead of being unable to die, I just... come back. Every time. I never stay dead, and death always seems to find me."
"Whoa, dude." Stan fidgeted with his hands, holding one, then the other, in order to stop them from shaking. His attempts were unsuccessful. "I'd say we should start there, except, you know, Bradley banished him back to... uh. Wherever he was from."
Kenny glared at Stan. "You want to... ask Cthulhu. You want to go to his realm, knock on his door, and ask Cthulhu how to switch us back."
"Well, yeah. We could go to Mephisto, but I'd rather only have one ass."
"That's a good point," Kenny mused. "So we're going to have to figure out how to get back to the Nightmare City R'lyeh."
Stan scowled. "Clearly, it's our only option."
"Clearly," Kenny agreed. "I guess we should call another meeting of Coon and Friends."
"Coon and friends?" Stan asked, emphasizing Cartman's alter ego. "Do we really need to call Cartman along, too?"
Kenny nodded. "Like it or not, Cartman was somehow able to tame Cthulhu. He really could come in handy."
Stan closed his eyes. "...Right. Tomorrow afternoon in Cartman's basement, then. I'll need some time to ... stop being such a basketcase." He placed one hand over the other and took a deep breath. Calming himself down wasn't going to be easy.