A/N: New chapter story time! I am really excited about this one. Also excited to be writing about a hot summer in the desert during winter, because why not. This is the kind of Cartman/Kyle & Stan/Kyle story that I have been wanting to write for a long time. It's an AU where only Kyle lives in South Park, and the other kids are all from different locales.
I have some ideas about how it will all end up, but I'm not 100% sure yet - in a traditional relationship sense, Kyle ends up with no one, because in this story they all live in different cities and are simply at this 'health camp' retreat for three months, but he will be "with" Stan and Cartman in various ways during his time at the camp (there will be sex, in other words). I'm really into this scenario because Cartman is age appropriate and available, but also awful (I want to keep him authentically awful in this, and also sympathetic in certain ways) while Stan is idealized in Kyle's eyes and perfectly situated to lift him out of his misery, but ultimately inappropriate for him because of their age difference at this point in their lives. I think this will provide the kind of Stan vs. Cartman for Kyle tension that I've been wanting to write about for a long time.
I hope you guys will enjoy it - let me know your thoughts!
Kyle and his mother have passed most of the long car ride from Colorado to California in tense silence, but once they near the desert where Kyle will be imprisoned for the next three months, Sheila starts babbling nervously. Kyle wonders if she's having second thoughts. He'd delayed their departure as much as possible during the packing process, hoping that she would be moved by his visible despondency and change her mind at the last minute.
"Don't forget to reapply your sunscreen every few hours or so," Sheila says. "And if you need more, just write and I'll send some."
"Why couldn't you have packed me off to some dark wood?" Kyle asks. "Why the goddamn desert, of all places? It's like you want me to roast alive."
"Kyle, you know I'm very concerned about your skin! It's just that your father and I did lots of research, bubbeh, and this place consistently had the best reviews. It's a very nurturing environment with lots of personal attention."
"Great. That's exactly what I want to do this summer, have lots of attention paid to how fat I am."
"Now Kyle, we talked about this. That's a bad word at this camp, and you shouldn't be calling yourself that anyway! There's nothing wrong with carrying a little extra weight. Look at me, I've got plenty! We just want you to learn some healthier habits, that's all. Your father and I have been so concerned."
Her voice trails off tearfully, and Kyle turns toward the passenger side window, embarrassed. Ever since puberty he's spent most of his time closed up in his room alone, often with a bag of chips or candy, usually with both. When his parents stopped buying junk for him, he started selling his essay writing talents to his classmates and used that money to fund his snacking. Toward the end of his freshman year of high school his parents found out about what he was doing and flipped their shit, so now he's on his way to fat camp, though his parents would rather call it by its advertised name: The Mackey Youth Center for Health Education.
"Mom," Kyle says when they drive past a sign for the Center at the foot of the rocky hills that surround it. His mouth gets dry and his heart starts to pound. Part of him just wants to tell her what the real problem is, the reason he hides in his room and stuffs his face until he hates himself. It's not like his parents are anti-gay, but they were so happy when he danced with Sarah Lehman at his bar mitzvah, and his mother still asks about her. Even his parents' acceptance wouldn't solve his real problem, the need to hide who he really is from everyone else in their too-small hick town, where he very well might be the only gay person of any sort. It's been bad enough being the only Jew at school.
"What, bubbeh?" Sheila reaches over to touch Kyle's knee. "I know you're nervous," she says when he stays silent. "But I think this is going to be a great experience for you. These kids will be able to relate to your situation, Kyle. You'll make some friends!"
"Sure." Except that he won't, because even if he has fatness in common with these losers, he'll still probably be the only miserably closeted gay boy there.
The camp is located in a shallow valley within the Anza Borrego desert, in a tiny non-town that contains only a few domestic residences alongside a gas station, a biker bar, a Mexican restaurant and what used to be a spa. The spa went under and has been transformed into the Youth Health Center, though their brochures claim that many of the spa's features have been kept intact. It's expensive, Kyle has gathered, and that makes him feel badly for hating it preemptively as they drive down a steep road and into the treeless desert valley.
"This looks very nice!" Sheila says when they drive up to the main entrance, through a pair of open gates that bear the place's name. "Look, the landscaping is so pristine!"
"What's there to landscape?" Kyle asks. "It's all cacti and sagebrush."
"Yes, but it's very tastefully done. And look at those wildflowers out in the hills! This is even nicer than the pictures on the website."
Kyle doesn't see any kids running around in the heat, sweating their fat asses off with whips at their backs, which is more or less what he'd feared to encounter. They drive past a large swimming pool where some younger kids are gathered around a pretty woman with black hair, and the kids don't look visibly tormented. The buildings seem well maintained from the outside, and there is a smiling young man in khaki shorts and a green polo there to greet them at the main lodge when Sheila parks the car there.
"Are you the Broflovskis?" he asks as Sheila and Kyle climb out. He's tall, handsome, and irritatingly fit. "I'm Token. I'll be one of Kyle's junior counselors while he's here. It's great to meet you!" he says, giving Kyle's hand a firm shake. Kyle grunts, feeling talked down to. This guy can't be more than four or five years older than him.
"You're bunking with the fourteen to sixteen-year-old group," Token says as he leads them into the main lobby, where the air conditioning makes Kyle shiver, though it's blazing hot outside. "We have another guy your age this summer, one a year younger, and a sixteen-year-old who's here on our scholarship program. Kyle, how about I take you over to introduce you to your bunkmates while your mom meets with Dr. Mackey for a bit?"
"Fine," Kyle says, giving his mother a look. The glance he gets in return is both sympathetic and scolding. Kyle knows exactly what will go on in this meeting with Dr. Mackey, the Center's founder and a licensed psychotherapist. Sheila will gush and cry and tell him that her son needs help, that he's eating himself to death. Dr. Mackey will calm her down and tell her that he'll turn Kyle's life around. It makes Kyle want to scream at everyone here to just leave him the hell alone, that they don't understand what he is going through, and the last thing he wants to do is meet three fellow fat boys, but he goes with Token while Sheila takes a seat in the waiting room outside Dr. Mackey's office.
"I'll see you at the orientation in a few hours, bubbeh!" she calls, and Kyle cringes. It's been a long time since she was unhinged enough to forget not to call him that in public.
"So, you're from Colorado?" Token says as they make their way back out into the heat. Kyle doesn't have sunscreen on yet, and he can feel the burn of the sun instantly.
"Yeah," Kyle says when he realizes Token is waiting for a response. "South Park. I hate it there."
"Oh, well, that's too bad. I'm from L.A., and I don't really like it there much, to be honest. Once I finish school I'll probably move to the east coast."
"Cool." Kyle is aware of how chilly and petulant he sounds, but he can't seem to help it. This guy is nice, and Kyle's fatness is not his fault. Nor is his gayness. "Where is everybody?" Kyle asks. The area around the cabins is quiet and deserted.
"I'm afraid you arrived at the hottest part of the day, and that's our time for resting and classes over there at the main building that we just left. We try to limit the outdoor activities to dawn and dusk to cut down on sun exposure issues. Our setting here is beautiful but dangerous - you'll learn more about that at your orientation dinner tonight. We're having pizza!"
Kyle holds in a disbelieving scoff. He imagines thin wheat crust, broccoli for a topping, some horrific vegan cheese. If it were up to him he'd go someplace cool and dark and devour an entire deep dish extra cheese pizza with bacon and sausage, preferably while zoning out in front of Say Yes to the Dress or some similar program that would allow his brain to switch off, so that the pizza could get into his mouth on autopilot, almost guiltlessly.
"Here we go," Token says when they come to the cabin at the end of the row. "Cabin Five."
It's not a cabin so much as a little stucco villa, and Kyle's social anxiety ratchets up when he hears boys' voices from within. He's never been good at convincing people to like him, and where most kids have a best friend Kyle has always had a gaping void, nobody he can really confide in.
"Guys," Token says as they walk into the cabin, which is cool but not as frigid as the main building. There are four twin beds, two against each wall, with a small desk and chair beside each of them. The decorations are sparse, just a few desert landscape paintings in pastel colors and a woven rug that covers most of the wood floor, and there's a door in the back left corner that leads to what looks like a bathroom. "This is Kyle," Token says, presenting him to the three boys in the room. "He'll be your fourth roommate. Everyone else arrived earlier today," he says, turning to Kyle. "But don't worry, they're new, too."
"Heya!" the smallest boy in the room says, bounding over to grab Kyle's hand. He's very blond and has pink lips that look like they've recently been stained by fruit punch. "I'm Butters! Nice to meet you, Kyle!"
"Hi." Kyle doesn't see why this kid is here. He's barely twenty pounds overweight, and he's making Kyle feel huge, at least until he takes a better look at his other roommates. They're both fat as hell, especially the taller one, who also looks mean. The smaller kid stands up and walks over to Kyle for a handshake.
"I'm Clyde," he says in a ridiculously nasal voice that Kyle takes for a joke at first. "I have a colostomy bag."
"Oh," Kyle says, not sure what that is.
"Clyde has special needs," Token says, and he gives Clyde's shoulder a squeeze. "Hey, you and Kyle have that in common! Kyle had diabetes, Type 1, and he'll need to go to the medical office for insulin from time to time."
"The medical office?" Kyle says. "No, I can do the injections myself."
"I'm sure you can, but we're not allowed to let you medicate yourself without supervision. Insurance reasons and so forth. But any time you need some insulin, day or night, you let us know and we'll oversee the injection."
"Does my mother know about this?" Kyle asks, horrified.
"Um, I don't know." Token glances at the hulking boy who is still sitting on his bed. "Eric, you want to come say hi to Kyle?"
"Nah, that's okay," Eric says. He's massive, probably close to three hundred pounds and well over six feet tall. "I don't associate with ginger people."
"Eric," Token says, and the sudden firmness of his voice is attractive, an unwanted reminder that Kyle likes men. "I know you like to use humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations, but you need to consider that Kyle doesn't know you well enough yet to understand that you're joking, and you might hurt his feelings."
"Christ," Kyle says, muttering this under his breath. He won't survive three months of this kind of dialogue. Eric gives him a sneering smile.
"Oh, I'm not joking," Eric says. "I have a legitimate phobia of ginger people. You need to put him elsewhere."
"I don't think that's going to happen," Token says. "Kyle, here's your bed."
Kyle watches miserably as Token sets his things on the bed beside Eric's. He chances another look at Eric and gets another sneering smile, as if Eric is already plotting all the nasty pranks he'll play while Kyle is asleep. Kyle has never understood why some people seem to hate him on sight, but he's gotten used to it over the years.
"I'm gonna head over to the medical office and make sure Stan has all the supplies he needs," Token says. "You'll meet him at orientation - he's the counselor who will take you boys to see the nurse if you need to. I'm in charge of residence issues, and Wendy will lead your group in workouts. But you'll learn all this in orientation. Kyle, do you have your insulin on you right now?"
Kyle thinks about lying, but that would be pointless. He goes to his backpack and surrenders his medicine, feeling panicked as soon as it leaves his hands. He hasn't needed supervision with his drugs since elementary school, and he tends to check his blood sugar obsessively when he doesn't have immediate access to insulin. At least they haven't taken his lancet kit.
"I'll see you boys at the pool social in an hour," Token says. "Why don't you guys get to know each other until then? You could each tell each other three things about yourselves. It's gonna be a great summer!"
With that, and with Kyle's insulin, he leaves. Kyle turns back to the others slowly, lingering near the door. Butters is sitting on the rug with his knees tucked under him like a girl, Clyde is standing near him and Eric is still on his bed, which seems too small to contain him.
"Are they seriously going to have a pool social on the first day of fat camp?" Kyle asks, touching the flab under his t-shirt warily.
"Well, I think it's a great idea!" Butters says. "Seeing as how it's so hot here. I suppose the first thing about me is that I'm from San Diego! And let's see - I can tap dance pretty good, and my favorite health food is apples. Clyde, you want to go next?"
"I already said one thing." Clyde is eying Kyle like he's some kind of intruder. Maybe he fears gingers, too. "About my bag."
"Can we see it?" Eric asks.
"Does it have poop in it?"
"Gross!" Kyle says. "Don't ask him that."
"Yeah, don't ask me that."
"What are your other two things, Clyde?" Butters says.
"I'm from Minnesota and I hate hot weather." Clyde sits down on his bed, which creaks under his weight. "And I don't want to be here."
"Like we do?" Eric scoffs. "Though it's not that bad compared to some of the shit I've seen." He looks at Kyle. "I've been to juvenile detention," he says, proudly. "Seen some real shit that would make you pussies cry smelly vaginal tears."
"What does that even mean?" Kyle asks, wrinkling his nose.
"If you don't know the meaning of 'real shit,' I can't explain it to you."
"What were you in juvenile detention for?" Clyde asks.
"This one kid used to pick on me, so I made him eat his parents."
"Yeah, right," Kyle says. "You expect us to believe they'd let you out if you did something like that?"
"There are ways of playing the system," Eric says. "I think you'll find that I'm very good at them." He reaches under his bed and digs a Milky Way bar out from his bag.
"Oh, that's not allowed!" Butters says.
"I know that," Eric says, unwrapping it. "And if you tell anyone I'm breaking the rules, I'll fucking kill you in your sleep, understand?" He takes a huge bite of the bar. Just the sight of it is making Kyle's stomach feel too empty. He got a stupid grilled chicken sandwich for lunch, when he'd wanted a big cheeseburger and chili fries. "I'm not actually fat," Eric says, talking with his mouth open. "My mom even says so. She only sent me here 'cause it was free."
"You're the scholarship kid?" Kyle says.
"That's right," Eric says.
"Did you get the scholarship for being the fattest kid at your school?" Clyde asks, and Kyle grins at him, but Clyde is looking at Eric as if it's a serious question.
"Ha, no." Eric finishes the Milky Way and stuffs the wrapper under his mattress. "I got it because - because I won an obstacle course challenge. I can't run fast, but I make up for it with my super strength." He pulls up the sleeve of his XXL t-shirt and flexes. It's true that he's got a bicep, but there's lots of white flab hanging beneath it.
"I want to die," Kyle says, flopping onto his bed. "This is hell." It's the kind of sentiment he normally holds in, but he feels like he's got nothing to prove to these idiots.
"Aw, cheer up, Kyle!" Butters says. "I think it's gonna be a real fun summer, like Mr. Token said, gettin' healthy and making new friends."
"You're not even fat, you dickwad," Eric says, voicing what Kyle had wanted to say.
"Well, sure I am. My dad says that if I don't watch it I'm gonna turn into one of them guys who has to be lifted out of his house by a crane when he dies."
"Then your dad's a fucking psychopath," Kyle says, unable to hold it in. Eric laughs, and Kyle feels badly when Butters looks down at his feet, toeing the carpet. "I mean, dude, I'm paying you a compliment here," Kyle says. "You look fine."
"You're skinny," Clyde says, though Butters couldn't quite be classified as that.
"Aw, you guys are just trying to make me feel better," Butters says, and his smile returns. Eric groans loudly.
"I can't believe I have to share a room with you butt munchers," he says. "Can't wait until they stuff us with health food and this whole room smells like poisonous sharts."
"What's a shart?" Butters asks.
"It's when you shit your pants in the midst of farting, dumbass. Ask Clyde, I'm sure he knows all about it."
"Hey, shut up!" Kyle says before Clyde can. "Don't pick on him for something he can't control. And stop talking about shit. You seem unhealthily fixated."
"I'm just being practical," Eric says, unfazed. "I mean, there's a kid over there with a bag of crap attached to his leg. You can't tell me you don't find that fascinating."
"You guys aren't allowed to talk about my bag. Dr. Mackey said! It's a violation of my civil rights under the, uh - people with disabilities act."
"We're not ragging on you, dude," Eric says. "We're just curious."
"We are not!" Kyle shouted, on the verge of tears. He can't take three months of this; he'll die for real among these assholes. "Enough! Why don't you tell us three things about yourself, Eric?" He says so sarcastically; it's been five minutes and he feels like he already knows plenty about this kid.
"Well," Eric says, adjusting his hair. "My dad played for the Denver Broncos, my mom was a runner up for Miss Nebraska in 1988, and I'm pretty much the most popular kid at my school. What are your three things, Kyle?"
That takes Kyle off guard, and he has to think about it for a second. What the hell are his things, besides school, TV, food, and jerking off to the thought of big cocks?
"I play basketball," he says, a lie. He played until he was twelve, when other boys starting having growth spurts and teasing Kyle for his height. He's grown since then, but outward as well as upward, and he's sure he would still look like a clown on the court. "And, um. I have an adopted brother who's Canadian, and I'm Jewish."
"Jews are the worst," Eric says, casually, as if Kyle will agree with him.
"Excuse me? No, we're not. Are you an anti-Semite, for real?" It's not like he's never encountered one in South Park, but usually people don't admit it to his face.
"You don't have to attach some fancy word to it. I just think your kind are annoying, that's all."
"You've met a lot of Jews, huh? In Nebraska?"
"How'd you know I'm from Nebraska?" Eric reaches under the bed and wrangles a Kit Kat bar from whatever bag he's got stowed under there. "That Token guy told you?"
"No, you did. Or I guessed as much, since you said your mom won some beauty competition there, and you look like the kind of person who lives in a soul crushing cornfield of a state."
"I suppose you're from New York?" Eric says, peeling open the Kit Kat.
"Colorado," Kyle says. He wonders if he should tell his mom that one of his roommates hates Jews. She might take him home if she finds out. "Are you just going to lay in bed and eat candy the whole time we're here? You don't want to lose any weight?" Secretly, Kyle wants to shed his very badly, but he's dreading the humiliation of physical exercise and the loss of his private cave full of junk food.
"I don't need to lose weight," Eric says. "I just told you." He breaks off one of the Kit Kat sections and tosses it at Kyle. It lands on his bed.
"What's that for?" Kyle asks, wanting to eat it very badly. He picks it up so that it won't melt onto his bedsheets.
"Nothing," Eric says. "You know, uh. You actually are the first Jew I've ever met. So it's on you if I decide I still don't like them after this."
"You're disgusting," Kyle says, and he throws the Kit Kat back. "And I don't want any of your contraband. If I'm stuck here I might as well go with the program."
"Ha! We'll see what you're saying after two days of nothing but health food."
"Can I have the Kit Kat?" Clyde asks, and Eric responds by eating it himself.
An hour later, Token comes to collect them for the social at the pool, which will proceed their orientation. Kyle slathers on sunscreen, not looking forward to standing around on the pool deck in the heat. Only Butters actually changes into a bathing suit after they confirm with Token that swimming is not mandatory, only mingling. Kyle hasn't been seen without a shirt in public for years, and he's not about to air his flab just because everyone else at the party will be fat.
This is not true, however: the junior counselors are there. There's Token, who is so chiseled and clean cut that he seems like a living brochure for the place, Wendy, the pretty girl with long black hair who Kyle spotted earlier, and Stan, who is not quite as ripped as Token or as slender as Wendy. He's slouchy but strong-looking and extremely cute, lingering in the golden twilight between teenaged boyishness and rugged manhood.
At first Kyle's notice of Stan is shaded by the usual jealous longing to look that good himself. Fuck guys like that and their ease with people, the effortless way they carry themselves, and their straight, shiny hair. But there's also something about counselor Stan that isn't so confident and carefree. Kyle can't put his finger on it, and he also can't stop watching Stan as he lingers at Wendy's side, seeming almost nervous himself as he greets the awkward campers.
"Welcome!" Wendy says when they make their way over to the Cabin Five group. "You guys are our oldest campers, so we'll be looking to you to set a good example for the youngsters. Do you think you can do that?"
"Absolutely!" Butters says. Kyle, Eric and Clyde remain silent.
"Excellent!" Wendy says, clapping her hands together. "Like I said when you guys came in, I'm Wendy and I'll be leading this group's exercises in the mornings and evenings. Working out twice a day will make you feel great, and I promise to make it fun, too. This is Stan, our newest counselor." She glances at him. "Stan? You want to say something about yourself?"
"Oh, yeah, um." Stan touches the pockets on his khakis. He's wearing pants, not shorts, and Kyle thinks he must be hot. His cheeks and nose are slightly sunburned. "Hi, I'm Stan, I'm from Sacramento. I go to UC Davis. I like, um. Music, and cooking, and I played football for a long time - uh, I'm studying to be a phys ed teacher, and this is my summer internship. And it's great to meet you guys," he adds hurriedly, after glancing at Wendy.
"And you guys have met Token, of course," Wendy says, gesturing to him. He's standing near the pool with some of the younger kids, encouraging them to toss a beach ball to each other. "If Dr. Mackey is busy and you need someone to talk to, please don't hesitate to come to one of us! We're all going to become great friends before the summer is over."
Eric snorts, and Wendy shoots him a look that visibly withers him.
"Have you guys met the girls from Cabin Ten?" Wendy asks, indicating a sorry looking group of teenagers who are sitting with their feet in the jacuzzi. None of them are in swim suits, not even the blond one, who is even more out of place here than Butters, merely busty with big hips. "You should go introduce yourselves!" Wendy says when she's met with blank stares. "They're your age, and you'll be doing your workouts and classes with them."
"Can we be romantically involved with them?" Clyde asks, and Eric laughs.
"Well-" Wendy glances at Stan uncertainly. "I don't know if I've had that question before. But the issue could certainly come up. Why don't we discuss that with Dr. Mackey tonight, at orientation? Good question, Clyde!"
"I'm sure it'll be a pressing concern for a ladies man like yourself," Eric says, still snickering.
"Let's try to have a positive, encouraging attitude toward each other, okay?" Wendy says, and then she moves on, Stan trailing after her like she's training him to wait tables.
"Should we go talk to the girls?" Butters asks.
"Fuck no," Eric says. "Bitches ain't shit."
"Suit yourself," Clyde says. "That blond one is hot."
"Why is she here?" Kyle asks, resenting the fact that people like her and Butters are allowed into the mix of otherwise serious cases like himself. "She's not even chubby."
"Let's find out," Clyde says, and he makes his way toward the jacuzzi, Butters following. Kyle and Eric exchange a glance.
"I don't like girls," Eric says.
"Yeah, I heard."
"No, I mean." Eric glances around, then looks back at Kyle. "I like dick. It's 'cause of juvey," he adds hurriedly. "It warped my fragile little mind at a young age."
"That's not how being gay works."
"And you'd know, huh?"
Eric smiles slowly, watching the blush spread across Kyle's cheeks. Kyle turns and heads over to the girls before Eric can voice his understanding. Only when he's taken a few steps away does he truly absorb the fact that he just heard another guy toss off a casual statement about liking dick, never mind the implication that it's due to some kind of juvenile lockup trauma. It's probably just a joke at Kyle's expense, but Eric seemed oddly sincere, and Kyle doesn't consider himself obvious enough for Eric to have guessed at his gayness before he went incriminatingly red just then. He'd expected to start puking in terror if anyone ever figured out his orientation, especially some loud mouthed bully like that, but he's more confused than alarmed by that whole exchange.
When he reaches the jacuzzi, Clyde is standing in red-faced silence while Butters prattles on about his tap dancing career.
"Oh, hey, Kyle!" Butters says, clutching Kyle's arm as if they're old friends already. "Girls, this is our other roommate, Kyle. He's a basketball player and he's Jewish. Kyle, this is Henrietta-" Butters gestures to the biggest of the four girls, who is decked out in Goth attire and wearing heavy makeup. "And that there is Bebe-" He points to the curvy blond, who smiles and waves. "Rebecca-" This one, squat and thick with lots of frizzy brown hair, just stares at Kyle blankly. "And Tammy!"
"Hey," Tammy says, kicking her feet in the water. She's wearing a too-small shirt, a roll of belly fat visible below the hem. She's got terrible highlights and big hoop earrings. "I am so excited for this shit," she says. "I got in on the low income program, and it's like, my dream. I used to be super hot when I was twelve. Can't wait to get skinny again."
"The low income program?" Kyle says, and he glances over at Eric, who is watching them hatefully from the other side of the pool. "Is that what they call a scholarship?"
"Yeah, a scholarship." Tammy smiles. "What's with that big guy over there?"
"He's just in a little bit of a bad mood," Butters says. "He'll come around, though, once we all settle in a bit more. You girls don't want to go swimming?" There are only a few kids in the pool, mostly from the youngest cabins.
"Fuck swimming," Henrietta says. "Fuck this whole place. Do you guys have any cigarettes? They took mine."
"They took my insulin," Kyle says, and Tammy laughs, for some reason.
"I don't think cigarettes are allowed," Butters says.
"What the hell is your problem?" Henrietta asks, glaring at him. "I don't give a fuck about the rules, you conformist dick."
"Hey, c'mon," Kyle says, because Butters looks like he's going to cry.
"If you think about it," Rebecca says. "Consuming nicotine is actually a very conformist thing to do. You're adhering to standards of rebellion and coolness that are merely marketing campaigns by tobacco corporations, supported in part by mainstream Hollywood characterizations of rebellious characters."
"Yeah!" Kyle says, relieved that someone here seems to have half a brain. Rebecca is pressing the tips of her fingers together incessantly, and her voice is kind of strange, but that's okay.
"Go to hell," Henrietta says.
"Guys," Bebe says. "Stop. We have to live together for three months."
"Why are you here?" Clyde blurts, too loudly, and everyone stares at him. "I mean. You're not fat."
"What?" Bebe goes very red and touches her stomach, which is actually rather tiny. "Yes, I am. I have E cups."
"So get a fucking breast reduction," Henrietta says. "I'm totally getting one as soon as I'm eighteen. I hate these things."
"Mine are kinda big," Tammy says, grabbing her breasts and weighing them in her hands. "But they'll be perfect after I dump some of this water weight."
"Excuse me," Clyde says, and he walks away, heading toward the bathrooms that are adjacent to the pool deck.
"Where's he going in such a hurry?" Tammy asks, watching him shuffle into the boy's room.
"I think he had an erection," Rebecca says, and Tammy guffaws, still holding her boobs.
"Not necessarily," Kyle says, embarrassed on Clyde's behalf. He has never and will never understand the appeal of breasts, but if some guys had been discussing the size of their cocks, Kyle might have been similarly affected. "Clyde has, uh. A condition."
"What kind of condition?" Rebecca asks.
"It's, you know. Digestive."
"He has a bag," Butters says. "But don't mention it, he's real sensitive."
"A bag?" Henrietta says, and she scoffs. "What the hell does that mean?"
"Let's just stay out of it," Bebe says. "Jesus, I don't want to know."
"My thoughts exactly," Kyle says.
"Well, I'm curious," Rebecca says. "But I still believe that what I witnessed was the outline of an erect penis."
"Ew!" Tammy says, laughing. "Don't call it that!"
"What should I call it?"
"I don't know! A dick, a cock, a boner-"
"I'm gonna get some water," Kyle says, bolting for the cooler.
The pool party breaks up soon after that, the counselors herding everyone into the main building for orientation. Before they make their way into the auditorium where the illustrious Dr. Mackey will address them, everyone files into the cafeteria for pizza. It smells good, but Kyle doesn't want to get his hopes up.
"Guys, this is Kenny," Wendy says, shouting this to the group of thirty or so kids of various ages who comprise this summer's campers. She's talking about a man in an apron who is waving to them from behind the cafeteria's buffet line, holding a pizza cutter in his other hand. He's young, around the age of the junior counselors, blond and kind of cute, though greasy-looking and sporting a bad haircut that is just shy of being a mullet. "He'll be serving you your meals this summer," Wendy says. "We only eat here, in the dining room, and that includes the afternoon snack following your nutrition class. You'll meet our nutritionist at orientation. Until then, enjoy your pizza!"
"I can't wait to see this shit," Eric says. He's somehow come to be standing beside Kyle in line. Tammy is in front of them, visibly primping, as if she wants to impress Kenny the cafeteria worker. "Health pizza," Eric says, pronouncing the words like they're the title of a horror movie. Kyle eyes him warily, waiting to be teased about his reaction to Eric's bizarre dick-liking admission, but Eric just frowns like he's annoyed by Kyle's staring.
"It actually looks okay," Kyle says as they get closer to the front of the line, in sight of the pizza.
"Thin crust," Eric says, and he groans. "I wish I could order some goddamn Domino's to this place. Maybe I'll figure out a way."
"Why'd you even come if you're just going to sabotage their efforts to help you at every turn?"
"Because I don't need help," Eric says sharply. "And have you ever spent the summer in Nebraska?"
"Well, it fucking sucks."
Kyle bites down on the impulse to ask Eric why he'd want to leave his friends for the summer, if he's the most popular kid in school. He resists the temptation to call Eric out on that obvious lie and watches him collect his plate from Kenny.
"Two slices?" Eric says incredulously. "We can come back for more, right?"
"I'm afraid not," Wendy says from behind them, startling Kyle. "The portions will take some adjusting to, but in just a few weeks you'll feel perfectly satisfied after every meal, I promise."
"Shove your promises up your ass, bitch," Eric mutters after Wendy has wandered off. Kenny grins and winks at Kyle as he slides another thin piece of pizza under Eric's first two.
"Keep that under wraps, you hear?" he says, and Eric boggles at him.
"Thanks, dude," he says, and he hurries off with his bounty.
"Just two for me," Kyle says, irritated by this.
"Right on," Kenny says. "Cool hair, bro."
Kyle makes his way over to the table where the Cabin Five boys are sitting with the Cabin Ten girls. He's surprised that the two groups are willing to sit together after that initial confrontation, but supposes their only alternatives are little kids or loathsome middle schoolers.
"How is it?" Kyle asks, taking a seat beside Eric, who has already devoured his first piece of pizza, possibly on the way to the table to conceal the extra slice from the others.
"It ain't no Domino's," Eric says. "But it's surprisingly decent."
"I think it's yummy!" Butters says. Clyde seems to agree, since he's stuffing down the last bite of his two slices. The toppings are grilled chicken and spinach, but the cheese is normal and the taste isn't bad. Kyle eats his portion quickly, wishing that he'd caved and allowed Kenny to give him a third slice.
"I'm still hungry," Rebecca says when she's finished. "Aren't they going to give us fruit for dessert or something?"
"Here," Bebe says, and she shoves her second piece of pizza onto Rebecca's plate. "You can have mine. I only want one."
"I feel strange about this," Rebecca says, but she eats Bebe's second piece anyway. "Perhaps now would be a good time to mention that I have no desire to lose this weight. I eat what I want without devoting much mental energy to it, but I don't think it's a problem. My parents disagree, and I am their prisoner for two more years, so here I am."
"Can I have your crust?" Tammy asks, because Bebe has left hers on the plate. "Wait, no!" she says when Bebe picks it up. "Never mind. I'm going to be good." She stares at the crust glumly until Henrietta snatches it and eats it in two bites.
Kyle surveys the dining room, looking over at the counselors' table. Wendy, Stan and Token are eating the pizza, too, and Kenny has joined them, his plate piled high with slices. Wendy seems to chastise him for this, but Kenny is rail thin and could probably use the calories. Kyle hears her saying something about setting an example. Kyle focuses his attention on Stan, who is zoning out while he chews his pizza, his eyes unfocused as the others argue among themselves. He has very nice arms, probably from football. They're tanned and covered in black hair, just the way Kyle likes.
When the pizza has been consumed they're all ushered into the auditorium where Dr. Mackey and their parents are waiting. Kyle goes to sit with his mother, embarrassed by how glad he is to see her after a day spent with strangers. She looks like she's been crying, but she smiles widely and tries to kiss his cheek. Kyle leans away and grunts, annoyed by the fact that she certainly spent the whole afternoon weeping and telling the asshole up on stage how worried she is about her little boy.
"Mmkay, I think we're all getting settled in, that's good," Dr. Mackey says. He's even skinnier than Kenny, almost frail-looking except for his head, which looks disproportionately large from where Kyle is sitting. "I just want to officially welcome everybody, parents and students, to the start of our summer program for youth health education. Let's all give each other a round of applause just for being here, mmkay? Go - go on, a round of applause," he says, clapping first when everyone else hesitates. Sheila and the other parents join in, along with most of the younger kids. Kyle and the rest of his age group stays motionless, except for Butters, who claps enthusiastically. Kyle glances over at Eric to see the former beauty queen and football star he claims to have for parents, but there's only a woman with a prim bun and lace collar sitting beside him. She does look like someone who might have competed in beauty pageants when she was younger, which makes Kyle realize that Eric would actually be cute if he wasn't so lumpy and crude. He wonders where Eric's dad is; maybe he had to work. Gerald is at home with Ike, and Kyle is glad that they didn't come along. There are certain humiliations he would rather endure only in the company of his mother.
"I just really want to commend all of our incoming students for dedicating three months of their lives to their health education," Dr. Mackey says. "I think it's going to be a really wonderful experience for all of us."
He drones on, listing rules and goals and mission statements. Kyle feels a little loopy and jerks in his seat when he realizes why.
"I left my blood sugar kit in the cabin," he whispers.
"Oh, Kyle, you can't do that!"
"I know, okay, and I didn't mean to! Now I - Mom, I don't feel good. They gave us pizza, and-"
"Shh, shh, alright-"
"And they took my insulin!"
"I know, bubbeh, they explained about that. Why don't you go ask that nice girl to help you out?" She gestures toward Wendy, who is sitting in the back with Stan and Token, paying rapt attention while Token examines his phone and Stan picks spinach from his teeth. "Go on," Sheila says. "I'll stay for the rest of this thing and fill you in on anything you miss. Tell them you need to get your kit and do your injection."
Kyle feels stupid as he approaches the counselors, several people in the audience turning to stare at him, Eric included. Stan looks up first.
"You okay?" Stan says, and the other two turn to him.
"Um," Kyle says. "I, uh, I forgot my blood sugar kit? And I don't feel good, I think I need insulin."
"Stan, take him to the nurse's station," Wendy says. She seems irritated. "Belinda has left for the day, but - you can do your own injection, right?"
"Of course," Kyle says, and he shrinks when he hears how annoyed he sounded by that question. Wendy is kind of scary.
"Just go with him and write everything down, like we discussed," Wendy says, and Stan gets up. "I'm serious, Stan, they could get sued if you don't keep a log of his levels or whatever."
"I know," Stan says. He puts his hand on Kyle's back and guides him toward the door. "C'mon, dude," he says, and adds, "You gonna be okay?" as they leave the auditorium.
"I don't know," Kyle says. "Probably. I just need - my stuff." He feels like he'll faint, either from unbalanced blood sugar or the heat of Stan's hand, which leaves him too quickly.
They push out of the main building, the sunlight fading behind the hills. It's warm outside, but not sweltering like before. Stan keeps close on the walk to the nurse's station, as if he's afraid he'll have to catch Kyle when he collapses. Kyle hopes that won't happen, but he feels fuzzy and almost like he's dreaming, the desert landscape like an alien planet. He can smell Stan's sweat, and his own
"A rabbit!" Kyle says when a little brown bunny crosses the stone path they're walking on. He looks to Stan, hoping he didn't just hallucinate that, and Stan smiles.
"Oh, yeah, those guys are all over the place. Jack rabbits, too, big ass ones. You'll see them."
A lizard darts into a bush as they approach it, increasing Kyle's feeling that he's sleepwalking across a fever dream, the whole camp bathed in a hazy glow as the sun begins to go down.
"We've got coyotes all over this valley," Stan says. "They won't bother you unless you're alone and they're in a big pack, and they tend to stay off the property, except for the golf course."
"Yeah, it's out there by the old restaurant." Stan points. "From when this place was a spa. Mackey keeps it maintained so he can play. I think golf is lame, myself."
"Me too," Kyle says. It feels good to agree with this guy about something. "Do we need to get my blood sugar stuff from my room?" Kyle asks when Stan veers left, toward the building that's labeled 'NURSE.'
"Nah, I've got one in here. We had to get everything ready for you, all the supplies." He digs a set of keys out from his pocket and flips through them, unlocking the nurse's station door when he finds the right one. Kyle follows him in, feeling lightheaded as he moves from the glowing warmth outside to the shady cool of the closed up nurse's station. "I guess we'll be in here a lot," Stan says. "Craig said you should have a shot four times a day, before meals."
"Craig?" Kyle walks around the small front room in the nurse's station, which contains an examining table and chest full of drugs that Stan is rummaging through. Stan hasn't put the lights on; there's enough from the windows, all the blinds open.
"Craig's the nutritionist," Stan says. "He's a real asshole, pardon my French."
Kyle snorts, because he's never actually heard someone say that after cursing. Stan turns to grin at him, holding a lancet kit.
"There you go," he says when he brings it over. "I'll get your pen from the fridge."
Hands shaking, Kyle does a reading and determines that he needs to take insulin, as he suspected. He feels weird uncapping the pen and lifting up his shirt while Stan watches. Stan is doing a nervous kind of dance as he watches Kyle inject himself.
"Does it hurt?" Stan asks.
"I'm not big on needles."
"Well. I guess most people aren't, but you get used to it." He hands the pen back to Stan. "Are you going to write down how much I took?"
"Oh, shit, yeah. They gave me a log book for you. You want some water or something?"
Kyle nods, leans back against the wall behind the examining table and shuts his eyes, smiling to himself while Stan fetches the water. He likes the idea that Stan has a log book just for him.
"You can rest a while," Stan says while Kyle drinks his water. "You look kinda pale."
"I always look pale, but thanks."
Stan wanders around the room while Kyle stays slumped on the examining table. There's a very bright, new-looking tennis ball sitting on one of the chairs against the opposite wall. Stan picks it up and tosses it in the air a few times.
"Hey, Kyle," he says.
Stan lobs an easy throw to him, and Kyle feels himself smiling stupidly. He throws the ball back, glad that the room is small and the weakness of his arm won't be too evident. They exchange throws for a few minutes in silence, and Kyle's energy begins to return, his thoughts sharpening.
"You know," Stan says. "I think this whole thing is kind of weird and creepy. Not you guys, but the whole idea. Mackey, and all of it."
"What do you mean?"
"Just, I don't know. Only a few of the kids here really look like they need, uh. A lifestyle change, you know?"
"Yeah, like me," Kyle says, going dark.
"No, man, not like you. You just look like you have baby fat. The kind that comes off with time. I meant like that big huge guy who sat next to you at lunch, and that Goth girl. And even then, it's like, so? Let them figure it out, they're not dumb. People just think kids are so dumb."
"Wendy," Kyle says, and Stan grins.
"Nah, she doesn't mean to come off that way. I've known her since she was five. She got me this job. She's always been like that."
"Oh." Kyle feels jealous, hearing this. Also slightly insane, as if he has any hope of even befriending this guy who is charged with babysitting him.
"I want to teach," Stan says. "Work with kids, you know, and actually show them some respect. I ended up in this phys ed program because I played ball in school, but, I don't know. Football coaches are usually real hard asses. Mine always were. I don't know if I can do that. Sometimes I'm like, maybe I could teach music? But I'm not that good at it, I can only play the guitar a little. Football, I was good at. I wanted to be in the marching band, though, sometimes. I was jealous of them. Sorry, I keep talking."
"You can talk," Kyle says, his heart lifting a bit more with every word. "I don't mind."
"You'll see how it is," Stan says. "Wendy and Token, they mean well. Mackey, too, but he's a weirdo. Craig - that guy can suck my dick."
Kyle fumbles the ball, hearing this. Stan laughs and retrieves it from the floor.
"Sorry," he says.
"That's okay." Kyle is trying very hard not to imagine what sort of dick this beautiful man possesses, and what sort of noises he might make while someone - Kyle, anyone - sucked him off.
"We'd better go back," Stan says. He throws the ball hard against the wall and catches it on the bounce. "Orientation's probably almost over."
The sundown matures into a deeper orange as they make their way back to the main building. Kyle wants to grill Stan on everything he said in the nurse's station, particularly the part where he seems to think Kyle isn't actually fat. That can't be true; he's just being nice. Kyle is forty pounds overweight, and he feels every ounce of it with every move he makes.
"How old are you?" Kyle asks.
"Nineteen," Stan says, and Kyle's spirits lift, because somehow the difference between fifteen and nineteen is miniscule compared to the difference between fifteen and twenty, though he doubts Stan would see it that way. Even if they were the same age, Stan would be well out of Kyle's league. He feels feverish with desire all the same, and has to stop himself from sitting beside Stan when they reenter the auditorium. Mackey is introducing the nutritionist, Craig, who is a dour-looking man, thin and pale, younger than Mackey. He's wearing a turtleneck and slacks, as if he's missed the fact that they're in the fucking desert.
"Nutrition," Craig says when he's taken the podium, and for a while he just lets that hang there as he peers sternly out at the audience. "It's easy to take for granted, and hard to live a full life once you have. It's also difficult for those who have overindulged for years to embrace moderation. This is why I believe in absolute strict adherence to a rigorously balanced diet in the first three months of the transition to healthy living. That will of course coincide with your time here. There will be no leniency. No breaks, no holidays, no treats. However, as you have now experienced, the diet I have designed for you children is not only palatable but undeniably delicious."
He pauses there, his stony gaze sweeping across the room as if he dares anyone to challenge him on this point.
"Parents," Craig says. "I will not tolerate attempts to send food to your children. Even if, in your lay opinion, that food is healthy - it cannot interfere with the balance of the three month diet. Packages that arrive here will be searched thoroughly before they are delivered to campers. I once found a tin of Altoids stuffed into what initially appeared to be an unopened six pack of tube socks. I could smell peppermint - I knew something was amiss. I don't care if the things have only three or four calories per mint. In this situation, one toe over the line could spoil the entire effect. These are not children who eat according to serving sizes, and twenty Altoids later they might as well have eaten a peanut butter cup. Your child will be expelled immediately if contraband is discovered on his person. Thank you."
Craig walks away from the podium, allowing a heavy silence settle over the room. Kyle hears Sheila scoff under her breath.
"Mmmm-kay," Mackey says slowly as he returns to the podium, watching Craig exit the stage. "Well, as you can see, we all take your health very seriously. And I just want to close here by telling you all that your goals are attainable, and that we're going to do everything in our power to help you reach those goals. At the end of the summer, when you're healthy and happier than ever before, we're all gonna have a big cry together over how far you've come. Now let's all come up to the stage for our group photo. We take one at the start of the summer and one at the end."
Kyle feels stupid, filing up to the stage with the other fatties. In the quiet of the nurse's station with Stan and that tennis ball, Kyle had felt like maybe Stan could be right about Kyle's extra weight just being some baby fat that would effortlessly disappear, but now that he's up on stage posing for the group 'before' picture, he feels it acutely: he's been lumped in with these kids for a reason. These are his people, this sad tribe, and not a single one of them wants to belong here, in the 'before' picture that is their lives.