On the third day after returning home, my parents finally let me go to school again. When I was younger I’d hoped eventually the groundings would stop, but if anything, they had gotten worse. My bedroom had been nothing but a prison to me for years. I’m sure if they had the chance my parents would chain me down in the basement again. I used to think their overprotectiveness was proof that they cared for me deeply, but I’d stopped fooling myself years ago. This wasn’t behaviour formed out of love or even affection, it was about control. I wasn’t their son, I was their possession.
I didn’t allow myself to dwell on those thoughts long, burying them deep in my mind. It was how I’d coped all these years, enduring the torment from both my parents and Eric. A lot of people would think I was naïve, but I preferred it that way. Forcing myself to remain constantly positive was easier than actually processing any of the horrors I’d been through.
Despite myself, I found my hands absently rubbing at the scabs around my wrists. The rope burns were steadily healing but I knew they were likely to scar. The fact bothered me more than it usually would. It wasn’t the damage to my body, rather the idea that I’d be carrying a permanent reminder of the incident. Pulling my sleeve down to cover my wrists, I couldn’t help gently thumbing the material of the orange parka fondly. I suppose not all the memories were bad, I smiled to myself, mind wandering to thoughts of the kiss.
I knew wearing Kenny’s parka had become more for comfort than anything. I’d had plenty of long sleeve shirts at home that would have hidden my wrists just fine. Still, I couldn’t resist the urge to wrap myself in its warmth and think of all the years Kenny had done the same. We hadn’t spoken since I left her house that morning, the first thing my parents had done was confiscate my phone and computer as punishment for running away again. I didn’t bother correcting them, even if I told them I’d been kidnapped I doubt the punishment would have changed. They’d probably say it was my own fault for staying out past their ridiculously strict curfew.
As soon as I’d entered the school I’d made it my priority to find Kenny. I had to thank her and return the parka, I told myself, ignoring the butterflies that had appeared in my stomach at the chance of seeing her again. After searching the halls and realizing she wasn’t at school yet I’d resigned to seeing her in class. Finding her desk empty had left me disappointed and a little worried. It’s not like Kenny missing school was unusual, but now that I knew about her ‘condition’ I realised those absences had likely been because of her deaths. Even though I knew it wasn’t permanent, the idea of her possibly being dead made my heart ache. Would she have suffered? What if it was a slow death? My mind flashed to the image of Kenny slumped dead in my arms after I’d called her ‘not human.’ I clenched my eyes shut, willing away the terrible image.
As I focussed on the class it was impossible not to notice the questioning glances from the other students as they caught sight of me. There wasn’t a person in South Park who wouldn’t recognise the parka and I instantly regretted not leaving it in my locker when I couldn’t find Kenny this morning.
No one said anything as I reached my seat, in fact the room was unusually quiet. It was uncomfortable and more than a little unnerving but, as an all too familiar voice piped up, I wished the silence would return.
“I thought it was girls who wear their boyfriend’s jacket, not the other way around,” Eric snickered and I felt my cheeks burn at his comment. Thankfully I didn’t need to reply because Kyle beat me to it.
“Like you’d know anything about having a girlfriend, Fatass,” Kyle scoffed.
“I’m sorry, Jew, but when was the last time you dated anyone? Oh that’s right, it was Nicole eight years ago and she didn’t even date you for more than a few days,” Eric hissed back.
“And whose fault was that? We wouldn’t have broken up if you hadn’t gone around telling everyone we were a couple!” Kyle snapped.
“I’d be more focused on the fact that everyone believed you were gay so quickly,” Eric remarked.
Kyle flinched and I saw Eric’s smirk falter for just a second before they both pulled their expressions back into scowls.
“Says the guy who tried to convince everyone he was transgender in Fourth grade,” Kyle reminded him.
“You say that like it matters in this class. Kenny’s been dressing as a dude for years, even the teacher can’t decide on his gender and don’t go pretending you never dressed as Brittany Spears when we were eight,” Eric reminded him. I was surprised to hear Eric mention Kenny’s gender so openly. I glanced around the room but no one appeared shocked at the news.
As if Eric’s words had conjured him, Mr Garrison finally walked into the classroom.
“Alright you two, that’s enough. You can pull each other’s pig tails in your own time.”
The longer class went on the more panicked my theories of Kenny’s absence became. What if Eric had done something to her? The fact that she’s seen his walking corpse of a father would be more than enough reason to hurt her. She could be tied up in that basement right now, just as I’d been only a few days ago. My wrists itched at the thought and I glanced suspiciously at the bulky teen a few desks away. Maybe she’d finally decided it was all too much and killed herself for real? I didn’t know if there was any way for her to die permanently, but that didn’t mean Kenny didn’t. The class had obviously found out about her gender, what if they’d reacted badly? Maybe she’d been bullied, hurt or even murdered by another student. Some closed-minded bigot on some high and mighty quest to ‘cleanse’ the world of anyone who didn’t strictly fit the gender norms. No I couldn’t accept the idea that any of the people in this classroom would be capable of something like that. Not even Eric Cartman.
As my fears became more and more elaborate, I was forced to consider the simplest and perhaps most likely situation. This one hurt most of all. What if I was the reason?
It was hard to deny that it would make sense. The kiss had been spontaneous, neither of us had even talked about what it meant. What had it meant? I still didn’t know. I racked my brain trying to remember who’d initiated the kiss first. It had all been so sudden and my mind had still fuzzy from exhaustion. But the morning after I remembered clearly and everything had seemed fine, great even. Kenny had seemed happy and even flirty. Well that wasn’t proof of anything, I assured myself, Kenny was a notorious flirt. Since we were eight years old everyone saw Kenny as a perverted horn dog. The comments she’d make were certainly enough evidence to suggest it. Admittedly the suggestive comments and sex jokes had died down a lot since they were kids, but she had definitely managed to keep up appearances. I knew now that it must have been an act. The other night been her first kiss and I knew in my gut Kenny wouldn’t lie about that. The look on her face had been so vulnerable when she’d admitted it, there was no way she’d been lying.
But still, first kiss or not, there was no guarantee it meant anything. Well to her anyway. I knew it had definitely meant something to me. I wasn’t the type of guy to go around randomly kissing people. Heck I’d even needed to pay for my first kiss and then when I’d become a ‘kissing pimp’ I’d never kissed any of the girls. Besides the closest thing I’d ever had to a girlfriend was Lexus, the waitress from Raisins and that had been more in my head than anything.
Oh god, the more I thought about it the more I realised how completely in over my head I’d been. Why would anyone, especially someone as amazing as Kenny, be interested in a loser like me? Of course she didn’t come to school. She’s probably avoiding me, too nice to tell me how horrible the kiss was and how much she regrets it. My heart clenched at the idea of me completely ruining our friendship just as we’d become closer than ever.
When the lunch bell rang I jolted in my seat realising I’d missed the entire lesson. I hadn’t written a single thing down, hadn’t even taken out my book. Unsurprisingly Mr Garrison hadn’t noticed, his track record as a teacher wasn’t exactly the brightest. As I watched the students leave my eyes rested on three familiar faces. I realised there was only one thing I could do. I needed to get some answers or else I’d never be able to concentrate. Picking up my school bag, I hastily followed Stan, Kyle and Eric outside the classroom.
“Hey fellas, wait up!” I called after them and they paused to look at me curiously.
“What the hell do you want, Butters?” Eric growled but I ignored him and instead chose to focus on the redhead beside him. Kyle had always been the most approachable of their gang. Sure, Stan was nice but he was also very intimidating. Kyle was about as short me and didn’t possess any of the muscle that Stan or Eric had developed from sports. And even until recently, Kenny had seemed mysterious and withdrawn making her perhaps the most unapproachable of the group.
“Do you know why Kenny isn’t here today?” I asked rubbing my knuckles together nervously.
“I-I have to return her parka,” I quickly added before they had a chance to assume anything. The last thing I needed was Kenny thinking I was going around spreading rumours about us being a couple or something.
Kyle’s eyes softened at my obvious discomfort and he took on a kind tone, “She hasn’t been to school in three days. I was actually hoping you might have seen her since you had her parka.” I shook my head.
“I haven’t seen her since she saved me from Eric’s basement,” I explained.
Kyle looked outraged as he turned on Eric, “Why the hell did you have Butter’s trapped in your basement!?”
Eric glared at me, obviously annoyed I’d let that piece of information slip.
“Geez I don’t pry into your personal life Kyle,” Eric replied shrugging.
Kyle wasn’t having any of his bullshit however, stepping towards him threateningly. Or, at least, he tried. Eric was a lot taller than him and it just ended up looking like Kyle was invading his personal space.
“This is serious, Cartman! You can’t just keep doing this crap. We’re not little kids any more, you could get arrested,” Kyle warned him.
“Aww is the little Jew worried about me?” Eric said with a condescending smirk.
Kyle scowled and took a step back, “Yeah right! I just don’t want to be known as the friend of a felon.”
Despite my usual submissive nature, I found myself growing annoyed. Their friend could possibly be in danger and here they were fighting each other.
Before I knew it I snapped at them, interrupting whatever retort Eric had been about to say.
“Shouldn’t you guys be looking for her? You’re her friends, she could be in trouble!”
Eric eyed me with surprise. He seemed to toss something over in his head before making a decision.
“Look, Butters, you don’t need to worry about her. Kenny’s fine,” he assured me in an uncharacteristic show of compassion. Kyle looked at him as if he’d grown a second head.
“How do you know?” I asked him uncertainly.
“I’d just…,” Eric gave a noncommittal shrug, “know.”
That didn’t soothe my worries at all but before I could question him further, Kyle spoke.
“So you do know why Kenny hasn’t been here. I knew it! What aren’t you telling us, Fatass? You’ve been hiding something for days, you think I can’t tell when you’re up to something?”
I briefly contemplated telling them about Eric’s recent grave robbing escapades but decided it wasn’t wise with the cuprite standing two feet away.
“Once again, none of your business, Jew,” Eric hissed, his considerate moment apparently over.
“It is my concern because it could possibly involve endangering one of my close friends,” Kyle demanded.
Eric looked defiant for a few moments and then sighed as if he knew arguing was pointless.
“Fine, you would have found out tomorrow any way. I thought I’d spare you guys the burden of knowledge but it appears I can’t ever do anything nice,” Eric grumbled but his eyes had grown dark.
He looked at the three of us hesitantly for a moment, as if choosing his next words carefully.
“Kenny hasn’t been at school because she’s trying to make sure we don’t all die tomorrow.”