“ Are you sure you’ve got this? ”
Stan couldn’t see Kyle roll his eyes as he held the receiver against his ear, but that was fine. He continued working on the bullshit data entry his dad gave him to work on. “Dude, I spent literally all of high school babysitting. I can handle a couple cats.” He wasn’t inept; he was mature, responsible, perfectly capable of what his super best friend had hired him to do.
“ I know, I know. It’s not you, it’s just—do you still have the keys? ”
“ And you know where I live? ”
If he could visualize Stan’s exact dwelling, the answer was no. The move had happened over the spring semester, right around midterms, and Kyle had outright refused to come down from Boulder to help with that. But he was here now, and he didn’t have it in him to say no when Stan pleaded the way he had. “South Park isn’t that big, dude. I’ll find it.”
“ Okay, okay good. I am leaving the care instructions on the counter along with the first half of your payment. Cartman and I are leaving for the airport here shortly, but the flight is only three or four hours so if something—anything—comes up, call me, alright? ”
“Mhm,” Kyle responded absentmindedly. “It’ll be fine. Enjoy your vacation, class trip, whatever the fuck it is.”
“ You’re a lifesaver, dude. I’ll bring you back a mezcal or something. ”
Kyle assured him that he didn’t have to, but as they hung up, he knew now that Stan said it, he’d be disappointed as hell if he didn’t get some kind of souvenir. He didn’t give himself time to dwell on it, though. His father seemed to save years’ worth of paperwork for him to deal with, and his first priority was getting through a decent chunk of the backlog before he finished for the day.
When five o’clock finally rolled around, he left his father’s firm. Gerald was still in his office, doing whatever it was he did when he wasn’t meeting with clients. Whatever it was, that was fine. Kyle wasn’t particularly keen on interacting with him beyond what he had to. He hadn’t forgiven Gerald for the SkankHunt stuff. Gerald hadn’t forgiven him for majoring in Media Practices instead of Pre-Law.
They were even.
The summer sun was still high in the sky as he got into his car. Sunglasses on, he buckled his seatbelt leaned back into his seat. It was just weird to be back here. It shouldn’t have been; he returned to South Park at least once a year. His freshman year, he’d come home for all the breaks. His sophomore year, it had only been winter break. And here he was, spending his summer back home because his mother all but insisted he spend time with them.
Distance meant handling his mother was easier, but he still had a hard time saying no.
If there was a silver lining, it was that for the following six weeks, he was cat sitting for Stan and…Cartman, which was another aspect about being back in his hometown that struck him as weird. But if he scrutinized that too blatantly, it opened up an avenue for them to do the same thing. In any case, Stan insisted he would feel a lot better about leaving for so long if Kyle stayed at their place.
That was a win. Having practically grown up at Stan’s, and having spent a good deal at Cartman’s too, it wasn’t going to be terribly weird to be at their house without them there. It also meant he was going to get the space and privacy he needed.
Google Maps wasn’t reliable in small mountain towns like this, but between having the street address and Stan telling Kyle it was near the old drive-in that closed down before any of them could remember, he was able to find Stan and Cartman’s house with relative ease. It was some old, turn of the century house with chipping plaster and a pitched roof. The driveway was cracked with weeds sprouting from them. Really, as Kyle parked his car, it seemed typical for many of the rentals in the area. Run down, but perfectly functional.
Grabbing his duffel and laptop bag from the back of his car, he headed to the front door, prepared to earn the easiest $600 in his life. It was going to be great: he could work on his online classes without being interrupted constantly, binge what he wanted, whatever he wanted within reason.
It was only when he opened the front door that he realized he had his work cut out for him.
There was a swarm, a gaggle, a horde—whatever a group of cats was called—immediately at his feet. He had to move quickly to get the door closed behind him before any of the escaped. But they weren’t interested in escape. They surrounded him, looked up at him imploringly, meowed and rubbed against his legs.
“ Aughhh, what the fuck!” It was directed at no one in particular, since no one was here to listen to him as he stumbled past the cats. He set his belongings on the bar counter that separated the kitchen from the combined dining/living room area. Surely his stuff would be safe there—until it wasn’t, as one of the cats immediately jumped on the counter, trampling over his laptop bag in effort to get closer to him.
“Oh no you don’t.” He immediately picked the cat up and deposited it on the floor. The money and instructions were on the counter like Stan said, but he felt inclined to call him before he even picked up the massive packet of instructions.
“Hello? Kyle? Is everything okay?”
“Uh, I dunno Stan,” Kyle replied as he stumbled over cats to get to the laundry room. He managed to close the door before any darted past him. “You said you had a couple cats. Not ten.” He was met with silence. “Stan?”
“ Ten? ” Stan eventually inquired. “ I guess Snookie, Commodore Noodle, and Miss Puss-Puss are hiding. ”
“You have thirteen cats. Thirteen. ” Suddenly he felt like he was being swindled. A hundred dollars a barely covered the work this was going to entail. “What the fuck, Stan.”
“ Look. They all needed homes. Pickles was pregnant when we found her, and Mr. Snowball —”
“This is animal hoarding, Stan. I thought you were over this.” His jaw clenched, and he let out a measured breath. He was at a loss here. It was just too much, in every single way.
“ Dude, it’s not like that. Did you at least look at the instructions I left? ”
“Not yet. It looks huge, by the way.”
“ Yeah. They have a schedule and special diets. Also, Snookie is diabetic so you’ll need to make sure she gets her insulin. ”
Kyle wanted to scream. Wanted to reach through the phone and strangle his childhood best friend. It was completely irresponsible not to provide that information beforehand. Instead, he muttered an okay through gritted teeth. They hung up, and Kyle took a deep breath, bracing himself for everything waiting for him on the other side.
“This is insane, dude.” It wasn’t the first time he’d thought it, but it was the first time he said it to another person. With his laptop resting on the bar, facing the kitchen, he could run skype while he was preparing dinner for the cats. “The packet of instructions they left was five pages. Two-sided. You’d think that a simple ‘feed them and clean the litter boxes’ would be enough instruction, but no.”
He batted one of the cats away with his leg as he paused in his food prep to look at the papers beside him on the counter. “Raw food diet. Insulin. One cat apparently eats Gerber baby ham. There’s not a bag of kibble in sight, but there’s a case of fucking baby food. Oh, and whoever Mister Snowball is, there’s specifics for how much petting he requires and when. It’s excessive. ”
“It really isn’t.” Craig’s nasally voice caught him off-guard; he was certain that Craig would agree with him. Kyle looked over at the computer screen. Craig wasn’t looking at him; instead his attention was on the guinea pig that he cradled against his chest.
“Are you even listening? This is insane.”
“Babe, the only insane thing about this whole situation is that you agreed to it.” Craig looked up this time, and Kyle did his best to keep the fluttering feeling in his chest at bay. It hadn’t even been a week since he’d seen him in person. “I’d leave specific instructions, too, and you know how I feel about their diets.”
“Yeah, but those are guinea pigs and—”
“Yu p , and you could’ve been here still, but you chose to abandon us.”
As dry as Craig’s tone was, Kyle knew it was said in jest. But still. “Dude, my mom. And besides, I needed a job.”
“Yeah, they don’t have those in Boulder.”
One of the cats, which had started off with batting at his shoes, had escalated to clawing his pant leg and bitching down. “Ye— fuck . This is getting ridiculous. I’ll call you later, love you, bye.”
The saving grace to all of this chaos was that each of the cats wore a breakaway collar with their names embroidered on it. How his friends could afford any of this, he wasn’t sure, but he suspected that Cartman must have been up to unscrupulous things again. Or something.
But at least learning which cat was which was a little easier.
If he lured all or most of the cats into the laundry room while he prepared their meals, it was easier to get it done without having to shoo cats away. Cleaning thirteen litter boxes was a pain, but if he kept his shirt tucked over his nose, it was somewhat bearable.
Administering insulin to an old hunch-backed cat that didn’t look quite right and was mean as shit sucked, but if he wore rubber gloves, it was durable.
But the worst thing, the absolute worst thing were the FaceTime calls. He could handle taking photos proving all of the cats were alive and well, but this fell into that excessive category.
“ How’s my little honey bun!” Cartman cooed as Kyle held his phone toward one of the cats that was grooming itself on the back of the couch.
“Fat,” Kyle supplied for him.
“ Shaddup, Kahl! Don’t be mean to my ittle widdle Snuggle-wuggles.”
Kyle vomited in his mouth a little. He moved along, showing them the other cats that were in the living room. “See? They’re all doing well.”
The next voice was Stan’s. “ It’s Pickles! Awww, who’s the best kitty in the world? It’s you, baby, awww. ”
This was the worst. Ever.
“ Kahl, where’s Commodore Noodle?”
Kyle turned his phone around so he could talk to his friends directly. “I dunno. Hiding, I guess.”
“ What do you mean, ‘hiding’? When’s the last time you saw him?”
He couldn’t roll his eyes harder. “Just that. I dunno, dude, maybe the phone call is scaring him.”
“ Or maybe your stupid Jew-face is! ”
Still, Kyle couldn’t deny that this was a lot more work than he’d signed up for. Especially when he was working every day at his father’s firm. Especially when he had his coursework to do. And family obligations.
It kind of really, really sucked.
Three weeks in should have felt like a nice halfway point, but instead it felt daunting. If he could get someone to help him, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad. Ike flatout told him no, but surely if he asked Kenny, he’d take him up on it.
Hey dude. Into making some extra money?
| I could squeeze in another side hustle. What’s up?
| I need help with these cats.
| Oh. Sorry man, I can’t be around cats. Ya dig?
He only had two weeks left when it happened.
It started with his phone ringing. It was only then that he realized that he must not have closed the guest room door as he normally did. Or something. Regardless of what happened, the result was the same: a cat in his face, licking him. His face burned a little, but in those waking moments he assumed that it was just due to the coarse texture of the cat’s tongue.
Pushing the feline aside, he answered the FaceTime call from his boyfriend.
“ You look like shit. ”
“Morning to you too, baby.” Bleary-eyed, he blinked a little, until his vision focused just enough to concentrate on the small box in the corner of his screen. His face was partially red, swollen. “What the fuck.”
“ Kyle, are you allergic to cats? ”
“I…” He sat up slowly. “I don’t know. I guess? I’ve been taking Claritin like every day because my eyes have been itchy and stuff, but I figured that was pollen.” Craig’s response was something mumbled that he didn’t quite catch. “What?”
“ I said you should go stay at your mom’s. I’m coming down. Those fuckers still owe me money anyway.”
“No way, dude. I’d rather die than go back there. It’s so oppressive —”
Craig cut him off because he could launch into another rant about how much he hated staying at his parents’ house now that he’d had the taste of freedom. “ Okay. Stay there and suffer. But wash all the bedding and don’t let any of them in that room. ”
Craig was there as soon as he’d made arrangements for his guinea pigs. It was immediately clear that he was the one that Stan and Cartman should have hired. Kyle’s allergies aside, the cats seemed to adore him, even Snookie.
“That’s bullshit,” Kyle muttered, crossing his arms as he watched Craig sit on the couch. The weird old cat immediately planted herself in his lap, purring loudly enough that he could hear it from the bar. “She bit the hell out of me.”
“You just don’t know how to handle cats,” Craig said, humming as he stroked his hand over Snookie’s long fur. When Kyle scoffed, he added, “Which is fine, you know. Can’t be good at everything.”
“It’s true.” Craig looked perfectly smug, particularly when a few more cats ventured over to where he was. “At least the guinea pigs like you. It’d be a complete deal-breaker otherwise.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you.”
Kyle groaned, but before he could say anything else on the matter, his phone rang. Sighing, he braced for another obnoxious FaceTime call. “Hey.”
Stan’s brows knit in concern. “ Dude, what happened? ”
There was a sharp contrast in his friends’ regard for him. Stan cared, Cartman guffawed. “ This is a major improvement. ”
“Fuck off. Your stupid cats did this to me.”
“ Ay! Don’t call my babies stupid you stupid —”
Stan quickly covered Cartman’s mouth and got to the point. “Can we see them? Are they doing well? Do they miss us?”
“Yes.” Kyle’s tone was dry as he got to his feet and started making his rounds. Each and every cat that wasn’t hiding somewhere in the house got that FaceTime that Stan insisted was essential. But as he heard Stan meow back at the cats, he was certain this was just a long con to kill every single remaining braincell he had left.
“Wait, Kahl. I see legs. Who the fuck is over there? You better not be exposing our cats to miscreants.”
“Dude, it’s just Craig.” He pointed the phone in his boyfriend’s direction, ignoring Cartman’s scoff of fuckin’ Craig. “As you can see, the cats are fine.”
“Kyle, Commodore Noodle’s fur looks a little matted. Have you groomed him at all?”
“Oh. No? I thought they groomed themselves.”
“ Fuckin’ hell , Kahl. Are you trying to ruin our cats’ lives? What is wrong with you? Are you even letting them outside?”
“Uh… no, absolutely not. Cats negatively impact the environment, dude. Do you know how many native species of birds have been—”
“ Leashes, Kahl! They have leashes and harnesses.”
Kyle felt a migraine coming on, but as he opened his mouth to respond, Craig spoke up, loudly enough for Cartman and Stan to hear. “Jesus Christ. I’ll take care of it. Stop being a bunch of pussies.”
“ Ay —!”
Stan let out a long-suffering sigh. “ Ugh. Thanks, Craig. I’m glad someone over there knows what they’re doing. ” Kyle opted to ignore it, lest he chuck his phone at the wall.
It didn’t stop Craig from shooting Kyle the slightest of smirks before responding to Stan. “Sure thing. Can’t say I’ve walked a cat before but there’s a first time for everything.” He pressed a kiss to the top of Snookie’s head following that.