Wendy's obsession with lost causes starts somewhere around the time she sees Kenny sitting by himself on the playground in fifth grade. Stan, Kyle, and Cartman are all out with some disease they'd picked up on a family trip to Guatemala; Kyle is in the hospital and there are whispers going around that he won't make it. Kenny looks pristine and unaffected, though, sitting all alone on a cement railing with holey sneakers brushing the top of the snow. Wendy decides to approach him.
"Hey," she says, softly, sliding into a seat beside him. All she can see of his face is his nose, which is still smudged in childhood softness like her own, and his eyes, which are hard to read without eyebrows to help her. She thinks he looks sad, maybe.
He tugs down a bit of his hood to reveal his mouth. His lips chapped from the cold (should she offer him some of her lip balm—it's the type in a pot, there would be no cross-contamination?) "Hey," he says. His voice is not deep by any means, but she notices it is deeper in comparison to the other boys'.
"How are you?"
"I'm okay. I don't know anything new about Kyle." He pulls his hood back up on his mouth.
"I didn't ask about Kyle. I asked about you."
Kenny sighs and slumps like a forgotten stuffed animal on a shelf (Wendy makes sure to straighten hers every day.) He pulls his hood down again, in full this time, and she expects to be more shocked by his appearance but he looks kind of average, forgettable. His hair is a dirty blond and needs to be brushed; his eyebrows are much darker, a medium brown, a little heavy. He looks at her. "Well, what do you want, then?"
"To know how you're doing," she says. "That's why I asked."
"I'm doing okay."
"That's what you said."
"No, I guess not."
She doesn't get up, though. They sit on the cement for the rest of recess, and towards the end Wendy decides to place her hand over Kenny's. They're both wearing mittens and it doesn't feel like much of anything at all; Wendy doesn't know what she was expecting.
For the rest of the time that the other boys are out, Wendy joins Kenny at recess. They don't do a lot of talking; the third day Wendy brings a book to read. She fights back the urge to look at Kenny, who has returned to wearing his hood pulled tight around his head, and probe him further about—well, everything. She barely knows a thing about him, she realizes, even though he's been Stan's friend since pre-school. She and Stan aren't together at the moment, and remembering him and his mysterious illness strikes her heart, brings tears to her eyes. She rubs at them, sniffs. She's determined not to cry.
"Are you okay?" Kenny's mumbling through his hood. Wendy looks up at him, surprised.
"Um," she says. "I think."
"Okay," Kenny says. He puts his hand on the cement railing between them; Wendy notices that the fabric on his mittens is wearing thin. Wendy places a tentative hand on his and gasps when he grasps it, fierce. "Are you better now?" he asks.
Wendy can just nod.
She starts to look forward to the time at recess with Kenny, where she makes her way through the South Park Elementary School's library, Kenny looks off into the distance and they hold hands. Bebe notices and when she asks, Wendy tells her that she's comforting Kenny, that it's hard for him with one of his friends in the hospital and the other two sick at home. She thinks about Kenny every night before she goes to bed, wonders if the heating works in house, wonders if he's cold. She thinks a lot about whether or not she likes Kenny, but the idea seems so wrong, as if she'd be taking advantage of him in his fragile state. Besides, what she feels for Kenny is different than what she had felt for Stan—it is something heavier yet purer. She decides to ignore these feelings, for now, and offers Kenny her lip balm the next day. He denies it.
The boys, sans Kyle, return to school after two weeks. Another week and Kyle is back. Kenny reintegrates himself into his friend group and Wendy is back to spending recess with the girls, staking claim to the jungle gym and chattering up a storm, but Wendy keeps her eye on Kenny playing kickball with the boys. He still looks so sad is all.
Fifth grade floats by, as well as the summer, and then Wendy is in sixth grade at South Park Middle School. It's a new addition; South Park Elementary used to cover kindergarten to eighth, shipping the local kids to Park County High School when they hit ninth grade, but the town hit a bit of a boom and it was decided a middle school was needed. For South Park it's a weirdly nice building. Wendy is standing outside of it on the first day of school, fifteen minutes early, observing it, when somebody comes up to her side and slips their hand into hers. Warm enough that there is no need for mittens, the skin-on-skin contact shocks her. She just knows that it's Kenny.
"Sorry," he says. He voice cracks and he coughs. She still hasn't looked at him. "I got here early."
"Me too," she says, stupidly. "This building is so—weird."
"It doesn't belong." She looks at him, then; he's in the same orange coat, though it's unzipped to reveal a white shirt beneath it, jeans, and his holey sneakers. She feels a surge of pride and squeezes his hand, which prompts a smile.
Still, they move in different circles, and Wendy eats lunch with the girls while Kenny eats lunch with the boys. She finds that he is in her last class of the day, though. It's Math, and feeling bold she chooses the seat next to his, noticing that none of his other friends are in this period. Classes at South Park Middle are small, but the school board still keeps them diverse to encourage new social interactions. She's smiling as she thinks about this.
And so a tentative and fragile friendship blossoms. Wendy keeps it a secret from the girls and thinks Kenny does the same from the boys. She tries to date Stan again and it fails; she decides that their latest break-up is truly the last, wanting to be alone for a while. Sixth grade comes and goes and she doesn't hold hands with Kenny again, not since the first day, even though they exchange phone numbers and sometimes they text.
It is that summer, in the figurative twilight of puberty and the literal twilight of day, that Wendy's obsession with lost causes grows and solidifies to something real. It's storming outside, bad, and there's a knock at her door. She's home alone, one of the first times ever, and she'd been shaking in her bedroom, cursing herself for being so scared. Remembering what her parents told her, she looks out the peephole before answering the door. Her eyes go wide when she sees Kenny; she flings the door open.
"Hey, sorry." He's breathing heavily, as if he'd been running, and is soaking wet. Wendy grabs him by his shirt and pulls him inside—he is light and easy to move, all skin and bones that slide against each other. She shuts the door and lets Kenny stand there, panting and dripping.
"What happened?" she yells, too loud. A million things are running through her mind—her parents will kill her, Kenny needs clean clothes and a blanket, maybe a warm shower, he's ruining the carpet—
"Just—something," Kenny says. She notices she has a black eye. "I got in a fight with my parents," he continues, when he sees her gaping at him.
"A fight with your parents left you with this?" She wants to touch his black eye and move his hair off his forehead, but she can't—no, fuck that, she does, holding his hair from his forehead and peering at the developing bruise. "Kenny, oh, Kenny—"
"I just need a place," he pants out.
She gets him clean clothes, lending him a baggy t-shirt she sleeps in and a pair of pants that her cousin, who'd been here a week ago, had left behind when they'd gone swimming at Stark's Pond. She offers Kenny a shower and he denies, so she gets him a towel for his hair. She offers him some ice for his eyes and he denies that too, so she sits beside him on the couch, taking one of his hands in hers. They are quiet together—Wendy thinks they might even be content—until the power cuts out, sending them into a darkness so deep they cannot see each other.
"Of course," Kenny groans.
"It's okay." Wendy is already getting up, though she is hesitant to let go of Kenny's hand. She chews her lip and thinks for a moment. "Look—I'm scared of storms, okay? It's lame, I know, but there are candles upstairs and we can get them and bring them down here but I can only go if you come with me. Because I'm scared of storms."
"Wendy," Kenny says, and Wendy thinks it may be the first time she's heard him say her name, which makes something inside her flutter, "it's okay, Jesus. Everybody's afraid of something. Let's go get those candles."
Her house feels unfamiliar in the dark and on the way to the stairs, Wendy leads herself and Kenny into a myriad of furniture. By groping around she finally finds the railing and grabs onto it, tugging Kenny along. Climbing stairs you can't see proves to be difficult, but for some reason Kenny is good at it, and he ends up leading Wendy up her own stairs in her own home. The little closet where they keep the emergency supplies, including candles, is just to the left, and Wendy opens the door and finds an electric lamp to turn on and help her look for the candles.
"This is kind of a weird question, but." Wendy, rifling through the shelves to find the candles and matches, turns around to see Kenny holding an old blanket in his hands. He looks malnourished and wounded in the light from the lamp, the shadows on his face more severe. "Can I have this?" He holds the blanket up.
"Yeah," Wendy says. She turns around, flushing, and finds the candles. "We don't use that one anymore. It's for guests."
Candles and matches in tow, they make their way back downstairs. Between their respective bounties they still find a way to hold hands; Wendy thinks it's a bit silly, especially since she could've just lit a candle, but Kenny's hand is warm and dry against her own. Wendy lights the candles and spreads them across the coffee table so they can sit on the couch, well-lit, and Kenny throws the blanket over them both.
"Let's tell ghost stories," Wendy says, on impulse. Kenny raises his eyebrows.
"I thought you were scared?"
"Of storms. Not ghosts. Those aren't real."
Kenny shakes his head.
"You think ghosts are real?" Now it's her turn to raise her eyebrows.
"I know ghosts are real," Kenny says. There's a heaviness to his tone that Wendy doesn't like.
"Prove it," she says, prodding him in the shoulder.
"Alright." Kenny leans back on the couch and Wendy follows his movements; they're laying at opposite ends, meeting each other in the middle, under the blankets. "I've seen a lot of them."
"That's not proof." Wendy nudges him with her foot. "Tell me a ghost story and maybe I'll believe you."
"Are you sure you want to know?"
"Okay, fine." Kenny closes his eyes. He has long, fine eyelashes, and Wendy stares at his face while he can't see her looking. "A few years ago, I was with Stan, Kyle and Cartman—see, you can ask them—and we were messing around in the forest. Cartman wanted to start a fire and this Native American chief ghost, like, emerged from some mist and told us not to. Do you believe me?"
Wendy considers it. She doesn't, not really, but Kenny's eyes are still closed and he looks so sad again. It occurs to her that he might just look sad all the time, be a sad person, and so she sits up and tugs on his arms. He rises, too, and she hugs him tightly. He smells like the storm.
"Wendy?" he asks, pulling away from her. Wendy is looking at his lips, thinking that this might be it, and—
The lights come back on. Wendy jumps and Kenny laughs, pulling her towards him again. They hold each other and listen to the hum and buzz of electronics coming back to life as the storm lessens outside. Wendy doesn't know when her parents are coming home, but she doesn't think they'll mind Kenny being here. She is too young for them to worry about sex, not even interested in it herself yet. All she's interested in at the moment is holding Kenny close and patting his hair, fluffed up from the towel drying earlier.
Kenny ends up spending the night that night, and the night after that, and the one after that. Wendy's parents talk about filing some sort of report, but Kenny insists that it won't work, the police don't care. Still, they feed him dinner and let him sleep in the guest room underneath the blanket that is now his. He and Wendy watch television in the mornings and the evenings, run around town during the days, not meeting up with their friends. Sometimes Wendy thinks Kenny looks happy, even.
But good things must come to an end and so on the fourth night Kenny departs. The black eye is faded to the point that you wouldn't look at it unless you knew to, Kenny has been fed and watered and loved like a foster dog, and it is time to send him home. He refuses to let her accompany him; Wendy frets about it, picking at the skin around her nails. He leaves the blanket behind and Wendy sleeps with it, pretending she can feel his warmth and smell his scent when she wraps herself in the soft, well-used fabric. The next time she sees him is a week later, when she's sitting at the cheap plastic tables outside the ice cream parlor with Bebe, slurping out the rest of her strawberry ice cream from the cone. Kenny is with Stan, walking into the ice cream parlor, and as per usual, they don't acknowledge each other.
Come seventh grade Wendy has classes with Kenny once again, but they're all in mixed company. It drives her crazy for about a week until she realizes that social mores that have been set in stone since literal infancy don't have to remain that way and she trades seats with Esther so that she may sit behind Kenny in her third period class. She puts her feet in the basket underneath his chair and shivers a little, feeling connected to him.
"Hey," Kenny says. He's turned around in his seat, talking to Kyle, leaning his weight on the side of the desk. Wendy knows he's talking to her, can hear it in the tone of his voice.
"Hey," she says.
"What are you doing here?" this is Kyle. Kenny gives him a look and Kyle scowls. "I mean, hey."
So during seventh grade, Wendy makes the conscious decision that Kenny is her friend and she doesn't care who cares about that. She is met with less judgment than she expected; besides Kyle's initial reaction, there is little to none attention paid to them at all. It was her that had kept him a secret, thinking of what they had as something sacred, thinking back to that feeling she feels only for Kenny. She is surprised to find out this does not diminish in the least when other people know about it—instead she invites him home after school, forces him to eat a home cooked meal and do his homework on the couch, then afterwards they play strategy board games or put together puzzles, which Wendy thinks are constructive activities. After a while the time they spend together does not need to be as consciously spent together and Wendy is content to lay on one end of the couch with a book while Kenny lays on the other with a remote in his hand, the television turned down so that it does not infringe upon her reading.
"Is he, like, your boyfriend?" Bebe asks one day at lunch—Wendy and Kenny do not spend lunch together—while Wendy is looking at Kenny's table, watching him eat the sandwich she'd made for him that morning.
"What? No." Wendy turns back to Bebe, glares at her.
"Do you want him to be?" Bebe raises her eyebrows.
Wendy is quiet, which is answer enough to Bebe, whose eyebrows raise only further. Wendy sighs. "It's not that. He's special."
"Special like you want to fuck him," Bebe says. Wendy glares at her again.
It's not—that, she thinks. She recognizes that Kenny is attractive, though it's kind of hidden behind the gauntness of his face and the general raggedness of his clothes. It's that he's literally too special, something she can't define nor quantify, something she doesn't want to spoil. They are physically affectionate, hugging and holding hands like they've always done, and sometimes Wendy wants to kiss him, but when she thinks about she feels a crushing pain in her chest. A mixture of love, admiration, responsibility. She is only thirteen; she does not know how to handle these things, not yet. All she can do is take him home and feed him soup and sit on the couch with him in a quiet domesticity, worrying every night when he has to leave.
After the black eye, Wendy does not see a mark on Kenny again. She knows she doesn't see all of him, though, and worries about what might be under his clothes. This leads to—thoughts, which make her blush, because even if she struggles with the idea of romantic affection, she tends to think of Kenny as a nonsexual entity. But he's not, and she knows this, because she used to take naps half in his lap and now they've stopped doing that, and sometimes she catches him looking away from her eyes when they talk, downward. But she's guilty of it too, hugging a little too tight to feel the ridges of his back beneath her hands, staring at his lips. And the summer between seventh and eighth grade, when Kenny is spending a lot of time at her house again and even staying some nights, tension mounts.
It's eleven o'clock at night and Wendy's parents have gone to bed. They're downstairs in their pajamas; this is the first time that Wendy has felt that she needs to wear a bra beneath her pajama top, aware of her breasts around Kenny in a way that makes her feel awkward. They're kneeling on the floor in front of the coffee table and putting together a puzzle, a thousand pieces and in the shape of a hot air balloon, and their hands brush as they hunt around for a piece.
Kenny pauses and looks at her. "Hey," he says.
"Hey," she says, back.
And he leans in and presses his lips to her. It's a tentative kiss, holding their lips against one another's, but it sets Wendy on fire. Kenny pulls back first and looks at her. They are both quiet, not knowing what to say, and after a few minutes of just looking at each other they go back to doing the puzzle, shoulders together.
And so kissing because a part of their intimacy, just like the hugs, the hand-holding. Wendy returns to taking naps in Kenny's lap, his arm held around her tight. They are careful around her parents, afraid for them to find out and ban Kenny from the house, even if Wendy thinks of what they're doing as innocent. Inevitable, even. One day, they will grow too old and her parents too suspicious, but for now they are young and sheepish, all quick stolen pecks and sleeping in separate beds. Besides, she likes the secrecy, like she liked it before—Kenny is hers, her thing that she can hide away from the world and nurture and protect and love and kiss whenever she wants to. It's every girl's dream. At least, she tells Bebe about it, the only one she trusts with this information, and that's what Bebe tells her, swooning about how romantic it all is.
Through eighth grade they get more and more physical, incorporating tongues and hands over-the-clothes, and one day in spring they're making out after school on Wendy's parent's couch when she tugs Kenny's shirt off his chest and her suspicions are confirmed. Right in the middle, right in the concave dip of his solar plexus, is a bruise that's bursting across his chest like an exploding star. She lays her palm flat against and says, "Oh, Kenny, Kenny, Kenny."
Kenny slinks back, though he doesn't put his shirt on again. "Yeah," he says. "It doesn't just stop."
"I know," Wendy says. "I just wish—I wish you didn't—"
Kenny shakes his head. "As soon as I can leave I will. It's just Karen. When they're mad at her, I'm there, and she doesn't have to bear the brunt of it."
Wendy bolts up and hugs him because she doesn't know what else to do, wraps her arms around his fragile body. "This must be so hard for you," she says.
"It's not that bad." Wendy can't fathom how it can't be bad, living like this. All she can do is hug him and offer him her home, her food, herself. "The bruises never stay."
A week later, Kenny is at church for his Confirmation. Wendy has not been raised in religion, but she has an understanding of Catholicism and its practices—Kenny, fourteen, is now an adult member of the church. She went to Stan's Confirmation party earlier that year, gave him twenty-five dollars in cash and ate a piece of cake with a little bit of a cross made out of icing on it, but Kenny isn't having a party. Instead, after church he comes to her house, bearing, of all things, a gift.
"Aren't I supposed to get you a gift?" Wendy asks him as he walks inside. She has, actually—a leather bracelet from a kiosk at the mall that sells earthy jewelry.
Kenny shrugs. "How much do you know about Confirmation?" he asks, sitting on her couch. He's dressed in a slacks and a pressed dress shirt, probably the nicest Wendy has ever seen him dressed, his hair parted and slicked back with gel.
"You're an adult member of the church now." Wendy sits beside him. "And you have a sponsor." Kenny's sponsor was Sharon Marsh; they went to meetings at the church that, as far as Wendy is concerned, just stole time from her.
Kenny nods. "Well, a part of it is that we pick a confirmation saint. It's somebody to pray for us from Heaven. And, uh. I picked Saint Jude."
Wendy raises her eyebrows. She is loath to admit it, but she does not know much about Saint Jude. "Okay?"
"He's the patron saint of lost causes and desperate cases." Kenny flushes and thrusts the little white jewelry box in his hands to Wendy.
Inside the box is a necklace. It's nothing really special, just a pendant on a chain, and Wendy sees that into the pendant is etched an elderly man and the words Saint Jude Thaddeus, Pray For Us. Holding the pendant between her thumb and forefinger, she looks at Kenny. "Thank you, but no offense, why are you giving this to me?"
"I think of you as my patron saint," Kenny says. He's still flushed, and he's tugging at the collar of his shirt; Wendy reaches out a hand to still that, not wanting to see it crumpled. "It's stupid. I know. But you mean a lot to me and you've done a lot for me and, uh." Now he's scratching the back of his neck, looking at anywhere but her, and Wendy's heart is aching.
"It's not stupid. It's beautiful. I love it. I love you, Kenny." It's not the first time they've said I love you to each other, but it is the first time the words have any significant meaning, Kenny is his stiff collar and Wendy with a saint pinched between her fingers and one of her legs drawn up on the couch. Kenny nods, whispers it back to her, and they kiss. After they pull apart, Wendy continues talking. "I got you something, too, but it's silly—"
"I'm sure it's not." Wendy shrugs and gets up from the couch, goes to get the little bag with the bracelet in it from her kitchen.
Kenny loves it, of course, pushing his shirt sleeve up and slipping it over his thin wrist. Wendy turns her back to him and lifts her hair, lets him clasp the necklace around her neck. It's kind of ugly, objectively, and the metal is cold around the back of her neck, but it doesn't matter, not at all. When the necklace is in place Wendy twists back around and takes Kenny into her arms.
Lost causes and desperate cases Wendy knows well. Her heart pangs for them. The homeless; the unloved; the poor in spirit and in body. But this boy beneath her arms is not one, never has been one, no matter what he may think or she may pretend. He is effervescent and ethereal and all the other words Wendy can pull from the pages of the dictionary, paint on his body with her fingertips. Her heart may pang for lost causes and desperate cases, but never as it has panged for him. She is still too young to put words for what surges in her chest whenever she is around him, still standing on the brink of adolescence and whatever it may bring, but as she holds him tight in her arms a May shower starts up outside and they're laughing into each other's mouths. The pain in Wendy's chest does not subside even as Kenny rubs at it.