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yep, that's c'est la vie

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It’s sometime in July and if Ren were a human he’d be just around fifteen.

(He thinks if he were human, he wouldn’t even be human, yeah, he’s too good to walk around with his skin showing like that. He’s too good to have emotionless ears).

The sun’s blinking across the windshield in a way that blinds him at just the right angle. An elbow burns on the open window ledge of the driver side, tongue panting dryly as he weaves the noontime strip of a city he knows not the name. But it doesn’t matter much- the heat is killer, but it’s 1978 and cops only care about what brown men are doing after the sun sets. Or maybe he’s oblivious. Or maybe he just blends in well here where he hears six conversations in Spanish for every one Anglo yelp. Either way, he’s got ten grams of coke in his pocket and a gas tank that needs filling. 

He doesn’t touch the stuff because he isn’t stupid. Getting involved in dealing was one thing, he could lie well enough that he’s twenty and truth poorly enough that he’s experienced, but he’s here to make enough money to live in his car and eat once every few days, not to get hooked on his own product like a flaming idiot would. In high school a halfway acquaintance would share joints with him in the woods far past the school lot, and Ren would stagger home stinking of pot so boldly his mother’s palm could nearly leave a dent in his head. Not that he felt it. That’s right around when life kicked him in the balls hard enough to stop the Höek name, he thinks. Not that he felt it.

His mother liked to have her way, but she’s an archangel when juxtaposed to the ferric heel of his father. Ren smelt like pot and slacked on a few grades, and his mother would tut and scold him that he’d ought to keep his brain in his head, and his father would be the one to smack it right out. Ren listened to Ramones records so loud it’d vibrate his slammed bedroom door, Ren read dirty magazines from the corner store where it was too easy to steal glass bottle Cokes, Ren stopped waking up for church on Sundays and that was just about his father’s breaking point. 

“You’re on the path to Hell,” he’d tell him, “and I won’t watch you do it.”

He wasn’t one to stand up to his father very often, not in a heroic fashion of any sort at least; sometimes he’d hear his name called down the hall and ignore it, and that’d be enough to send a thrill through his curled toes. Sometimes he’d be left home alone and fantasize his pillows wet about cutting up his father’s clergy robes, or pissing on his blankets, or taking a lighter to his Bible, or or or- but he’d be too frozen to act on anything, eleven or thirteen there on his bed. The trembling would start in his fingertips once the daydream got to the part where his father came home to whatever disaster he’d made, and even in fantasies he could feel the sting of a hand across his cheek.

Ren bites his lip in real time. Too quickly, he relaxes again, focuses primely on the road ahead, licks all around his cracking mouth and wonders what time it actually is outside the busted dashboard clock that always lies eight:thirty-four. It’d better be no later than when he’d promised this delivery by. Better for him, at the least- there’s no saint in the sky that would like to protect him from the ire of an impatient junkie, no sir, he wouldn’t like that. He doesn’t like to keep customers waiting for the same reason he hadn’t ignored the second call of his name in the hall, hadn’t stuffed fistfuls of shit in the tall black boots by the kitchen door. 

It isn’t until he’s some months closer to sixteen that he realizes that manifestation of fear had been fruitless.

He’s the boss on these streets. People come crawling to his car and knock on his window with their yellowed fingernails and bleeding cuticles, and their fate rests in his hands as he decides whether or not to sell them a bag. Most always, it’s yes, because he isn’t scared of the crackheads that lust after his supply like bad movie zombies, just of the handguns they probably have stuck in their pants band. 

By the time he’s seventeen, he’s got enough money to buy a scratch ticket every Friday, but not enough to fix the shattered half of his windshield left by the iron pipe of a fuckhead trying to get at the stock in his glovebox. Call him middle class. He’s seventeen and getting by, finally of age for a real driver’s license yet still relying on the luck that’s kept him from getting pulled over the past two years. He’s seventeen, getting by, and breathlessly high on cocaine so often that the major pains of life don’t even have the chance to touch him.

(He still isn’t stupid, but he’s transferred himself to a different level of not stupid, being so that he’s deigned whoever goes through life without blow up their nose the true morons in the race).

Somewhere between eight:thirty-four AM and PM, he staggers from the driver side and slams the door behind him, feels the sunlight searing pleasantly his grease slicked fur as he steps along to the payphone stuck into the sidewalk. He knows it’s Sunday after having passed a church parking lot spilling cars out onto the curb. Maybe it’s even Easter. That’d be nice. Nobody glazes a ham like his mother.

Nobody shrills him deaf like his mother, either, once he throws a quarter into the phone and dials the house number. “Yeah, uh-huh,” he intones amid her peppering chatter. “Yap. It’s been a little while, sure, but I’m doing alright. Getting by just fine. Not hard at all, nope, I’m a real machine out here.”

A finger taps on the metal side of the payphone box. For the first time he notices the hairline crack up his pointer nail, and his lip sneers in disgust, though with a shake his ears fill with noise that he can again decipher. “Uhh, uh-huh. Two years isn’t that long, Ma, don’t worry about m- I’m fine, okay, I’m fine! Nothing’s wrong, I’m living the high life here. Listen, ah, I’m still on your health insurance, aren’t I?”

“Your father didn’t really mean he wanted you to leave, baby, it- it was just an empty threat. Please, at least tell me where you’ve been! Do you have a phone number? Address?”

“Uh, sure, it’s,” a bloodshot glance darts around as he adlibs, “15 Streetplace Avenue. Listen, Mom, insurance? Health insurance?”

“What is it, you’re hurt? Is something wrong? Come home, we’ll take care of it right away.”

“Am I on the insurance or NOT?!” rips more viciously out than intended, breathing hot strokes that ache his ribcage. The line is silent until his mother answers yes, and that’s the same second he offers his goodbyes, his love yous, got to go’s, tosses the phone back on the receiver, and steps into traffic at the next sound of a passing car.

The nurse in the ER tries to give him hell about the results of his urine test, and he snaps back that his goddamn leg is fractured, she’d ought to go be a cunt somewhere else. He watches her as she follows orders. Fattest ass on a poodle he’s ever seen. Just his type. But it’s something of a boner killer when the doctor replaces her in his little chromatic room, six feet of man and hair and tiny spectacles he adjusts as he glances over the charts in his hands.

“How are you feeling, Mr. Hoke?”

His teeth just about tear right through his bottom lip. A lower lid twitches.

“I’ve been better,” says his sweetest voice conjurable. “I’m just in some...pain.”

Driving with a cast up to the knee is much easier with the rattle of thirty oxycodone in his pocket, Ren finds out that same afternoon.

It’s another two or ten months before he talks to anyone he’s not buying from or selling to. He notices he turns eighteen the same way one might find an extra dollar in their wallet. Hey, that’s cool, I can buy cigarettes now. But it doesn’t change his life, not the way his next visit to the payphone does. 

“He really wants this for you," his mother repeats, fuzzy and shrill on the other end of the call. “Whatever is keeping you from coming home, if you’re smoking pot or you’re a transvestite, it doesn’t matter! Your father, he’s willing to accept you back and get you on your feet. He wants to put you through college, Ren, wouldn’t that be just wonderful?”

“Why, so he can use it as leverage next time I fuck up?” Ren asks, not at all angry in the voice or manner, simply standing with the dirty payphone between his cheek and shoulder as he examines his fanning fingernails. More cracks than last time. Looking a little yellow. What a goddamn degenerate he’s becoming.

“Not at all, mijo, please,” she moans, and he can just picture the anguish in her eyes as she stands barefoot in the kitchen barking into the landline. He wonders if she still wears lipstick. “Please, he wants to fix things. He wants our family back together, you’re the one thing missing from my life- our lives. Please, Ren, honey, won’t you even consider it?”

Gripping coldly the phone, he runs his other hand over his mouth in a slow, drag, down. Sharp incisors bare in a cringe. Ren glances at the smoky evening horizon. He’d only called to ask if they still had dental before deciding to bash his teeth in. Silver fillings are a goldmine. But then she’d sprung on him this way. Who’s he to spit in the face of the woman that raised him? Not Ren Höek, no, the shaking of his hands tells him that much. Or maybe that’s just the tweaking. 

The same car that freed him from this gravelly driveway is the same one that brings him right back to it. The same car his father passed down to him on his fifteenth birthday, and the same one he’s slept in the ripped up seats of the past three years (and in his great defense, it wasn’t so pleasant a sight when he’d gotten it, it’d come with half the scuffs and cigarette burns from being his father’s whip before he’d found God- yes, the cracks in the windshield and the dozen hit-and-run dents are his doing, but he’s got a lot on his plate, okay, and-). 

Everything floods back to him the moment his feet hit the front hallway tile. And so briefly they do, for he finds himself bundled up right into the air in his mother’s grasp, eyes and tongue bulging with how tightly she squeezes him as she bawls into her baby’s shoulder. There’s a hundred lipstick marks on his face when he’s able to stand on his own again. Yes. Yes, he’s home.

Of course his mother comments on how dark the bags are under his eyes, comments on the chip in his tooth, how thin and cracked his fingernails are, how much of his ribs she can see- but she’s just being a mother, and when his father comes through the front door after serving mass this afternoon, he’s just being a father, too. A shit father. But Ren looks enough like him to be certain he’d shot it into his mother and created him. And that’s the definition of a father. So he’s a father. 

“I’m glad you accepted my offer,” he says once they’re facing each other in the kitchen (the kitchen, because his mother hugged him tight enough to feel bone and decided to start stuffing his stomach promptly), and Ren could just puke at the way he says my offer, my this and my that as if Ren agreed to this to appease anyone but his goddamn self. And his mommy. But that doesn’t bother him nearly as much as the way his father thinks he can just walk right up and talk to him this way, can reach out a hand and make Ren flinch the way he does as it cups him on the shoulder. “I want to make sure my boy has a good life. I still love you, you know that, do you?”

Oh, how sick a thing to say. Ren’s senses return to him quick enough to shimmy himself away. “Sure,” he brushes off, curls closer to his mother out of either instinct or logic. “I was doing fine, though.”

That makes his father smile, so he knows he’s misspoken. “Asking for help is more difficult the more we need it.”

“I didn’t ask for help,” Ren hisses, surly. “I didn’t need any help. I was living- I was living in my own place, had a steady job, met lots of women. Yeah.” He nods, gazing into space where the fantasy lives. Shaking quick, he eyes his father again, clocking the emotion that hides behind his whiskered snout. “I only came back because Mom needs a man at home.”

“Of course,” his father says, smirks the slightest fraction, and all at once Ren has never felt such raw rage in his short and dirty life. “If you’re interested, my offer wasn’t a joke. I want you to finish school. I have connections at Harvard, you know.”

Ren could just about let gravity buy him. He trusts it about as much as a cat trusts the faucet. But it doesn’t matter much to him, Harvard, Stanford, whatever, any old place will do. He can stomp his muddy shoes right on top of his father’s head- and on his dime, at that. He’ll be a neurosurgeon, or a biochemist, or a post office employee! He’ll cure the plague, he’ll rewrite history. Ren Höek will be the name on every first grader’s homework that asks for a role model. What desire fills his lungs.

So he stays. He’s eighteen in skin and stagnant ears, yet fits back into his old bed like he’d never left it. Sometimes it’s his own personal hell to live with a taloned Reverend and a mother that steals his blankets off him for the laundry before sunrise. Other times, it’s great. Like Easter. Ham.

Though, despite every drip of goodness he can wring out of his life now, there’s always that shadow crawling beneath his door, always those eyes that rake into his flesh whenever he should turn. His father had so graciously invited him to opportunity, and so graciously, he meant it. Enforced it. The first morning he crawled from his bed again (a bed, a bed, a bed that isn’t for a quickie in a motel or a pullout futon he’s crashing on for the night, oh, what a thing it is), a thick stack of papers drops into his hands. Ren blinks his crusted eyes. The top of the stack is a booklet for a night school program in the next city over. Printouts sit beneath it, stapled. Addiction and You. Conquering the Crave. Recovery Begins with You. 

“Hey, what’s all this?” he snaps at his father, the tall figure standing with implicit posture at the kitchen counter. Coffee percolates quietly before him. “I’m not on drugs. Is that what you think I’ve been up to all this time?”

A mug is pulled delicately from the cupboard, and the door shuts softly after it. “Son, I’m going to be frank with you,” his father murmurs without facing him. “I can smell rock from a mile away.”

Scrawny and limp, Ren stands with a look of guilted awe across his face. Swiftly does it burn to vexation, and he’s wringing the pamphlets in both hands, turning on a heel before his mouth can get him thrown to the curb again.

“You remind me too much of myself at that age,” his father says, the hush of coffee pouring into ceramic the undertone.

“Don’t insult me,” Ren bites beneath his breath as he’s parading off, though not hotly enough to miss the Reverend telling him, “Night classes start tomorrow. I expect you to take this as seriously as I am.”

He’s taking it seriously. Everything is always so serious, God forbid he try to relax once in a while without getting taken for a junkie that neeeeds heeelp. Bullshit. Pathetic. He’ll take his father’s money, but he draws the line at his pity. 

Hands on the sink, he looks at the mirror, upstairs in the locked bathroom that found him his first shave. Ren looks at the mirror. Hardly at himself within it. There’s enough time lately to do that, to study the glass above the sink as if it were an ancient text. He goes upstairs and looks at the mirror after his father hands him a stack of papers that first morning. He goes upstairs and looks at the mirror the next day, too, an hour of free time before he’s being called down to get his ass out the door for his first night of classes, and then he gets home and he goes upstairs and looks at the mirror. Is this what he wants? He was fine- he came here with 211 dollars and a gram of coke, and in a set of weeks he’s got 46 bucks and a different gram of coke, his car’s got gas and he’s eaten his fill of post-class McDonald’s like a starved, gnashing mutt. And then he comes home and he goes upstairs, passes his parents room where both they snore, and he locks the bathroom door behind him and he looks at the mirror. 

He was fine before this. He doesn’t need anyone. He got along well enough sleeping in his car in the summer and at friends’ houses in the twelve degree Decembers. Though friends may just be a substitute for buyers, he realizes as he looks at the mirror, houses there in place of tenements with the wallpaper peeling. But it was something, he was fine. Every week or two, he’d make a few hundred bucks and treat himself to a large rootbeer with dinner, and he’d have dinner those nights, mhmm, and other nights not, but it was okay, he did fine. Dinner is hardly a necessity when he could spend the night smoking back to back Newports and licking the cocaine from his fingernails. 

That was fine. He was fine, wasn’t he? The mirror doesn’t look back at him the way he looks at it. Sometimes he’d have enough money stashed in his glovebox to pay two women for a night, and sometimes he’d fall asleep watching the window of his car that no longer could be cranked up past halfway, and nights like those he’d wake up with an empty glovebox and the motivation to purloin cigarettes and a newspaper from the closest convenience store. But it was always fine, because he knew for every rough night there’d be a good day coming up soon. Those were the ones with the hookers and motel fridge vodka nips. Those were the ones where he didn’t think about the sound of his mother’s voice.

From fifteen to eighteen he lived a fine life, arguably even more fine than the first fifteen that taught him to piss himself at any sign of authority, and from eighteen to twenty something (one? two? Can even he count anymore?) he lives even better than all of it combined. Night school is nothing close to an obstacle. He convinces himself that coke is a treat and cigarettes are much healthier for a young, strapping Chihuahua to wed. Pot on days off. Crack if he’s had a tough enough day. But altogether he’s getting by much farther than he had in his car swerving from city to city to sell drugs for his next meal. When he graduates high school, his father keeps his promise and sends him to university, and he keeps his promise by not fucking it up. He’d never been a bad student. That’s something he might admit and get shot a misanthropic leer. But it’s true, he’d never been bad, even been good sometimes, always smart at tests and failing nary a class but the useless ones. Ren bends to authority like a drinking straw, which counts teachers, professors, tutors, his own father warning him that the first failed class on his college resume would get the funding pulled right out from under his ass. 

So he studies hard. It’s easier without his parents breathing down his neck. His dorm room is quiet and poorly ventilated, his eyes are strained and his back aches, but he studies, he does well, he takes the smoke detectors off his ceiling to light a menthol every so often, and that’s that. 

Then he meets Chuck. 

Ren doesn’t look at him with the desire to make a friend, but it seems to happen anyway, more steeply than the normal, gradual infatuation of a friendship. Chuck pokes him prods him steals his stuff all the way to Ren’s breaking point, and he remembers exactly how he thought Chuck would react to his screaming fit, and it wasn’t at all saying, “Well, gee, you got a mouth on ya. I like that. Let’s go to the dining hall for burgers.”

They’re inseparable afterwards. The second semester of his freshman year, he swaps Chuck’s awkward sheepdog of a roommate for himself. They sleep eat breathe smoke bathe sing belch and rejoice together, very nearly twenty four hours a day, exceeding even more once he’s initiated officially into the wondrous Omega Delta Phi. Chuck teaches him how to sneak booze past the RAs. Chuck teaches him how to loosen up. Relax, for once. Chuck teaches him that Jolt Cola mixed with black coffee tastes as good as a raw tire iron to the teeth, but the buzz lasts long enough to get through four hours of classes and nine of partying. Chuck teaches him lots of useful things.

Coincidentally, purely, it’s around the same time that he fails his first class. And then his second. 

Winter break of his sophomore year is nowhere near a joy. He’d already assigned it a nightmare before even packing to go home, because he’d have to do exactly that, go home. Or whatever they’re calling it now. He doesn’t want to go back to his house because it doesn’t have the luxuries of a sodium rich dining hall, unwashed communal showers, plastic cups of liquor stacked atop his textbooks. But it’s just a month or so, and then he’ll be back, so perk up, man, come on. He’ll get to eat his mother’s Christmas ham. It’s not as good as Easter, but he’ll settle.

He boards the train with the same attitude he hops off of it with, that certain slap of pep on his ass that gets him all riled up to run up the driveway and throw the front door open. 

Hellooo!” calls the vigor of a twenty two year old college sophomore, poking his puppy nose inside in quick back forths. Pulling the hat from his head, one wide clamp of a hand, he shrugs, tugs his bags along behind him as he staggers deeper into the house.

“Hello? Mom? Reverend Höek? Your darling son is ho- Oh.” It’s a quick hush of an exhale, just a little thing, yet it yanks like rope all the vim from his lungs and leaves him staring blankly up at his father’s curled, sinister face. “...Hi.”

The wood of the kitchen chair feels the same on his ass now as it did as a child, but that mirrored feeling in itself is unlike how it felt to sit and eat breakfast, scan over the morning paper. When he’s sitting in the kitchen chair getting a talking to, toes of both feet linked together, gaze downcast, everything feels much harder. Much darker. Like the curtains are made of concrete rather than lace. 

“You did perfectly your first year,” his father snarls, standing ten feet tall in front of him, stark white paper tight in his hand. There’s still trifold marks where it was fit into the envelope. Addressed at the top to one Ren Höek, signed kindly from the Academic Disciplinary department. “Explain to me what happened.”

He knows he’s stupid for not being able to look at his father, but there’s just this weight pushing and pushing on his head, chest, shoulders that keeps him from looking at anything but the kitchen tile. It might have a reflection in it if the sun hadn’t run off. There might be a man to reflect back.

“Tell me,” his father barks into the silence, and Ren can lift himself only enough to press two index fingertips together and say softly back, “Well, you see, sir, I, uh...had some trouble this semester-”

“For what reason?”

Does he swallow first, or is it the lick of the lips? Ren can’t get anything quite right in his head. He knows the deep breath comes now, for without it he’d have no gall to reply, “It’s a...very hard class.”

“Which one? The English you failed, or the chemistry?” In a swing of a hand, a stroke of lightning, Ren flinches so tightly his eyelids may as well bruise, cracks one open again only to find his father has crumpled the letter up into a wad of hatred, shame. “I gave you one instruction when I agreed to put you through college. It wasn’t a difficult instruction. So, tell me why you couldn’t do it. Why did you decide it was alright to disappoint me?”

“I…” Ren’s feet curl tighter. “I didn’t. Sir.”

“So, I’m lying then?” the Reverend mutters. Doesn’t shout. Doesn’t have to once he kneels there on the kitchen floor in his good Sunday slacks, nose just a span away from Ren’s as he speaks. “Am I lying, or did you disappoint me? Which is it?”

The kitchen chair is hard, the kitchen light is low, everything’s tense and strangling him in a way an adult should not know. He’s an adult, can’t he remember that? He’s sitting here taking it like a child. He’s sitting here like a child.

The tectonic plates of his brain brush each other as they pass. In perhaps half a second of itself, Ren decides his life was fine when he was out on his own, and he decides he’s no purebred asthma hound but rather as snarling a wet jawed wolf as his ancestors. 

His chin snaps upward. Their eyes lock there, though Ren’s are trembling, his throat is trembling, every last nerve is a warbling mess begging him not to go on. But he does. Because he isn’t a child. A tongue laps thickly round his mouth.

“If you’re disappointed,” leaves him as does a shaking breath, “then you set your expectations too high. That ain’t my fault.”

His father’s face is stern as it ever plays. A monument, a tribute to tragedy. Ren can see it in his eyes.

Nothing sears the silence like more of it.

“Well, son,” at last breaks it, a final sigh as his father stands up straight again. “I’ve tried my best. But faith can only do so much for those who are unwilling to accept it.” 

“Why not pray for someone who gives a shit, then? Quit wasting your holy magic on a degenerate like me.”

“I will tolerate a lot,” his father begins, a vermillion glint gone round his eye, but Ren cuts him off, “You don’t tolerate anything. You pretend a man in the sky tells you things just to justify you being an asshole.”

“You will not speak of-”

“Oh, I wiiill!” Ren drawls, running downhill now too fast to stop, kicking up the dust of mania as he goes. “I don’t have to stand for your totalitarianism! any longer! I don’t have to listen to you. I don’t have to pretend to believe in God. I stopped believing in God the second you started.”

Like a thread connects them, one that snaps on impact, Ren stands so quickly the chair clatters behind him, and the Reverend Höek strikes his palm so harshly across his son’s cheek it echoes. 

“Get out,” his father spits before he can even recover, doubled over still with a hand rubbing the throbbing red of his cheekbone. Ren swings a crazed gaze up at him, speaking null, hardly breathing, and his father repeats, “Get out of my house,” and points at the front door, emotionless.

Hunched and crazed, tired, tired, tired...boundless, yes, he’s boundless as he scrambles to grab up the bags he’d brought with him. He slides past his father without a glance, not until he’s meters away, stands in the front threshold to call, “Tell Mom I love her,” and whips shut the front door enough to hear its hinges moan.

He can still feel his father’s stare on his back when he’s out in the driveway pitching his things into the backseat. The car door slams, and he does not look to the house as he crawls his way into the driver’s side. The car door slams. The engine ripples alive. 

An elbow finds the seat behind his head just as there sounds a tapping on the window. Instinct makes him jump and glance for it, a squint of confusion replacing what ire had built a home on his face. A hand goes for the window crank.

“Hey, Höek, glad I caught you. Where you off to? Packie?”

Chuck leans close enough to the window to make his neck strain backward. Ren stares at him until he realizes he has no answer at all to give, and instead poses, “What are you doing? You live two cities over, don’t you?”

“I came to see you,” is his quick, honest answer. “I took a detour while switching trains home. I wanted to wish my brother a good Christmas break.” Ren watches his eyes trail for the passenger side. “Care to offer me a ride?”

“Eheh...sure thing, pal,” drawls his lazy voice. “Hop in.”

With truth, he hadn’t known where he was heading, likely back to the parking lots he’d lived in four years ago, likely back to living just fine for a hundred years to come until he smokes himself to death behind his shattered windshield. Yeah. That’s fine. But Chuck’s at least offered him, if nothing more, a destination two cities over, and a conversation that’ll keep him from sticking a pistol in his mouth for at least another hour or so. 

“Couldn’t believe it, I tell ya. He really tried to lay one on me, as if I was gonna let another dude just come on and kiss me like that. Absolute freak of nature. Sucks to lose a friend, but at least now I’m not running around with a pansy boy anymore.” The wind of the road is loud but Chuck is louder. Eyes closed, he sniffs the outside air through the passenger window stuck at half mast. With a great inhale that decides his story has ended, he plucks a cigarette from the pack in his hand, lighting it with a match struck across the dashboard and sucking in the smoke like a true champion. Offering it leftways, he coughs out, “What’re you up to, anyway? What’s got you leaving your house so fast after getting back?”

Ren drives offensively, hunched forward with both hands white on the wheel. He flicks his eye to the smoking Marlboro before reaching for it, tucks it in his lip as he muffles back, “Just needed to get some fresh air.”

He can feel eyes on him, but ultimately they fade back to their own business. The cigarette plucks from his mouth. Chuck sets his feet on the dashboard. Ren clicks the radio on.

“Well, thanks for getting me here,” Chuck says once they’ve finished the drive. The apartment complex behind him seems to tower over everything. Ren can recall a time or two that he’d been hosed for being a little rich boy. Pieces somewhat begin to click. “I owe you one, bud.”

“How about some gas money,” Ren tries. Chuck laughs over him. Ren thinks he’s missed the joke.

“See ya. Let’s hang again before next semester.” Heaving a backpack over one strong arm, Chuck pauses, then hoots another round of chortling. “Or maybe not. You’re an annoying little fucker. Later!”

Ren watches him go. His lips feel close enough to arid to peel right off. 

The chart tracking his emotions burns the tip right off the marker once he reverses from Chuck’s driveway to find the road again. Everything’s fine for about a mile. His knuckles grip the wheel harder. Then harder. Call it rageful. He’s breathing shallow huffs and snorts within another two minutes, searing the fur off his flesh with how deeply burns the wrath in his blood. The tennis match begins again behind his eyes. If he’d only been built to fit the mold, he could’ve had everything. He’d be his father’s little prince, follow all his orders, clean up his own messes, lead the goddamned choir for God’s sake, God. But on the other end, maybe he’s perfect already, yeah, his rear view mirror shows him a perfect prince as he is- his father should be the one who was built better. He should’ve stayed a drunk. He should’ve kept himself out of his son’s business, and just maybe his son would’ve kept out of his. 

The spiral overpass has snot running down his upper lip and eyes too foggy for any other driver’s good. Ren heaves these rich, gorgeous breaths that burn his chest as he sobs all the anger right out of him. A clean flush. Perhaps he’s weeping for what could have been more than what is, or perhaps it’s vice versa, and he’s crying, crying, crying for the sake of himself and the sting in his cheek. Maybe he’s crying because he’d really have liked to be a biochemist, or something.

By the time he’s left the highway and found an unfamiliar city street, the sky is orange, there’s dried snot on his lip, and he’s on his third cigarette. This emotion he might mark down as empty had he the will to. A sort of emptiness that eats him alive. The same sort that simmered in his stomach the first time he’d eyed a handful of pills with just a bit too much consideration for just a bit too long.

The radio transitioned to static around the time he crossed the border into this weird, dingy area. When no longer his ears can stand it, that’s when he’d say he has more emotion than empty, but he’s too damn tired to figure out what to call it. Lit smoke tucked between two fingers that still grip the wheel, he uses his right hand to reach toward the glovebox. There’s a twenty in there, a handful of drive thru napkins, an elderly gift card left with about twenty four cents, and were he luckier there’d be a line or a Percocet left stashed somewhere, anywhere- but instead he’s looking for his cassettes. He darts a glance to where his hand blindly fumbles before looking to the road again, though the first brush of plastic against his fingertips draws his eyes back, on the road, on the tape, on the road. The cigarette smolders idly in his fingers.

With a final grip, he stuffs a Robert Goulet tape in the center console and knuckles the play button. Hands ten and two, relax greets him with an exhale, a lean back, but as abruptly as the first song begins do his eyes loll for the ceiling. “Not this side…” he groans, flitting his attention toward the cassette player.

The evening’s settling darker now, though not too dark to see the car that nearly nicks him at the intersection and lays on the horn thereafter. “Fuck youuu!” he offers out the window with an elbow on his own blaring horn, brings the cig to his mouth to huff a single spec of luminescent orange into the dark, and all the while his fist bangs along the cassette player buttons to get the tape to shut its ugly mouth. Ren only realizes he hasn’t a hand on the wheel when he’s watching the light overhead switch from yellow to red. 

If there’s any skin left on his tires after years of living on the road, it all burns off onto the asphalt with how harshly he slams the break. The cigarette tumbles from his grip and rolls scorch marks all the way to his lap, but he can only yelp for so long about it until he’s choking on an entirely new offense, that of the car behind him slamming headlights first into his rear bumper. 

He collects himself in a handful of blinks. A shuddering breath, and a long finger lifts just enough to hit STOP on the tape player. 

“Are you fucking CRAZY?!” is his greeting call as he steps to the road. The door slams. Ren stomps, bunched up forward to half his height in hot, sulking stalks. The car behind him is a shitty station wagon with wood paneling. He makes it a meter away before it occurs hey, maybe this psychopath is gonna pull a revolver on me, but he doesn’t pause. Maybe on a different day. But today he keeps steadfast so far as standing aside the foreign driver door, chest puffed, molars clenched, until all that gusto seems to deflate at the first sight of that shitty station wagon spilling out its guest.

“Uh-oh,” the stupid fuck assesses, peering at the collision point of their bumpers. “My mom isn’t gonna let me borrow the car anymore after this…”

Fists grip themselves so tautly his crackling nails tremble. Ren can feel the fur on his neck stand up, can feel the rage return to him in one blink of this fat sack of a stranger’s eye. 

“You think that’s bad! You just rammed your stupid car into my goddamned house!” A hand slaps to his own forehead, drags all the way down his snarling face. “How am I supposed to pay for this…”

“Ah!” the stranger intones, stupid tongue sticking from his stupid mouth. He digs into a pocket before thrusting forward a weathered piece of paper and a laminated license. “My insurance information. Go ahead. Take it.”

Ren thins his eyes at the giddy tone of his voice, but thinks staring any longer might make his brain explode in wet chunks all over the sidewalk, and chooses to focus on profferings he snatches like a mad man. Stimpson J. Cat. DOB 02/14/66. SEX F. EYES GRN. NOSE BLU. 

“Of course, leave it to a cat to drive like a blind maniac,” Ren sneers. He thrusts the papers back to the felid in question. Disconsolation stretches o’er his mouth, a long, broad line of panic at the realization that he lacks everything needed to reciprocate. Becoming a licensed driver had been on the list somewhere between night school and college. The list that’s collecting dust underneath a stack of comics somewhere. Ren blinks. Paranoid swings of his head go over both shoulders, beginning to backpedal toward his own vehicle as he says, “You know what, it’s no big deal. No need to get anybody else involved. Let’s just call it even, eh, buddy?”

“But what about your-?”

“Shut up about it, will you?” he snaps, the driver door following suit. He’s had his share of sideswipes, dents, dings, but it’s the first that- in his own words -isn’t his fault, and perhaps the blind rage of that had been what’d thrown him from his car with the intent to beat the offender to a squelching pile. But he’d kept his cool. A real champion. Were he more willing to chance ten years of debt for the probation fines, this could even be his big break. Kick a hole in a headlight, break his neck a little, boom, 40k settlement. He’s salivating at the fantasy as he turns the key in the ignition, and just as the skinniest blondest woman is soaping up the next dollar bill to wash under his arms, the engine coughs and stalls. Ren stares through the windshield. His wrist cracks when he jerks the key again. The engine coughs and stalls. Ren stares. 

On the asphalt of the unfamiliar city street, overgrown doggy toenails clack. Timid. Gradual. And just as timid and gradual does his shadow grow over the windshield of the shitty station wagon behind him. Within the car, Ren can see Stimpson J. Cat fiddling with his rear view mirror, fixing the keys into the ignition before everything pauses, and he’s glancing up at him, blankly, until his shoulder rolls and the driver side window begins to crank down between them.

“Eh...heh...heh…” Ren coughs, ears limply low behind him. His gummy smile presents itself as sweetly as possible. “You know, since you just totalled my car...it would be nice if I could get a ride to the towing station.”

The cat cocks his head. Then, all at once, he’s beaming like he’s just won a seat hosting Friday Night Videos. “Sure! Come on in, I’ve got plenty of space.”

Thereon, Ren fits well into that space. He tests Stimpson in a few quiet ways, the first being that Ren sits down in the passenger seat and ignores his seatbelt and doesn’t hear a word of scolding. It’s idly musty inside the car, not quite the hospitable filth of his own ‘64 Dodge, though the way the headlight hangs off by its wiring and bangs against the front bumper as they drive reminds him enough of home to manage. The second test comes when Ren waves a menthol in the air, the third being its kiss with a lighter, yet all along not a word of it. For a blind maniac, he drives fairly well. Checks his mirrors, shifts gears at the right times, hell, not a single stop sign rolled through. Ren might be impressed if he gave enough of a shit.

“Your name’s, uhh...” he drawls as he sticks the cigarette in his lips. 

“Stimpson J. Cat, at your service,” the driver nods without a flick of an eye off the road.

“Right, I know.” Smoke pours from his mouth. Ren might comment on the parallel of just an hour or so ago. Ren might comment on how white Stimpy’s stupid teeth are. “I’m...Ren Höek. If you care.” Leaning back into a sigh, his long, beautiful fingers that hold the cigarette lay to his forehead, exhausted. “Whatever…”

“Ren Höek. Yes, sir, I won’t forget that name, oh, no, sir.”

“Yeah, uh-uh,” Ren cuffs. Silently, his pupils shift across his eyes, squinting a limp lipped look of scrutiny to his left. “Say it again.”

“Ren! Höek!”

“...Again.”

“Ren! Hö! Ek!” Hands wringing on the wheel, Stimpy scrunches his face up into laughter. “I like this game. Say mine now, do me!”

“Yeah, ah, Simpson Cat, whatever.” Ren takes a drag before offering it to his left. “You smoke?”

“My grandmother said if cigarettes ever cost more than a dollar, she’d quit smoking,” Stimpy says. The right blinker blinks before he goes for the turn. Admirable. 

The cigarette smolders between them. Ren glances from it to Stimpy’s unturning head, shrugs back to his relaxed lean and puffs more for himself. “Sure. Up fifteen cents from last year. Capitalism sure is a moat of horse shit.”

“Horse sheets, how wonderful,” Stimpy smiles. “I always thought hay looked pretty itchy to sleep on.”

Ren cracks an eye open just to scowl at him. “Don’t make fun of me.” 

For the first time, Stimpy lifts a hand off the wheel just to scratch his temple. “Oh. Uh. Okay. Hey! Let’s play the license plate game. Look, West Chicago! Montuna! Organ!”

Ren decides he doesn’t need to talk again until he very much needs to talk again, because he’s never seen a towing station look so much quite like a white suburban home. 

“Hey, man,” Ren gripes, “What the hell’s this? What about my car?”

Engine silenced, Stimpy palms the set of keys and clicks himself from his seatbelt. “This is my house,” he says, smiling brightly for him alone. “I thought you might want to get some rest. And my mommy cooked hog jowls for dinner.”

“Listen, you idiot, I can’t just-” Ren pauses. His nose flares as if mid sniff. “Hog...jowls..?”

Stimpy’s gloved paws flex with excitement. “C’mon,” trills the high pitch of his voice. “Let’s go inside.”

Casa Gato is nothing close to his expectations, because his expectations hadn’t the time to exist. If he takes into account the wood panelled station wagon, and the fat red cat in mulletted fur and a studded jacket, then he can only assume the house should be tacky. His attention magnetizes to the dark mauve drapes over orange wallpaper the second they walk inside. 

“Mommyyy, I’m baaack!” sings Stimpy as he leads them further through the kitchen past a bathroom patterned in florals. Ren could only see so much of his surroundings on the brief pass through every room, but what he’s gathered is enough to know that these strangers don’t have enough money to hang their pictures up straight, and no sense of feng shui either. Through the threshold they find where the sunlight hits the shag carpeting in an ornate living room, the first room Ren sees that might pass for fashionable. The couch is long and cream colored, faded pink roses blooming across its fabric, and the curtains don’t match but they’re at least around the same color palette, similar to a rocking chair juxtaposed between two sunlit windows. There’s a box television set up by the opposite wall. That’s where Ren’s focus flicks to now, taken by the subtle noise of a daytime drama. It sounds nothing like the telenovelas his mother likes, though he can assume it’s equally as low budget. 

Nearly, he’s distracted enough by it to forget he’s in the lair of strangers, but the next one he’s to meet has her own dead stare on the television the same way Ren had until he rips himself away to glance up. Upon that, he notes the glaze over this woman’s eyes as they bulge, squirm, lift in time to the flashing scenes on the screen before them. Ren raises a brow that lowers in the chagrin that finds Stimpy standing beside her, just as mesmerized and drooling at the television screen.

“Um,” Ren attempts to bark. “Hello. Hello.”

“Oh!” Stimpy shakes himself in a frenzy of hands and pointed ears. “Oh yeah. Mom, I want you to meet my new friend, Ren Höek. Can he stay for dinner?”

Friend is a term used loosely,” Ren interjects, scowling as darkly as he deserves. A sudden shift into the spotlight tears it away, though, and he’s standing in his natural scummy hunch forward when Stimpy’s mother looks at him for the first time, but at least he tries a little smile for her. 

In tenfold, she returns it, springs up to her feet and clasps both her hands by one cheek. “Oh, how cute!” she fawns, and he might hate it more if she weren’t so convincingly earnest. She’s no taller than her son but still an inch or three above Ren’s head, full figured in a warm, mother kind of way, nose pink, fur a deep and pleasant red all across her body that the sweet yellow housedress doesn’t cover. Her husband must be the one who passed the ugly down to their kid. Ren winces only slightly when she reaches her hands, which he notes are gloved, out to grasp his face. “My, aren't you handsome! What a wonderful gap in your teeth! Very exotic. I never thought we’d have a Sphynx in our house, it seems so fancy.”

“I, uh,” Ren tries not to sneer, mouth squished by her doting hands. “I’m a Chihuahua, ma’am.”

“Oh, like Chihuahua, Mexico’s eleventh most populous state?”

If Stimpy’s got his looks from his father, everything in his head is a maternal gift. Ren brushes her hands from his face. “Like the dog. I’m a dog, thank you.”

“Oh ho, well then, Mister Dog, I hope you’re hungry.” A wide smile squints her eyes. A glance over showcases the same look on Stimpy’s stupid face.

Ren doesn’t question it. Instead, he follows the train of cats strolling to the kitchen, takes his offered seat at the table (the chairs here are wooden like back home, but each one has its own soft cotton cushion tied on by the back rails, an aged pink, a welcome crutch), takes a hot plate of jowl and buttered potato and candied yams and doesn’t have to wonder much more how either of them got their squishy figures. He’ll be soon to follow if meals of this caliber keep being thrust under his dripping maw.

“Don’t be shy!” she encourages, because she has no idea who she’s talking to yet, yanks the fridge door open and bends to stick her head inside. “Oh, Stimpy, did you remember to pick up the mouseberry juice?”

Fork tongs scrape Ren’s teeth at the speed he wolfs his dinner, and one seat beside him, Stimpy’s not far behind until the question halts him quiet. From the corner of an eye Ren can see the guilty little frown on his mouth as he bleats, “Oh, uh, I forgot it, actually. There was a little accident on the way to the store. That’s how I found Ren.”

“Now tell her how you fucked up both our cars,” Ren says with his mouth stuffed. 

Stimpy clears his throat, gnawing the tip of his thumb. “The… The, um… The…” At once, his silverware clatters, and Ren shoots a crazed look of surprise to the cat with his face slammed forward on the dining table. “I’m sorry, Mommy, I’ll fix it, I promise!”

“My heavens!” Pulled from the fridge, she throws the door shut with a tremble of all its magnets, cups her face and gasps at him, “Are you alright? You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

Peeking his wet eyes up, Stimpy sniffs. Ren can only sit in awe. I knocked your front bumper off to his own parents would equal a month in the fucking infirmary, but this bitch gets asked if he’s okay, gets walked over to and hugged like a writhing trout. Meat tears sharply on his chipped incisors. 

“Eat your dinner, boys,” the lovely mother says, pulling away from her son with a pat on his cheek. She smiles over her shoulder to her house guest. “I have a soap to finish up. They were just about to reveal who got Mary Elizabeth pregnant and killed her pet horse.”

The kitchen door swings with a final flash of her yellow skirt tails. As if he’s found the miracle cure to all woes, Stimpy sits in place beaming, fork lifted to stab a slice of jowl and chew it open mouthed and noisy. Ren pulls a breath in through his nose, because he needs to cover all the oozing envy in a tarp of composure to keep himself from wringing the other at the neck.

“Your mom’s a nice lady,” he comments, mouth full of yam, and he isn’t entirely sure if he truly gives a shit about complimenting them or if he’s just voiced an unfiltered thought. Is he one suddenly to say nice things about people? Only their mothers. Mothers are nice ladies. 

“Mhm, mhm!” Stimpy pulls the fork from his mouth, tongs dripping in spit. “You’re gonna love my grandmother. She’s at Keno tonight.”

“You live with her?”

“Uh-huh! It’s her house.”

“What about a dad?” Ren ventures, brow lifted. “You got a dad?”

“Oh, sure!” Stimpy nods. Stoically, his shoulders shrug up. “He’s dead, though.”

For a silent moment of nonplus, Ren can only stare at him, until his stiff eyes relax and he’s back to stabbing his fork around the plate, cheek in a palm. “Lucky bastard.”

“What about you? What’s your family like?” 

Stimpy asks it so sweetly Ren hardly has the gall to explode over it like his insides scream for him to. With a flare of the nose he calms himself. “Wouldn’t know. I haven’t had any family since they left me in a basket at the fire station.”

Sad! ” moan both Stimpy and his limp, weeping expression. “I’ve never met a real life orphan before. Do you really eat soup out of a big pot like that? And wear those funny gray hats? And sleep on cots?”

Ren, in his usual fashion, frowns in deep etched anger. “I’m not Oliver Twist, you moron. Real life isn’t anything like it is in the movies. I had to do unmentionable things to survive! I eat cream cheese on rocks for breakfast!”

“Say, me too!” Two hands on the table push his seat out. “Let’s go up to my room. I wanna show you my broken paperclip collection.”

Ren follows him because he has no other choice. On their way to the staircase, Stimpy pauses by the living room threshold to call out, “We’re going upstairs, Mom, thanks for cooking!”

“Okay, honey,” she offers back. “Don’t forget to clean up your dish!”

“Oh, yeah.” Elastically, his arms shoots into the kitchen to grab hold of his plate and with hardly a blink smash it to bits over his head. Stimpy sticks his tongue out between his teeth. Ren’s lower lid twitches. 

The upstairs divulges just as much tactlessness as the first floor. Under his feet the carpets feel sticky, unvacuumed. His lip curls, though it isn’t until a step squelches that he’s writhing in disgust to look down and see a sopping hairball between his toes. He bares his teeth the rest of the way down the hall.

“Where’m I supposed to sleep around here?” comes just roughly hours later, years perhaps, after Ren has been shown every broken paperclip, baby tooth, gum wrapper, nose goblin there is to be had, listened to Stimpy floss and gargle for something like forty minutes across the hall. He returns to the darkened bedroom in a set of itchy cotton pajamas, halts his peeling back of the blanket as the question finds him.

“Right here,” he says, patting the bed Ren perches on the end of. Stimpy’s room is hardly furnished save for that and a creaky desk he sticks his boogers under. “There’s plenty of room. It’s a full size.”

Ren blinks, stares at the left side of the bed as Stimpy crawls onto the right. 

Then he shrugs.

Somewhere in the middle of a dirty city, his car is sitting dormant at a redlight with all of his worldly possessions inside. Somewhere else- right here, to be precise -Ren lays on a foreign mattress and only remembers he’s lost everything when he thinks of such a fine luxury as pajamas. A sigh flattens him. He’s on his back, arms folded behind the head, brain chewed up to saltwater taffy, when his gaze flicks to his left. Stimpy poises himself on all fours, hands kneading at the sheets like a coked out bread maker. If Ren shuts his breathing out, he can make out the thinnest vibrations of purring, and that’s about when he sighs himself right to his feet. 

“I gotta use the WC,” he half grumbles, dragging steps all the way to recoiling from the new sensation of hallway light.

“Right across the hall,” Stimpy hums, patting his pillow a dozen times before throwing his head down on it with the weight of a brick. 

Something odd walks the ridge of his spine to be traipsing so aimlessly through a house he does not know, though it is with a shake of his head and throbbing forehead in a palm that he recalls an aimless search cannot have an aim, and he steps inside his with a flick of the lightswitch up and a slow glance around. This bathroom lacks a shower unlike the one they’d passed downstairs. This bathroom lacks, too, once Ren decides he ought to get on with it, everything a washroom should have. Well. There’s a sink. A mirror, too, one that he turns toward after choosing not to partake in the overheaped litter box in the corner where a toilet should sit. 

When he looks at his reflection, that’s just exactly what he looks at- it’s guard catching, he’s certain of that much. To see more than the glass, transcending a layer past the fog stain his breath leaves against it. Ren looks into the mirror, and there’s a handsome purebred trying to catch his eye in there, won’t let him look away, in fact. The dog inside the mirror follows him everywhere. But there’s no way it’s the same one from before. This isn’t the dog who’d watch him after night classes, when he’d tread past his parents and lock the bathroom door behind him. This can’t possibly be the dog in all the public restrooms he wasn’t supposed to be in without buying something first, but he’d been a schmoozer enough at seventeen to convince any Target employee that he’s got ten minutes left of his lunch break and a historical case of the runs, and he’d kick the divider wall whenever the blumpkin in the next stall got too loud, because snorting coke in a department store bathroom is supposed to be a serene activity, jackass. When he looked in those mirrors, he’d see a less distinct form of a dog, a shape, more so, or something bloodsucking, a rat clawing his fists bloodied trying to break the mirror and get at him. He’d wonder what might happen if it ever did get out and come for his throat. Would the blurry mess of pen lines and teeth choke him and shake him and tell him to reunite his heart and head? Then he’d blink, and realize his fingertips are pruned underneath the sink faucet, and then he’d leave and go on with whatever the schedule called for that day.

(In the bathroom mirror upstairs at his parents’ house, he didn’t really see much, maybe sometimes a ketchup smear floating in midair, one he’d wipe off his mouth and lick from the pad of a thumb as he turned to find his weightless body a place in bed for the night).

He lifts his hand and the dog in the mirror does, too, he perks his ears and drops them back and growls with his teeth out and barks and sniffs and crosses his arms and looks away, but even when he does that he can feel the dog is copying him even if he can’t see it. An eye shifts slowly back to try and catch it, but the dog in the mirror is just as smart as him, and their stares meet at just exactly the same, crushing second.

“Get a life,” Ren and the dog in the mirror say to each other in tandem. 

The sun simmers on his eyelids in what feels to him like ten minutes. He peels them open, and he’s across the hall in a stranger’s bed, feels irrational shame to glance over and see the other side vacant. Might as well leave him some cab fare on the goddamn nightstand. Smoke a menthol. Teeth grit, Ren throws the blanket off, rubs his eye with a fist as he saunters out to the stairs.

On the ground floor, the kitchen’s to his left, in there an inebriating smell of grease, and the living room to his right, in there a pounding, jagged noise that makes him wish he were inebriated. But he’s curious enough to poke his nose inside, and for just a moment, watch Stimpy standing there reading sheet music and pumping the slide on a brass trombone. Abruptly the sound cuts out, replaced by, “Ren, you’re awake!” and the clatter of the instrument being thrown blindly over a shoulder. 

Stimpy bounds over to him, asks with hands ebulliently clasped, “Good morning, how’d ya sleep? Want some breakfast?”

Another free meal. Fuck his brains out if he declines. Scratching his lower back, he shrugs, “Sure, whatever,” and follows into the kitchen where the smell of food still rots his mind in tantalization. Yes, a free hot meal and a seat with a cushion, that’s all dandy, same as the way Stimpy’s mother sets the plates in front of them like she did last night, though this time not without a lipgloss mark left between Ren’s eyes. “Good morning, honey! Do you like chicken liver and eggs?”

“Love it, ma’am,” Ren says in a drowsy, heart-soaked voice, smiles in his own ditzy way enough to make her grin right back before moving on to pinch Stimpy’s cheek and deeply coo, “I left the onions out of yours, I know my baby doesn’t eat those nasty wasty vegetableees, oh no he doesnnn’t.”

Already with egg yolk dripping off his lip, Ren’s glare at the asininity of the new knowledge fades into an eyeroll, fades into staring at his plate and stuffing ravenously his face. 

“I love my mommy,” Stimpy says once they’re the only ones at the table. Ren can do null but agree with his whole chest. 

That lasts briefly a moment, their silent pinch of alone time before the pressure releases into a creak of another door. Ren’s focus shifts to it, chewing framerate slowed, eyeing the newest stranger to clack her way into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Grandma!” deafens him in the ear closest to Stimpy’s broad, liver-flecked smile. Ren swallows. Another cat, this woman, rings on every finger that clutch onto a wood cane and a shawl brandished over her hunched back. She’s bespectacled in a way that makes her eyes nonexistent, darkened lenses within a pointed fashion frame, and Ren can’t quite do all the math on her pink fur and rounded blue nose before he balks under the feeling of being scrutinized. His eyes flick to meet hers, only because he’s just about certain she’s blind behind those lenses until she rasps out, “Lonnie. Why is there a mutt at my kitchen table?”

Ren’s cheekbones suck in sharply. He wants to tell the bitch she ought to go back to her monochrome era if 1985 is too advanced for her, but he doesn’t, because he can’t pretend to be a gentleman if she smells his breath. Regardless, it’s Stimpy’s mother who rescues him in her waltz back in, pulls a chair out as the old lady sits in it and sets a third plate of breakfast before her. “Good morning, Mommy,” she says, adds after, “This is Stimpy’s new friend, Mr. Hö-ack.”

“Just Ren,” he swallows, “is fine.”

“It’s gonna rain tonight,” the eldest responds. “Did you put the buckets under the roof?”

“Yes, Grandma,” Stimpy salutes, tongue lolling out. 

“Ass for brains,” his grandmother mumbles, looking down to pick up a fork. Ren thinks he just might like her after all until she continues, “What kind of accent is that? You a Portagee?”

Twisting his mouth, Ren tightens, thunder rolling idly at the base of his throat. “Eh. No, ma’am.” His fork stabs a slab of dripping liver. “I grew up speaking Spanish first.”

“Oo, how do you say my name in Spanish?!” Stimpy asks, to which Ren translates, “Cabrón,” and goes back to his breakfast.

“How was the casino last night, Mom?” Stimpy’s mother steps in to wonder. She’s got a stripe of milk on her upper lip, clutching a mug with a hand painted inscription denoting her werld’s best muther. 

His grandmother scrapes her fork on the plate in a way that makes Ren’s limbs twitch. “Robbed by the Indians again,” she mutters. From inside her shawl, she trades her fork for a pack of Winston Reds that tap on the table. “I thought I told you I wanted coffee.” One long smoke sticks in her mouth and is lit by a silver Zippo. Ren salivates at the smell.

In one corner, Stimpy’s mother pings around the kitchen, loudly banging dishes and cupboard doors until she finds the plug of the coffee maker to stick into the socket. She lights an electric blue in a moment of twitching before everything settles again, whiskers singed black on the ends whilst she sets to filling the carafe with water. Ren’s expression lays precisely somewhere around what the fuck before turning an eye for the old woman across the table. “I like your lighter,” his smalltalk attempts slowly. “I’ve wanted always one of those kind.”

He’s far more prepared for the sneer she throws at him than the lighter itself. His hands fumble to catch it, gaze wild to look it over and to the pack of smokes she slides toward him.

“Go ahead and have one, I saw you gawking.” A cloud puffs from her wrinkled mouth. “Mutt...”

Brow set low, Ren’s mouth hangs in limp vexation, though he does not deny the offer, pinching the end of one cigarette just to snap it before selecting another for himself. 

“I think she likes you,” Stimpy whispers, elbowing his ribs hard enough to warrant the shove back. Ren flicks the top off the lighter and runs the flame along the end of the cig, thrilled. It’s a clean inhale and an exhale that tastes of rust. He coughs his face green, flagging smoke away with a frantic hand.

Behind those dark lenses, he can feel her eyes roll to the ceiling. 

The saving grace yet again is the clatter of a tray to the center of the table. Ren’d finished eating some time ago, and he’s pleasantly satisfied enough to move on with his life, though be he no man to deny the stack of cookies Stimpy’s mother sets in front of her two boys. “Chocolate chip! Eat up!” A coffee mug places before his grandmother. She grunts mildly.

Crumbs brush from his hands sometime later, not long, just enough time to stub out half a smoke and eat thirteen or so cookies. Stimpy asks him something about his day and he replies, “Sure, yeah,” while following him into the living room. Sun falls through the windows and paints parallelograms on the carpet. He eyes a crooked picture on the wall, a faded photograph of a blue nosed kitten inside. “So, uh… What do you do for fun around here?”

He’s still ogling the photos until the silence is enough to turn his head. Along the carpet where the golden sun falls, a rounded lump lays directly in its center of warmth. Stimpy’s curled up enough to make believe he’s no limbs at all. Drool pours from his contented mouth. Ren squints, waves a hand in front of his closed eyes just to test his consciousness. His arms drop defeated to both sides when no response meets it. 

“Well…” His lips pucker forward. “I better be going, then-”

“Wait!” Arms and legs shoot up beneath him, spring him right into the air. Ren steps back in a startle. Stimpy bounds over to him. Shoulders lifted, his eyes seem to grow a dozen wet sizes to stare directly through him. “You can’t leave yet, Ren. We haven’t even got to spend any quality time together.”

“Quality time?” he barks. “I slept underneath you for eleven hours last night, that’s plenty.”

PLEASE, REN!” astonishes him the same as the way Stimpy drops to his knees, explodes in tears, hugs his leg for dear, dear life. “I c-can’t bear to be without you, don’t leave me yet..!”

The shock is easy to overcome. Ren kicks his leg hard enough to launch Stimpy across the floor with a clatter. “I don’t even know you, man, what the hell’s the matter with you?! Do you have some kind of abandonment problem? Well, it’s not my problem. Get off me.”

Stimpy sniffs, kitty lip quivering. He slinks closer. Pathetic in every regard. “The- The truth is...we’ve been in love for years, and you just suffered a horrible accident, causing you to lose all your memories of what we had, and all this time I’ve been trying desperately to get you to remember me!”

Ren stares so hard his eyes pulsate. “What?

“Just kidding. That would be a cool direction for this story to go in, though.” As quickly as the desperation and misery left him for a limp-tongued smile, it all returns again as he drops to the floor and digs his fingers into the shag fibers of the rug. “Oh PLEASE, Ren! Don’t go! I can- I can help you do your taxes. I can polish your glass eye! Shave your tongue! Flense your spleen!”

Though it’s something of an ugly display, Ren feels the heat first at his toes. It snails its way up through every vein until that fire is right in his throat, that flickering wave of...power that courses through his body to watch another grovel at his feet this way. Somewhere inside him, a blackness creeps. Somewhere inside him, his tongue laps over the gap in the teeth. 

“How about we start with getting my car back,” he tries as a first step. 

Stimpy’s on his feet and nodding vigorously at him in a half second flat. “Yes!”

Ren eyes him a mild moment, lids squinted and mouth relaxed as he tempts, “Yes, what?”

And God love Stimpy for being so perfect as to reply, “Yes, sir!” 

Ren’s toes curl pleasantly into the carpet. 

His life is different after he meets Stimpy, but he can’t tell if it changes. It’s different when Stimpy’s mother cooks for him and dotes on him and finishes knitting him a thick blue sweater right at Christmastime, but his own mother had done most of the same. It’s different not to go to bed alone, but he’d never quite felt lonely with the insomnia humming in his head all night. It’s different to have to trek all the way to an outhouse in the dead of winter just to avoid shitting in a box of sand. But. Well. 

Ren may only avoid calling it all change to keep himself sane. He can handle different. Different is okay, a little bit of different never hurt anybody- in fact, it’s unifying, yeah! Different is okay. Cleaning hairball scuz from between his toes every night is okay.

Between arriving the first day of Christmas break (or forever break, he’s come to accept, yeah) and the holiday itself, just about two weeks span, within which he’d never asked or been asked about his stay with the Cats, only welcomed to breakfast each morning and kissed to bed each night. All of which by Stimpy’s mother. Not that Stimpy himself doesn’t try. Ren’s known him less than a week when he’s wrapped up in his first hug, and it’s over something so stupid he doesn’t even remember it, only remembers how fiercely his arms burned to push him off. 

On Christmas Eve he thinks of his mother. He wishes her well and wishes her safe, and would have half a heart to go and visit her if he had the means.

(As it turns out, dead cars left overnight in the middle of the road tend to be brought where dead cars go and dealt with promptly. Ren mourns most the twenty he left in the glovebox). 

On Christmas Eve he thinks, he wishes, and he looks dead ahead to the mantle where four stockings hang, the last in the row embroidered along the top with a stark red REN♡. Something inside him breaks and puts itself back together all in a matter of seconds. 

Life is different after Christmas, too, the ways in which being that he’s now the owner of a thick blue sweater and a hand painted mug denoting him the werld’s best Cheewawah, that he’d stepped on the scale in the downstairs bathroom and very suddenly noticed a new eleven pounds weighing on him (but at least he’s not alone, because he can make fun of the dog in the mirror for getting chubby, too); life is different when he has someone to sit beside who doesn’t push him around for the first time in...ever. Stimpy doesn’t laugh at him for being scrawny or short or mixing up his sentence structure. Stimpy doesn’t slap him around for his failures, find his weak spots and sink his claws in there. Stimpy hardly has the mind enough to make a bowl of oatmeal. Nevermind treat Ren as anything but an equal. Or...a superior, even. That’s something that’s very different about his life with Stimpy. Lately, sometimes, he finds himself feasting on Stimpy’s good heart, blood and valves plastered all over his teeth very practically. He starts small and asks for things like another inch of room in the bed. Then he asks for three. Then he steps on Stimpy’s face after demanding he kneel and beg, which Stimpy does in full effort, and with rugburn on his cheek he’s allowed to sit up again and finally take hold of the TV remote clasped in Ren’s hand the whole time through. 

The first time he hits Stimpy, it doesn’t feel good. But...it isn’t bad, either. But it doesn’t feel good- not in a way as if he’d expected something exhilarating and been let down, no. He hadn’t thought anything of it, hardly conscious at all until the sharp sound of a slap met his ears. They’d been alone at the house, mother out shopping and grandmother back to the slots. Stimpy had already licked his bowl clean before Ren was even halfway through his own cereal. He remembers the feeling of eyes burning the side of his head. He remembers saying, one cheek stuffed with Sugar Frosted Milk, “Back off,” when Stimpy’s hand reached for his spoon. And the second time, “Get your own, man, this is mine!”

The third time, a little stretch of a finger toward his bowl- that’s where his memory fogs, though he pieces the details together by way of recalling the handprint on Stimpy’s cheek and his own palm left raised aside gritting, growling teeth. Ren remembers blinking, and his mouth moving round something like, “I...I’m sorry, Stimpy. Look, I didn’t mean to-” 

But he never quite finished. It’d been something about the lack of expression on Stimpy’s face. The lack of anything behind his glazed eyes. Ren bit at his top lip, bit harder to watch for the fourth time an unperturbed hand attempt a grasp at his spoon. Cereal sloshed harshly in the bowl as he shoved it over to him. “Just take it.” He remembers he hadn’t felt hungry enough to justify any other end.

He thinks it must have been that same night that he’d told Stimpy, “I should be honest with you.”

They’re in bed, or Ren is, lain on his back while Stimpy, mouth fresh as garden mint, pulls the blankets back to climb in beside him. “Huh? What’s that, Ren?”

“I said,” he murmurs, clears his throat and goes on louder, “I said, I wasn’t entirely...truthful. I do have some family.”

“Really?” he mows back, sounding more excited at the revelation than struck by betrayal. He clutches the blanket up to his chin, eyes pointed toward Ren as he stares at the ceiling star stickers, and sighs.

“I have a cousin, Sven,” he begins. It’s the first landmarker only because of how long he’d been rolling his cousin around his mind throughout the afternoon. Ren’s never had anybody look up to him before Stimpy, or treat him better than bad, but Sven was close enough to it. Ren was just enough measly months older than him to push him around- just a bit, just when his father and uncle weren’t around to watch them. Sven and Uncle Eddie would visit from Europe every few summers. Ren only pushed him around as much as any four or five or ten year old could, a few punches to the arm, a soccer ball to the face, a thread connecting a loose tooth and a doorknob. He figured he could do just about anything, and the end of their visit would come and Sven would still cling onto him and sob his goodbyes, how much he’d miss him, ja. No matter what. Ren could admit he’d felt like the powerful one in that relationship. But it still wasn’t anything like Stimpy. Sven’s got to be the smartest person he knows if he’s able to understand simultaneously his natural subordination and unconditional familial love. Anybody who worships Ren like that has got to be a genius. Except for Stimpy. 

“And uh,” he says in real life again. The stars on the ceiling hum a quiet green. Ren swallows. “I do have parents, from a technical standpoint.”

“Wowee!” Stimpy grins. “What are they like? Are they as nice as you? Are they Chi-we-huas, too?”

“How stupid are you?” Ren bites. Stimpy’s tongue pokes through his timidly frowning lips. Again, Ren sighs. “They’re fine. They raised me okay, kept a roof over my ears. I can’t complain much.” Hands rest on his tummy. A deep scowl pulls his mouth further, further. “Except that my father’s too much of an idiot to know a perfect child when he sees one.”

A paw reaches under Stimpy’s head to fluff at his pillow. Head cocked, there’s a twinge of sympathy on his face when he says, “Well, you know, I can be your dad. And you can be mine! Like Siamese twins!”

“Thank you, Stimpy,” he exhales, speaks with his throat closed. “That’s unspeakably horrible. But I...appreciate the sentiment.”

In a single swoop, Stimpy dives nose first into his pillows, throws one arm out that hooks round Ren’s chest. He’s snoring in seconds. Ren breathes shallowly against the weight on him, and wakes even closer to it.

Things are different between when Ren doesn’t know Stimpy and when he does, though likewise, some metamorphosis goes on from the point where they meet and today; Ren likes staying here well enough, sure, he gets babied by Stimpy’s mother, gets verbal smackdowns and Winston Reds from his grandmother, and from Stimpy himself a warmed bed and someone to spend his days with. He doesn’t need money, doesn’t need to pray to nonexistent gods for his next meal, doesn’t need to sleep spooning a baseball bat. Ren has it made here. 

But he decides to leave anyway.

Please,” sounds for what just might be the fourteen hundredth time. Stimpy’s voice is sluggish and raspy, tearstains bleeding beneath tired eyes, dirt caked in his fur from being dragged on Ren’s leg all the way from the bedroom to the kitchen where they’ve made it now. Ren pants with the effort to pull them forward, grunts and strains as the hour ends and he at last reaches the front door downstairs.

“For the last time, I’m outta here!” he insists. His leg shakes just as futile as it had in every prior attempt. Stimpy’s head bobbles around, but his grip only tightens. 

“Please, Ren. I’ll do anything.”

“I told you, there’s nothing you can do to convince me.”

“I’ll let you have Mousey.”

“I don’t want him.”

“I’ll scratch your back.”

“I’m not itchy!”

“Blow job?”

“Do you even know what that is?!”

PLEASE, REN! OH PLEASE, OH PLEASE, OH PLEASE, OH-!”

“That’s it, Stimpy! I’ve had enough of your pathetic begging!” With each new shout he kicks his leg harder, fiercer, harder. “Why! Can’t! You! Ever! Just! Accept! NO!”

In one final swing, his grip relents enough to send him to the wall with a bang. Ren breathes ferally, mouth foaming as his shadow falls further over his prey. One hand yanks Stimpy up by the fur of his chest, one hand slaps back, forth, back, forth across his face until his palm and knuckles sting a swollen red. That’s the second time he hits Stimpy. In the midst of leaving out of the shame that he’d ever done it once. Second, third, forth, tenth, sixteenth. Stimpy’s left eye bruises shut. The right one wells with sorrow.

“I just,” he coughs, still anchored by Ren’s grip on him, “wanna spend time with you, Ren. Please don’t go. You can drag me on your leg from Flo-rih-da to Maine if you want.”

He stares at Stimpy. Just stares. “You really want to give up your cushy coddled lifestyle just to hang around with a guy who slaps you around all the time, and doesn’t even really like you much?”

“Mhm, mhm.” Wetness forms in Stimpy’s enormous baby eyes. 

Ren purses his lips. Roughly, he drops Stimpy onto the floor, frees both his hands to shrug them in the air. “Eh. Whatever. Go pack your shit.”

Joy!” 

Running in place midair, Stimpy scrambles off with a WHOOSH of wind, returns a roundabout second later with a suitcase clutched in one hand. “Goodbye, Ma, goodbye Grandma, I’m moving out! See you on Yaksmas!”

The front door is whipped open, and out into the open world of real adult life they’re vomited up, face first into the pavement of responsibility. Joy.

Despite how little he cares to speak on it, Ren’s known Stimpy something like a month now, and this year’s frozen January is remedied by having a fat warm body to curl up on like a cushion at night. Good thing, too. The first place they live has no heat. Not that dumpsters behind rundown bars tend to.

Most nights, Ren pulls the lid overtop them, drowns out the starlight, bundles himself up tight as possible and forces his eyes to close. It stinks beyond a nose is capable of accepting, and every little tap or skitter shoots his ears up open, sends his heartbeat roaring. Purely it’s coincidence that nights like that follow by a wave of purring lulling him to sleep.

Some mornings they wake to the noise of the cover shifting off, and Ren cups his hand over Stimpy’s mouth to keep him quiet until the garbage bags finish tossing inside. Ren calls those a godsend. He tears into the bags claws first, filters through empty liquor bottles and pretzel scented vomit til he gets his hands on something good- sometimes that’s a stale cracker or handful of peanut shells, sometimes that’s a tin tuna can. There’d been a morning Stimpy shrieked in glee and lifted from one bag a half eaten chicken leg. Ren poured enough drool to hydrate the Mojave. That moment, that very one there, he said for the first time, “You’re a real friend, Stimpy,” when the meat was proffered right over to him with no second thought. 

The second place they live is slightly more glamorous. Slightly meaning it’s got a few windows and less rats, and perhaps the piece de resistance, “A real bed, oh, man.” Ren’s spine cracks audibly as he rolls on his back atop the thin mattress. “I’ve sure missed this.”

Stimpy turns from peering out the bedroom window with a typical goofy grin on his face. “It’s pretty lucky that this landlord knows your Uncle Emilio, isn’t it, Ren?” 

“Yep,” he nods, eyes closed, grinning proudly. “As long as he doesn’t find out I don’t have an Uncle Emilio, we’ll be living the high life here.”

“Goody.”

“We just have to make sure we can afford it.” Starkly he sits up. “Four hundred dollars a month doesn’t sound like much, but it’ll come at you fast. I’m gonna have to start dealing again. And you have to get a job, too.”

“Oh, boy!” Stimpy shouts, but his smile drops. “Ehm. What’s a job, Ren?”

Ren can only gawk at him before wiping a hand from forehead to chin. “You make me fucking crazy, you know that?”

“Of course I do,” Stimpy nods. “Can we have dinner?”

Ren leans an elbow to his thigh and pinches between his eyes. “Go order a pizza.”

Somewhere between the third and fourth places they live (because it’d only taken six weeks of being late on rent for the landlord to ask Emilio about his nephew’s reliability), Ren takes the role of a guard dog. He hadn’t considered himself a purse pooch or companion hound, more so just a Chihuahua who lives and breathes and shits like any other. But he’s a guard dog now, either by instinct or morals; an eye will flick open at the first sound of branches knocking the window. At their fifth apartment, Ren decides he really isn’t going to get rid of Stimpy any time soon, so he figures it’s safe to make a real attempt at settling down here. This’ll be the place. This is it. He doesn’t change his address at the post office, but he does find a job in walking distance, a round the block restaurant that needed a bus boy that could fit into an extra small apron. Tío Mateo pays him under the table and lets him take home leftovers. It’s practically a dream. They can even afford basic cable. Stimpy very nearly vomits on himself in excitement.

Ren’s a guard dog in their fifth apartment, a little second floor one bedroom, one bath. After twenty odd years of sleeping one full night out of the week if he’s so lucky, Ren decides the graveyard shift falls right around his most productive hours. He drags himself home after midnight one evening, closer to one, a pinky nail picking rice from his teeth and bloodshot eyes dead ahead. Were he anyone else, he might be pissing his pants, but enough years sleeping in parking lots tends to rid one of the fear of the dark. There’s no sun but he can see well enough to notice the cellophane glinting in the streetlights ten steps ahead of him- just maybe he jogs to pick it up, flip the pack of cigarettes open only to find it empty. Punctual, it tosses back over a shoulder, and he keeps on walking. 

When he gets home, the key sticks noisily in the lock, fiddling with it and cursing under his breath until the door kicks open and he finds his home quiet and still. His home. Almost feels good to think, might think it even more if his brain weren’t simmering in the oil of naturally unattainable exhaustion. In bed, Stimpy’s curled up drooling toward the wall. Ren throws his apron on the floor for him to fold up in the morning, and stretches his aching self across his side of the mattress with a long, detested sigh.

Working sixty hours a week makes ends meet and makes him sleep, for the first time in his life, get right home and fall into bed and pass out without an argument. The alarm’s set for five of four the next afternoon, just to be safe, but his eyes blink open on their own just around noon:thirty. Ren stretches. His bones sing. He pushes open the bedroom door to the smell of coffee and...a deep inhale, ah huh, ah huh- cat dander, cinches the string of his robe twice as fast as he ambles out into the living room. Stimpy sits so close to the television screen that static toys with his fur. Ren says something like, “Good morning, dumbass,” on his stroll past. 

Yawning, he picks up the newspaper off the kitchen table. He’s not quite confident enough yet to order a subscription, but Stimpy serves as a competent paperboy to wake up before the sun and run along to find a house that does and bring it back. He stares at the front. Monochrome print stares back. The letters certainly are trying their best to tell him something, but his eyes are burning and his mouth follows suit when he brings the mug of coffee in his hand to his lips. The paper tucks under his arm. He turns for the living room again, face unshaven, eyes weighted with dark circles, spine cricked. 

“Who can skip through the mud with the greatest of ease?” the television asks. “What kind of wonderful guy?”

Ren sits on the couch with a thud of dust. Stimpy’s just finished collecting all the dirt from the rug into his hair from rolling across the floor, and he sits up, clutches his toes, attention clinging to the screen like a stray gone after field rabbits. Ren doesn’t quite watch the screen, but he’s looking toward it, through it, perhaps, face in a hand, coffee leaving a ring on the side table. It’s something like the tenth or twelfth of the month, but he’s certain it’s a Thursday because the special yesterday was Wednesday’s usual mofongo. He’s picking day old plantain scum from under his fingernails when his ears lift up at the sound of the doorbell.

“Who the hell is that?” His upper lip quavers with a growl as he springs to his feet. He tramps all the way to the front door, fur raised on the back of the neck, tugs the doorknob with a sharp flourish to reveal the plain air standing on the front step. Ren blinks. All relaxes, swinging his head outside til it cocks in confusion. Shrill snickering turns his gaze over a shoulder.

“That was on the TV, Ren,” Stimpy says. 

He squints at the screen, watching Muddy Mudskipper mudskip all the way to answering his own cartoon door. 

“Oh, uh, that’s right,” he breathes. “We don’t have a doorbell…”

“It’s good to have such an attentive guard dog around the house,” Stimpy smiles, leaning back into his show.

Ren blinks. The latch shuts with a clatter. He hides the heat of his face behind a noisy flick open of the illegible Thursday newspaper. 

They’re halfway through 1987 before he realizes he’s known Stimpy longer than any other friend in his lifetime. It’s the same year Ren convinces him to clip his stupid ugly mullet off, and the same year Ren’s convinced to stop dressing like Jim Morrison. 

In 1987, Ren walks to work and bumps his nose into a sign taped onto the glass front door of which he needs only to read a bolded CONDEMNED before turning right around and getting back in bed.

“Oh, Ren, you’re home early.” The bedroom door creaking open had been enough for Ren to tug the covers over his head. Through them, he hears Stimpy’s voice thrum out, “How was work? Did you have a good day?”

“Shut up,” he mutters back. “...Make me some tea.”

Stimpy, unlike any man with a living brain cell, does not hesitate to ask, “Black or green?”

“Black. No-”

“No sugar and a splash of skim,” Stimpy finishes, smiling so deep it etches into his voice.

Ren’s nose wrinkles. Light floods his face when he bolts upright, blankets bunched at the waist. A finger stabs toward the other. “Hey, when did you start memorizing how I take my drinks?”

Stimpy tilts his head like he’s thinking, even knowing he’s no capacity. “Well,” he starts, “any good best friend should know how to make his best friend’s tea.”

“And just when did we become best friends?” he replies in a mocking tone, hands on his hips.

Gloves clasped together, Stimpy’s starry eyes point toward the heavens. “Why, the very moment we met. It was love at first sight.”

An uncomfortable twinge scurries up his scruff. “More like wreck my car at first sight,” he brushes it off to sneer. “Go make my tea.”

If it’s perturbing to feel the brand of adoration burn his skin so, the next morning slaps him twice as sick. Ren wakes up with a headache behind his eyes. Before they open, his hand is groping blindly the nightstand, hears the clatter of the alarm clock hitting the ground, a bottle knock on its side, finally grasps the half smoked joint from last night and a lighter in one swoop. He doesn’t sit up to stick it in his mouth, flat to his back and arms heavy to either side when one lifts to light its singed end. The ceiling fan mumbles idly above. He inhales slow, exhales slow, fits the joint between two fingers on the hand that falls back to the side of the bed. 

“Ren? Are you up?”

His chest fills with a breath. He props the joint in his mouth and is still lighting it up again behind a cupped hand when he muffles out the, “Uh-huh,” that draws Stimpy into their bedroom. 

A clothed cart pushes ahead of him. Ren eyes him strange. “Good. I’ve been waiting for you all morning. I could hardly contain my excitement.”

His tongue pokes through his teeth, lids squinting purple with glee. Ren drags off the joint again. “Well, contain it.” Sitting up with a creak of sinew, he points toward the rounded silver tray on the cart. “What’s all this about? You didn’t buy something stupid from a door to door salesman again, did you?”

“Nope, not this time,” Stimpy says, hands clasped by a hip. They move with a flourish that whisks the lid off the tray and presents to him with fingers splayed a round cake of pink and chiffon, candles already miraculously lit. “Happy! Birthday! RRRen.”

Ren at first can only blink, but then he’s a fluid mess of hands clasping themselves beneath his chin, a wide smile warbling onto his mouth and a dozen little flames dancing in the reflection of his eyes. “It’s…it’s my birthday?”

“Of course! It is Tuesday the seventeenth afterall.” From behind his back, Stimpy reveals a box wrapped crudely in pilfered newspaper. 

“For me?” Ren beams.

“For you,” Stimpy nods back, smile practically bursting his face as he hands the gift over.

Claws tear through the wrapping the second they can grasp it. Ren grins, full tongue and teeth and lips curled to the eyes, until he can throw the box open and lay sight on its contents. His expression dies. A tentative grip pulls out a gray, wiry pendant that drips through his fingers. 

“It’s a necklace!” Stimpy explains giddily. “I made it myself.”

“Out of..?”

“Out of nature’s steel wool: cat hairballs!” His teeth gleam proudly in the light. “And don’t you fret, there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Ren picks his lips up from their limp droop. “Eh...thanks, pal.” The clasp loops around his neck, pendant molded to spell out BEST FRIEND damp and sticky where it hangs at his chest.

“You mean you really like it?” Stimpy asks, voice on the very edge of implosion. 

Wiping his wet hand on the duvet, Ren cringes within his own forced smile. “Sure. ‘S great.”

It takes all of a millisecond for Stimpy to yelp a shrill, “YIPPEE!” and dive forward into Ren’s arms. The shitty old mattress creaks, and Ren’s jaw unhinges in the instinct to order him off, but he’s silenced by the liquid feeling of lips on his face. 

It’s only ten or twenty kisses across his cheeks, forehead, nose, and one odd curl of his mind sings about nostalgia while the other hundred scream a chorus of black panic. But Ren can listen to none of them. Just to himself. His braindead, static, wide-eyed self. 

“Y-Yeah, yeah,” says the hitch in his throat before he clears it, and at last both hands stretch out to shove him aside. “You’re hindering me. I still have cake to eat.”

“Oh, right!” Arm round his shoulders, Stimpy sits pressed up against his side. His other arm reaches to yank the birthday cake in between them. “Make a wish.”

The ceiling fan whirs. A dozen flames flicker in sweet pink irises. 

Ren shuts his eyes, and in one blow, casts the room into smoldering dark.

In both ears, one after the other, the clock on the bathroom wall ticks eleven hundred seconds whilst he stands in the mirror, undressed, unclean, trying to remember how old he’s turned today. Something like early twenties. Mid? Couldn’t be much more than that. When he recalls his age like a dog should, he’s hardly preschool ready. When he tries to finger just how many moons he’s truly lived, it’s much more thrilling to lift a finger beneath his eye, and drag the skin down far enough to watch his blood vessels pulse. 

Ren doesn’t have much in his life, but he has someone to talk to. Once he gets used to his every word being spoken over, the dog in the mirror makes a fine place to vent all his woes. “I’m not so old,” they tell each other, and it seems at the same time they reach the conclusion, “Stimpy doesn’t care if I get old. He’d still like me no matter what.”

He only realizes he’s touching fingertips all over the memory of heat on his face because the other dog mimics him before his eyes. Ren frowns at him. “It’s not like that.” He glances away. Their eyes meet together. “He’s my friend. I guess.”

Ren watches the dog watch him. “Do I think I ought to pay more attention to myself?” His face pinches up. “What kind of a shtewpid question is that? Don’t be an idiot. Hey, don’t call me an idiot!”

The dog in the mirror is one presumptuous fuck. Ren wonders if his father ever caught him by the wrist and left belt marks on his back for playing in his mother’s makeup, too. He’d ask if he could ever get a word in. Self righteous prick. 

They don’t make it much more than another month in the little apartment on the second floor. Though he’d figured when moving in that it’d be only a matter of time, he’s still huffing and snarling about having to throw all his shit back into boxes when the landlord trades his lack of rent for an eviction note under the door. Like he needed another one of those on his record. 

Stimpy asks where they’re going to go now. Ren tells him to shut his mouth and keep packing.

Only the most valuable valuables survive. Ren is sure to condense his belongings to what can fit in two boxes he loads atop Stimpy’s one, all three lifted into the latter’s arms when they slam the door behind them and never again look back. The couch and bed are replaceable. His collection of romance novellas, chewed celebrity popcorn kernels, and Babe Tooth signed baseball are not. 

When they’re equally breathless at the dingy front counter of the storage unit rental, Ren does the talking.

“Just, uh,” he says, filtering through a roll of ones, “give me a small one.”

“Smallest we have is fifty a month,” says the attendant. More instant than immediate does Ren gag on a scoff.

“Fifty bucks just to throw my shit in a dirty locker! Jeez. For that much, we may as well live in it.”

Widely, his eyes spring open.

Their sixth home is twenty five square feet of must. Shadows fall long and thin behind them when the door raises open, and Ren sticks his nose inside just to recoil at the gray stink that deters Stimpy null. He jaunts in and drops their boxes down in the farthest corner. He’s plunked down in the other when Ren returns from surveying the outside, slamming the shutter closed. 

“Well, buddy,” Ren says, strikes a match on the concrete and holds it up between them. “This ain’t so bad.”

The lick of light flickers quietly in his fingertips. He glances about what he can make of the tiny space, squints, coughs into a fist that ruffles a line of dust on the floor. Ren blinks. Plainly down he crouches to sit and wrap an arm around his bent knees. The match extinguishes under a single, placid sigh.

The next months pass on the last hundred he’d saved from work and only going out when the sunlight isn’t looking. 

There’s an afternoon where Stimpy says, “Do you think we should try and pay on time this month?”, bent over a little cast iron grill with an apron cinched round his waist. Ren’s sitting in a highbacked velvet chair, matching ottoman shoved right up against. The unit is pitch outside the tiny lamp clamped onto his book and the faint flame from within the charcoal. His shadow skitters far up the wall with the laying of his book down to eye Stimpy in caution. “Cook those hot dogs. Don’t worry about our money.”

“I just hope they don’t kick us out…” Stimpy muses, prodding a charred wiener with a wooden handle barbeque fork that’d been collected from the same unlocked neighbor unit as all the rest of their new and lavish furnishings. 

“What did I just say?” Ren barks, snapping his book closed. “The finances are my business, the housework is yours. And I haven’t eaten in two hours, so it doesn’t seem like you’re doing a very good job on your end.”

Stimpy’s rounded cat mouth sags the slightest bit, but he doesn’t protest again, moves simply back to his duties. When they eat together, a lunch that feels something like a midnight dinner from the kick to the dick of their circadian rhythms that is a lightless room every hour, it’s quiet. Ren’s ripping his pointy little crooked milk teeth into bread and meat when his full mouth asks, “What’s up with you today?”

Call it emotional intelligence. Call it grown tired of staring across their cardboard box dining table at such a sullen silent face. 

“I’m alright, Ren, honest,” Stimpy mewls.

Ren thins his eyes. Elbow on the table, a finger jabs up toward him. “You better not be hiding anything from me. Come on, man, you can tell me.”

Gloved fingerprints drum the table. “Well.” Stimpy bites his lip. “It’s just- I really love living with you, Ren, but sometimes...I miss my mommy.”

Ren purses his lips, leering. A dead lighter flicks inside him, has just enough fluid left to ambush his guts in flame, one that fights for what shall leave his mouth: sympathy for others, or for himself. A blue tongue fans across his teeth. With it he’s fishing a string of meat from between two molars as he decides to speak out, “Is that it?” A shrill suction sound pierces as his tongue pulls away. His finger trades for its place, picking, scraping. “What’s she got that I don’t?”

“I dunno…” Stimpy shrugs. “She made the best cookies...and mashed potatoes...and gave the best- the best goodnight hugs...OOHU-HU-HU!”

His face hits his palms with a wet thump of sobbing misery. Ren watches him blubber for all of thirty seconds before he’s hitting a fist to the cardboard table. “Knock off that crying! I told you not to leave your life, but you didn’t believe me!” 

He listens to a breath hitch messily. Stimpy sniffs, glances at him between his fingers before wiping his snotty nose on an elbow. “I-I’m sorry, Ren, I don’t mean to make you feel bad.”

“Make me feel bad?”

“You always yell at me when you get upset.” Again, Stimpy snurks a drip of mucus back up his nose. “It’s okay. I don’t miss my old life bad enough to go back. I won’t leave you.”

He’s heard that lie enough. Heard it from moans around his dick. Heard it from Chuck leant over the dorm room toilet, slurring, “You’re my best friend,” in between hwarfs of vodka. Heard it in his mother’s eyes, the very same that turned away from the marks on his face and slow, grating descent of the mind. Oh, he’s heard that lie enough.

He stands so quickly it’s as if wind lifts him. His arm swings up elbow first, hand even higher with a hard jerk of the wrist, and right about there, that swift little jerk is when Stimpy flinches, and Ren stiffens with a melt of his scowl right off. 

Every inch of his body is fluid to shove the cardboard box aside and step closer to him. Stimpy stares straight through his bones from his seat on the little stolen stool. Ren stands beside him, looks him in the eye as best he can.

“Listen…” he murmurs, darkness glinting off a wide eye. “If you ever want to go, then just...go. Okay?”

Blinking, Stimpy gathers himself enough to shake his head and catch his mouth up amidst. “I don’t ever want to be without you, Ren. You’ve been nicer to me than anybody in my whole life.”

A hand reaches out to hold Ren at the wrist, and very closely does he pull away, but there’s something gentle about this that’s nothing like what he’s ever felt, nothing even bordering on fantasy. Stimpy touches the tender tendons of his wrist, reaches down to hold onto his fingers, on his face a look of pure...love. Love when he looks at Ren. And when Ren looks back, love is all he sees. 

Maybe that’s his thought process when Ren leans in toward him. More likely, his thought process is none at all. 

The kiss is brief and fleeting. Brief. And fleeting. He’d hardly even call the millimeter of space between their mouths broken before he’s pulling back again, though too magnetic is the feeling to part, and he’s still pressing his mouth to the warm flesh above Stimpy’s mouth when light floods up their faces.

“-everything you see here, folks, twenty five square feet of priceless heirlooms, shattered childhood memories, broken families, tortured abandoned souls, and valuable antiques! Can I start the bidding at one hundred dollars, can I get one hundred?”

Ren, a caged rabbit before hungry eyes, is smart enough to panic. Stimpy remains stiff in his place, but Ren wastes no time in skittering into a dive for the cobwebbed underneath of the armchair. 

“One hundred twenty five, let me get one hundred- One hundred twenty five to the horse in the back! Do I hear one fifty? One fifty? You don’t want to miss this, folks, I can already see some big-ticket items- a high tech smokeless grill, hotdogs included! Cardboard boxes of dubious contents! Who knows, there could be gold teeth in there! And look here, a vintage Ren and Stimpy Show action figure, in semi-acceptable condition! You don’t want to pass this u- One hundred fifty to the gentleman in the robe! Going once, going twice!”

Gainst the concrete, Ren’s ribcage aches, and his heart thuds so hard he can practically hear it squelch. He searches a yard over to catch Stimpy’s frantic eye, and when he does, instructs him with silent motions don’t move, stay still, you’re a doll, to which Stimpy stiffens his arms at either side and looks nowhere but forward again.

The booming tone of the auctioneer becomes background noise as it fades, though the quiet does not bring Ren solace, leaves him pulling his ears and biting his teeth, trembling all over at the first sound of a man’s voice invading their space. 

“What. A. Dump.”

“Oh, honey, it’s not so bad,” a woman replies. “We haven’t even looked inside the boxes yet.”

“Well, I suppose… The only thing I like is this authentic cardboard table. That’ll look great in the kitchen.”

Between the wood legs of the chair, Ren stretches an eyeball round the bend to plant the voices into bodies. Two tall white heathens saunter about. From this angle, the darkness blinds Ren to anything about the man but a pipe in his mouth and that he isn’t wearing any longjohns. The woman, he can see her apron and the pink fabric of her dress that clings to her chest, and he wouldn’t have missed her face if he hadn’t spent so long looking there whilst she walked close enough to him to snap his gaze back in. He clutches hands over his eyes at the first vibration of the chair being pulled out. Lips dry, his heart, it hammers.

“Oh, look, honey,” the wife coos, hands lifted from the chair arms to grasp at her chest. “A poor little homeless chipmunk got stuck in here. Is he breathing?”

The toe of her high heeled shoe jabs into Ren’s side. He yelps, jumps high enough to get scooped right up into her arms, where first he writhes, then relaxes with his face squished between two breasts. 

“Oh, he’s trembling!”

“The poor thing,” the husband sympathizes. “Our niece’s birthday is soon, let’s tell her he’s a puppy and give him to her. She’ll just love the little rascal.”

Ren’s ears shoot up. He whips around his head, sees only the husband bent over ripping into a taped up box. His view shifts again when delicate hands lift him up and place him over her shoulder. 

“I’ll go bring him to the car,” the wife says, soft hands stroking his back. 

His last sight is Stimpy standing in the middle of the unit, nothing moving but the quiver of his bottom lip. 

Ren grips his head and whips his gaze every crazed direction. A last ditch effort begins low in his throat and claps out in three little barks. The wife pauses to gawk down at him, but Ren can only look toward the unit, pointing out a finger and whining a high pitched squeal. 

“Aw, you’re already starting to pretend to be a dog, what a good boy!” Were he farther from purgatory, Ren might sink his teeth into her neck and show her just who exactly is a dog around here, but he’s been called good and may as well act it so long as the wife is waltzing back toward the storage unit. She grabs Stimpy up by an arm. “Here we go. Every good doggy needs his chew toy.”

The wife shoves Stimpy toward him. Ren blinks. Still over her shoulder, his hesitant teeth clamp onto his scruff, and it’s a fine arrangement until she lets him go and the full weight of an overgrown cat is dragging by his front teeth. His eyes bulge with tears of pressure. From the ground below, Stimpy lifts his face to smile enormously and wave three fingers up at him.

A car door opens and slams in a matter of seconds, the both of them tossed into a sleek backseat. Ren gathers his bearings to sit up and blink around, first noticing the pair of car seats strapped in beside them, secondly on his opposite side the sight of Stimpy face down on the seat with a severed set of gums and teeth pinched on the back of his neck. Scowling loosely, Ren snatches them off and shoves them back in his mouth.

“Where are we going, Ren?” Stimpy asks with a push of himself up. He too surveys the car around them, a clean looking Oldsmobile that smells of leather. 

“They’d better not break any of my stuff,” he gripes back, nose pressed up against the window glass. “Tell me I’m not a dog… I’ll show ya a dog!”

He sits heavily down in his place, the leftmost babyseat where he crosses his arms and fumes silently at the world. Stimpy looks to him, eyes brimmed in care, until the noise of doors opening sends him ricocheting back down to arms stiff at the sides and expression frozen in wide eyed panic. 

“I’ll tell ya, honey, we had some good finds in there,” says the husband as he sits himself down in the passenger side. “Except for that one box of homoerotica books and popcorn kernels. I’m glad that one went right in the trash.”

Ren feels his head turn eleven shades of scarlet. Bomb smoke pours from his ears the same time the trunk of the car clunks shut and the wife slides into the driver’s seat. The car starts, and Ren is quiet, plays a plastic model better than Stimpy in how silent he sits the whole way, only glancing away from the backs of their heads when they go over a bump and Stimpy rolls stiffly to the backseat floor. He squints up at Ren with an unbothered smile.

Arms still folded, Ren sighs, frown never once escaping him even when the scenery shifts from a stinky old car to a bright white room of lights and rug fur.

“Happy birthday, sweetie!” the wife’s shrill voice casts out. He isn’t certain how much time had passed on the road, isn’t certain when exactly he’d agreed to having a big pink bow stuck on his forehead, but he’s here in another foreign place with more unfamiliar hands roughing him up. There’s no comfort in being handed off to this girl he’s hardly got a glance at, only the sharp twinge of the gem studs on his jacket stabbing into his skin.

“Oh, my god, like, cheeuh,” the girl drawls, and when she turns toward a vanity lined in pink fur, Ren sees she’s got more platinum blonde hair on her head than he’s seen collectively his whole life and a Motorola DynaTAC 8000x tucked in her shoulder that she speaks into. “Yeah, my beloved Uncle and Auntie Uncle just completely got me this totally deadly little Chihuahua. He’s gonna look, like, righteous in my Birkin bag.” 

“We’re glad you like it,” the husband says from his place behind them holding his wife around the shoulders. “Come on, honey, let’s go make sure no raccoons broke into the car while we were gone.”

Footsteps clack into the distance all the way to the front door slamming, and it’s as if the noise has signalled night to swap for day on the girl’s face. “Like, barf me out. This is the least bitchin’ present I’ve ever gotten. This thing needs to bag it’s face, like, to the max.”

The floor is the next thing to cradle him when he’s dropped down ass first. Ren convulses. He swivels a twitching eye to where a gift bag rustles, out from it popping Stimpy’s concerned face. “Ren!” he whispers out, clamoring from the bag on the armless white sofa to rush to his side. Ren tilts his head toward him, jerks it back thrice as quick when a piercing scream grates his ears.

“Oh, my god, I didn’t know they got me a kitten, too! Sooo rad!” The brick of a cell phone hits Ren in the skull on its way to clattering on the ground. His tongue falls limply to the rug, toes twitching. The girl struts past him and shoves a pink collar studded in hearts around Stimpy’s neck before stealing him up into her arms. A tight squeeze sends his eyes popping. 

“I’m gonna totally love you forever and bring you everywhere, we’ll go to the skating rink together, and the mall, and we can go see the new Patrick Swayze movie together, and drink Diet Slice, and-”

Ren doesn’t stop sneering from the moment he watches that display to the moment he’s kicked out onto the lawn with an oof. 

“Mutts sleep outside,” the blonde girl yaps, front door slamming. 

Dark of night lies around him. He looks through the lit front window, watches Stimpy be picked up and coddled and kissed til the blinds snap shut between them. The lump in his throat doesn’t go down so easy.

A sharp wind howls and he shivers against it, pulling at what extra fur he may have anywhere to try and assuage the chill in his bones. Any passerby may think him a beige cobblestone for how tight he huddles in on himself. But there are no passerbys, none at all, not a single living soul who cares for the tattered little lost puppy thrown out into the cold, dead night to spare him even a glance. Ren may as well die here. Yeah, he thinks with a sniff, pressing his nose deeper into the meat behind his leg, he may as well just die! out here.

Until the front door creaks open. 

“Ren..? Are you out here, buddy?”

Through the dusky air he lifts his head. Stimpy stands on the front porch, light fanning out from the house behind his back. 

“St...Stim. Py?” Ren mumbles, the wet of his eyes blinking away in icicle shatters. 

Cat eyes glown yellow in the night, they thrive in excitement as he rushes forward. “Buddy!”

Ren jumps to his two feet. “Pal!”

He doesn’t know what sort of emotion shot his arms so out and welcoming this way, but he does know that Stimpy does the same and that it doesn’t hurt at all when they collide for a spine crackling hug. “Boy am I glad to see you, Ren,” Stimpy pants from a head above him. “I can’t breathe with this thing around my neck. Can we go home now?”

A finger tugs the collar until it snaps off. Stimpy winds his arm up to cast it into the night, though Ren grabs his wrist in a frenzy once he notices the diamonds lining the pink leather. “Wait! Hold onto that for now. I know a way we can make enough money to live the rest of our lives in paradise.”

Confused, a tilt takes Stimpy’s head, yet the exuberant smile never fades as he follows Ren’s slink back inside the house. Ren places a finger to his lips. Stimpy nods silently and mirrors his sneaking position behind him, stepping immediately on his skinny pink tail. The puppy-like yelp that explodes from his mouth draws Stimpy to place a finger to his own and remind, “Shhh.”

A stark slap on the face spins Stimpy’s head around like a wet towel.

They creep the stairs like the creeps they are, avoiding every crack and creak. They make it to the first bedroom on the right of the second floor hall. Ren slips through the door Stimpy had left ajar in his escape, surveying the new space in a squint, thinks himself a spy in all black that must avoid every last intricate red laser line. Stimpy bounces every step to the center of the room.

Plush pink blankets tugged up to her chin, the girl lays flat to her back in the midst of a lavish bed, black mask with fake closed eyes placed over her real ones and a line of drool leaking from the corner of glossed lips. She mumbles something about meeting at the, like, Afterthoughts, before quieting into snores again. Along the wall, Ren slinks himself to where his arm can reach out and snatch a trio of handbags from their table. He tiptoes toward the vanity, stuffing the three Birkins with as much jewelry and designer shoes as they can stomach. An armful of bangle bracelets. A pair of Louis Vuittons. A silver chain necklace with a pendant spelling out TRIXIE in diamonds. Ren sneers. Perfect name for a bitch. 

“Ren,” Stimpy whispers, calls his head over the shoulder to look. “Isn’t stealing from girls wrong?”

In his mind, Ren recalls the last few times he’d brought them on a heist like this; when they’d pussyfooted around unlocked storage units, he promised Stimpy it was alright, because if they didn’t take the stuff then some rich white people would buy it in an auction, and plus whoever was stupid enough not to pay their unit fees deserved to have all their valuables taken. That was only after he’d convinced Stimpy to snatch newspapers off doorsteps by saying it was alright as long as it was a man’s newspaper, because only girls deserve to have nice things.

Ren fumbles a moment before thrusting the namesake necklace into Stimpy’s nose. “She’s not a girl. Her name’s Trixie. That’s a dog’s name, not a girl’s.”

“But isn’t that-”

I’m a dog, and do I look like a girl to you?”

Stimpy taps his lip, then shakes his head with a grin that tells Ren he’s the most intelligent, benevolent God he’s ever heard speak. Bags clutched on an arm, he swings the other to motion his accomplice back out the door, down the stairs, into the open waiting night.

Trixie kicks a leg and snurks out a soft, “I, like, love you, kitty…” whilst clinging to a bear so hard its stuffing pops out the eyes. 

“We’ve really done it now, Stimpy,” Ren says, grinning so hard he’s hardly intelligible as they sprint the dirt up behind them. “We’re about to be millionaires.”

“I can finally have some material possessions!” Stimpy behind him says, juggling the armload of stolen goods. 

“You can have anything you want,” Ren assures, still smiling with all his teeth and gums. 

The first pawn shop opens at six AM. They’re in the door at six-oh-one, and back out it at six-oh-four.

Ren walks the sidewalk with hands trembling around pure paper green. A trail of water from his dripping tongue marks their path behind them.

“Six...thousand...dollars,” he pants. His eyes practically burn a hole right through the bills. Perhaps if they did, he’d’ve seen the rock he hooks his foot on. Mid fall he clutches the money to his chest as if it were a swaddled, breathing bundle, though before he can knock out any more teeth on the pavement, Stimpy flails forward and catches him around the waist. Ren, on frothing instinct, squirms to get away.

“Back off, man! It’s mine, I tell you! All mine!”

Stimpy frowns. “I was just trying to catch you, Re-”

know what you want!” He jerks away at the hips to finger through the hundreds again. “You’re not getting your hands on any of this money. I manage the finances. You manage the housework. Remember?”

“But, Ren,” Stimpy interjects. They stand at the cusp of a crosswalk, though no cars slow below sixty down the street of shady slate gray businesses. “We don’t have any house to do work in. What am I in charge of now?”

Ren blinks. Like a vise his fingers wring onto the cash.

White splatters from his brush to the exterior siding.

It’s a sweet April this year, every breath smelling of pink flowers, calm air, chamomile. He’s got no fear up on this ladder so long as he keeps his eyes forward and his work honest. Into the bucket of paint he lets his brush lay whilst he lifts his hat and swipes the sweat away, the sweat of a hardworking man dressed in a dirty t-shirt and undone coveralls, honest. 

There isn’t any camera but Ren imagines it might pan out here, yeah, show to the world his little one story house with the red roof, white picket fence, untrodden lawn. The mailbox out front has The Höeks painted on it so the postman knows where to stuff grocer’s pamphlets and water bills. Here, the garden may as well sing to him. Here, a shadow melts round the corner with ice clinking the whole way.

“Oh, Reeen,” Stimpy singsongs, and it’s the first thing that’s gotten Ren to glance down the whole afternoon. “I brought you some lemonade.” 

Ren smiles and goes to take his first step down the ladder. His chin thuds off every rung after its failure to land. The untrodden lawn is gracious enough to catch him flat on his face. 

“You’ve been working so hard out here,” Stimpy fawns. “The paint job is coming along wonderfully. And your pectoral muscles look just ravishing.”

Ren stands and shakes the dirt from his hair. “Yep. I’m pretty great.” The sweating glass of lemonade is accepted and tipped to be gulped down swift.

“My big strong man,” Stimpy coos, leaning forward to leave a kiss on his cheek. “Oh, goodness, I had better go check on the baby before he injures himself in a horrible, unsupervised accident.”

“Yep,” Ren nods, drops the empty glass back in his hand. “You go do that.”

“Oh! And, Ren, one more thing.”

Hands already gripping the ladder again, he pauses to turn and ask, “Yeah, what’s that?”

Shyly, something of a coy smile perks on Stimpy’s kitty mouth. “Well...I was just wondering if þú elskir mig jafn mikið og þú elskar kjúklingaböku.”

A wild expression takes Ren’s face. He shakes it away, lifts a timid finger. “Eheh...what did you say?”

“I said, what do I get to manage now, since we don’t have a house?” Stimpy repeats.

Ren blinks. Water drips softly in the sewer grate beneath them. A sign across the street blinks WALK, WALK, WALK.

The daydream cloud above his head vanishes in a dry pop. 

“We’ll...rent something,” he mutters, starting his trudge down the dark city sidewalk all over again. 

Of the six grand they make, it divides itself fairly evenly across their necessities. A third goes to first last and security for a rinky dink apartment on the edge of the city. A third goes to the skinny old man up the block who was selling a car on his front lawn, a ‘76 Volkswagen Golf GTI, red along the whole exterior just like his first car. The rest is split between a shoebox under their bed and the brick of cocaine he buys behind the 7-Eleven down the street. And fifty cents for the taquito inside. 

If Stimpy thinks anything of Ren’s new work schedule being in intervals of two minutes every few hours throughout the night, he asks nothing of it. Ren figured right when he thought hooking up the cable would be the last he ever heard of Stimpy’s nosy concerns. He’s free to slip out any time he pleases, he’s his own boss, there’s no worry of one day having the pink slip shoved down his throat or a condemnation notice tacked up on the door. Because there is no door. The whole world is his office, anyone with a pulse the clientele to do his bidding. Business picks up as if he never left it, over six years off the game now and so quickly to dive right back in. Once or twice, he’s caught under a pin, a lazy eyed urchin that tells him something like, “Ren, Jesus, I remember you. Hardly recognized you without that Jim Morrison beard,” before promptly reaching for an old friends’ discount. Ren likes to laugh and accept those handshakes with an eight ball of dope between their palms that goes nowhere until full payment is tucked into his pocket. Sometimes they come back. Usually not.

Hardly ever has he thrived so brightly as the months that follow his leap from the wagon of decency, not that he’d ever had more than a toe clinging to its edge. They make rent on time. They order Chinese take out. After a stop at the gas station, he putts along to the corner store and brings home a paper bag with a bottle of Crown Royal (Crown Royal!) and handful of white tulips inside. Ren parks on the curb and walks to the door with a whistling on his lips, keys himself inside to call out, “Oh, Stiiimpy, I’m back!”

He waits a moment for the tumbling sound to grow closer, a faint shatter here, something like a rug shifting out of place there, and Stimpy’s vibrating like a nickel spring doorstop before him. No matter how many years go by, that red hot obedience will always make Ren’s toes curl.

“Hiya, Ren, did you have fun at work today? Huh, what’re these? AH!” The little scream is a shrill note of excitement to be presented with the bouquet. Stimpy grasps them up and sniffs so deeply a tulip head lodges in one nostril. “They’re beautiful,” he nasally says. The flowers rip away to plunk into a Solo cup ashtray on the counter when Stimpy follows into the kitchen, Ren whistling the whole way. 

“You’re awfully chipper today,” Stimpy comments, grinning. “Did you have a good day at the milk production plant?”

Hand in a pocket, Ren strides boldly to the living room where he sets the bottle of whiskey down. “Yee-ap. Even got promoted to head milker.” He sits in his favored armchair, feet clunking up on the ottoman. A cigarette pulls from the inside pocket of his gray suit coat. “Bring me an icy glass, would you, Stimpy?”

“Right away!”

He bolts off and returns in the span of a second. The glass goes to set on the end table beside the chair, but Ren stops him with a slap to the wrist. “What are you, insane?” His finger reaches to slide a coaster underneath the cup. He’s uncapping the Crown Royal, eyes serenely half lidded, when he murmurs, “Get me a light.”

The question’s barely finished itself by the time Stimpy’s striking a match to the smoke in his mouth. It lights, and he puffs off it thoughtfully. “Robe and slippers.”

Red cotton replaces his stiff coat without him batting an eye. Stimpy places his legs back up on the ottoman to slide a slipper on each foot, planting a kiss on the top of his left. Ren toys with the idea of kicking his teeth in just because the possibility exists, but he settles on sticking the cigarette in between two fingers and sipping off his cold glass instead.

“Anything else, dear?” Stimpy asks, to which Ren lowers his brow and replies, “Yeah, eh, don’t call me that.”

“How about dinner?”

“Eh. I’m not hungry,” he dismisses, smoking a half inch off the cig in one drag. It does not ash. He goes for the whiskey glass again, only stops at the cacophony of a growling stomach to his right. He eyes Stimpy curiously. Color dyes cutely his cheeks with a smile he presses one fingertip upon. Ren relaxes into his spot, smirking easy. “Take some bills from the shoebox and order something to eat.”

“Oh, joy!” Like a bullet again, he jolts off in a whisk of steam only to return the same second. “What do ya think we can get for, hmm...three dollars and eleventeen cents?”

Cigarette smoking in a bite of teeth, Ren’s eyebrows pinch toward one another. “Don’t be a numbskull, take a little more than that.”

“But there’s nothing more to take,” Stimpy tells him. “The box is empty. You spent the rest of the savings on that Paul Anka autographed coffee filter, remember?”

Mid sip, the glass in his hand shatters, splashing liquor all down his chest.

“What do you MEAN it’s empty?! How can we be broke again?!” Ren jolts to his feet. Stimpy backpedals. “I work day in and day out, and this is how God repays me? By making me toil and suffer for measly pennies?!”

Ears back, Stimpy pokes index fingertips together, doesn’t meet the strained red eye of the other. “Just- Just calm down, Ren, everything’s gonna be-”

“Don’t you gimme that,” he grinds out. “How can everything be okay when we’re about to get our asses handed to us again? We can’t make rent, we can’t afford food.” The active craze in his eyes settles to be replaced by a forlornness. “We’ll be right back where we started. Worthless bums on the street. Again.” All over, his mood swaps out for an intensity, fist striking its opposite palm. “I just gotta find something to sell. Yeah, that’s all. Just like before.”

He sprints past Stimpy without looking up. The frantic hunt begins in their dresser drawers, yanking them to their hinges and rifling through everything inside. Trinkets and knickknacks fly over his shoulders. Socks, pants, tampons, fedoras. At the very last corner, he sniffs out his desires, just about thirty dollars worth of coke in a little plastic baggy that he marvels at before sticking in a pocket. He trails from the bedroom back to the living room where his arm swings out and grabs up the paintings on the wall, a Fabergé egg, autographed framed coffee filters, anything he can hold onto. 

“C’mon, something good- ah.” The sudden epiphany is the lift of a hand to his neck, reaching within the combs of his fur to yank off the necklace hidden within. “This! The hairball stock is climbing by the day, this’ll be worth a fortune!”

“But, Ren, I made you that,” Stimpy warbles, though Ren only pushes past him to clamp onto the front door knob, arms too full to see his own steps forward. 

“Do you wanna eat tonight, or do you want me to have a stinky ball of hair around my neck?”

He sags at the shoulders, the mouth, the vigor. “It was a present...”

“Who cares?” Ren barks. “I don’t have time to uphold stupid friendships, I got a life to live!”

The door slams with Ren behind it. He stumbles, betters his grip and keeps on going. Falling isn’t an option. Failure isn’t an option. Every last scar on his memory reminds him of that.

He finds the closest pawn shop and trips his way to the counter where his arms at last relax. Hands grip the glass, muscles quivering when he glances up to the clerk, panting. 

“Ha...Ha-How much?” 

Before him, the wide scruffy appraiser takes a look at the array and hums. “Twelve bucks.”

Ren stares. His eyelids crawl back deeper and deeper into his skull.

“Twelve bucks?! These are authentic Matisses! And real autographs!” 

The man scratches his ear before letting both fists rest on the counter. “These are all counterfeits. This one ain’t even signed by Paul Anka. Says Paul Ankle.”

His eyes bug out toward the framed coffee filter. Lo and behold. Fire rages in both lungs. 

“The only thing that’s getting you money here,” Ren’s gaze perks up toward, “is this.” In two broad hands, he lifts the necklace, detaching the chain from the BEST FRIEND pendant in one sharp tug. Ren flinches. “The chain is silver.”

He doesn’t begin to laugh until he’s just a few paces outside the shop, weightless, rigid, twelve dollars richer. It isn’t raining, but he imagines that might add to the ambiance. Just a crack of thunder, a lightning strike, something to paint the backdrop as he kneels on the sidewalk and pulls at his face and cackles like an escapee. Maybe even too, the lightning may surge from his highest fingertip all through his whole skeleton, paint his bones ash, give him a pat on the back for all he’s been through. Life’s great reward, that’s right. That makes him blink, eyes puffy and dark because he hasn’t slept right since the womb, and that makes him wobble up to his feet and begin to drag his steps onward. He stares at the sidewalk the whole way, and he can feel the smile on his face, every so often a little snicker like he’s acting up in a silent class. It’s a perfectly orange evening, but Ren imagines a downpour, fantasizes that cars speed by him and splash him every time, that he’s drenched from head to toe and the sewer’s drinking all the black, black, impossibly blackened soot that drains from his flesh.

He doesn’t know the city well yet, hardly knows its name, but he knows the best places to buy drugs and the best places to kill yourself, which sometimes overlap, but not here. He’s got class. Nobody sells drugs at this overpass, please, they’d have to be a maniac. 

It’s a halfway struggle to pull himself up, and when he does, the wind nearly pulls him over before he’s ready. That’s the thing about committing, he thinks, is that nobody knows when to just do it, it’s always some trashy inner monologue before they climb back down and go back to their deadend job and unsatisfied wife. Ren thinks he’d like to be the hands on the backs of people like that. Don’t pussy out- that only means it wasn’t thought through before. Yeah, no shit sticking your entire body into the garbage disposal is gonna hurt, didn’t you think of that beforehand, jackass? Ren’s no quitter nor is he one to admit himself irrational. He stands up on the edge, concrete rough on both bare feet as it is on the hand he grips a pole with. If he’s honest, he might get it now why schmucks tend to linger here a while. Looking out at the ocean, he’s mesmerized. In his head it’s raining and in his head it’s maybe even raining enough to fill this whole thing twice over, the ocean, that is, fill up the ocean so high it sweeps him up without ever jumping, it welcomes him, and maybe he doesn’t even die in there. He could live the rest of his life within the water because he’s made friends with her, called such a power his own, she’s only going to hold him. He could live in the ocean with a nice chair and a bookshelf, a fez on his head, a cigar in his mouth. They’ll surely invent a way to strike matches under water, won’t they? And then he’ll look to his left, where there might be a couch and table (he hasn’t quite mapped out all the feng shui of his underwater estate just yet, the sofa might look better on the right, what do you think?) and on that couch someone to talk to, but the fronds down here aren’t nearly as engaging of listeners as...somebody else might be.

Up here in the wind, Ren feels his chest tighten in a way it shouldn’t, wouldn’t were he healthier. He clutches his heart, feels around for its jagged edges and finds them, it’s still there? Frantically his hand pats til his muscles all go slack again and he fingers into his breast pocket to pull out the little baggie of coke. Ren stares down at it. Thirty bucks, or do it all now and ride the final wave of life in style. The breeze’ll coax his ears and he’ll drive it in a convertible. There’ll be no struggle wherever he’s going. There’ll be no worry.

But he’s...he’s better than that, isn’t he? He’s better than giving up. If he has one dream it’s to be Ren Höek. Some tweaks here and there, but he’s never imagined himself as any other man of blood and bone. Even if he’s an entirely different form. Ren Höek. Even if he’s soft, unbruised, tactful, forgiving, forgiven. Ren. That counts for something. It does. He’s not asking. 

If he jumps right now, his mother will miss him, because they don’t have underwater phones yet. In a world where he’s sundered from the earth, his father might take comfort in that, his father might rejoice that one less sinner walks among them. There’ll be a vigil at the church he hated going to, and his mother won’t ever quite stop crying, and his father might at least pretend to choke up here and there, and perhaps across the water the message will travel and Uncle Eddie and Sven will be just beside themselves, but, eh, they’d seen it coming. Maybe his teachers from high school will see the name in the paper and make the connection, maybe they’ll go, “Oh, the poor thing,” and move on with their day, maybe the kids he grew up playing street hockey with and riding bikes around their rich neighborhood will come home and their mothers will say, “You remember that boy that used to live across the street? The little Chihuahua, he’s just died,” and the kids who’re grown up now unlike he will tell them back, “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” Maybe Chuck will drink himself sick tonight at the thought of little Höek and his aching mind, he should’ve done more, he should’ve cared more, he should’ve said yes when Ren showed up at his door for college homecoming sick with nerves with a sixty dollar corsage in his hand, maybe he should’ve known that that ever happened at all instead of being too distracted tugging his real date along by the skirt. 

Oh- and how could he goddamn forget? 

Stimpy’s mother and grandmother will mourn him for days, perhaps the mother longer had she more of an attention span. They’ll be a shoulder to lean on when their son comes back home bedridden for the rest of his nine lives. What’s that son’s name now, he just had it… No. Can’t recall.

Ren lifts one foot just to know what he’s in for. It hovers past the ledge, nothing supporting it but open air. His grip on the pole tightens. His breath stutters. He sets his foot back down and pulls away from the pole to keep his arms free, just to make it authentic when he practices there. With everything but the legs, he jumps, shoulders and chest jutting forward, knees bent. He swings his arms with it, too, really gets down to the details. Eyes clenched, he jumps three or four times, and with each go the thud in his chest gets lighter. Maybe it’s only frightening because he’s never done it before. That’s all. Or- no, has he called it frightening? It isn’t. Death does not scare him, only the desire that goes into it. 

His eyes open and sting with ocean breeze. At the head he turns a gaze across the whole horizon. The sun’s setting now, and it’s so goddamn beautiful he almost steps right back down. Never in his life has he admired anything worth less than a paycheck. The sun’s always there, the flowers always bloom, the snow always falls, there’s no need to waste time enjoying them now. He has forever to do that. He has the rest of his forever where there’s no materialism to stop and enjoy a sunrise, or a quiet lakefront, a smile from someone who loves him back. Yeah, yeah- or, wait, no. No. There isn’t any sun under the ocean. He watches the one before him sink lower on the horizon, creamsicle sky, inner eye of melting ivory. This is the last sunset he’ll ever see? And it’s growing blurry now, too, what a terrible waste.

This can’t be it. It can’t. 

All the breath he’s ever had to live with surges up into his shoulders, and he stands there, on the edge of the overpass that overlooks the sunset and the ocean, licks his lips, swallows his pride. There’s no room for that here. Will his life be different now? Yeah. Yeah, this is a new leaf. It’ll all be different. He’ll look at every sunset. He’ll savor every smile. In fact- yeah! -he looks at the bag in his hand again, differently, this time, clenches it up in one quick fist and swings his arm back to ready the pitch.

Just kidding, he thinks, I’m not that crazy.

The plastic seal cracks open in his hands, and he lifts the baggie of coke to his nose and sniffs as deeply as any man who’s just gotten his life back would. Empty plastic sails its way to float on top of the water. Better it than him, sure is.

Ren doesn’t remember the trip to his own front door but can tell he’s ran the whole way. Throbbing calves carry him inside. Outside, it’s pure eight PM dark, while in the apartment it’s more of an artificial pitch black. He finds his way forward by the faint noise of the living room TV, and when he walks in the room, ohhh, it all hits him. That’s the name of the one person he couldn’t bear to think of. 

The light of the television screen glows a faded blue in the square foot in front of it where Stimpy sits, hunched up hugging his knees, and Ren can’t see his face but he hasn’t turned to greet him yet, so he must not be conscious there. Shuffling further in, Ren tries, “Hey, pal. You awake?”

There isn’t any answer, but Ren leans close enough to see his eyes are open, half lidded as they stare at the flashy cartoon. Ren cocks his head. The muscles in his fingers twitch on their own. 

“Whatcha watching? Soggy Bear?” He tries on a smile with all his yellow teeth showing so sweetly. There isn’t any answer. The smile falters.

Taking a step back, he pinches the lamp string and gifts light to mortals. His pupils remain widely dilated even still. Ren glances around for something to distract him from the urge to gnaw his fingertips off. Surprise lands on a messily wrapped package set on his chair’s side table. “What’s this? A Christmas gift?”

“It’s a present for you, Ren,” Stimpy says, and his voice is something Ren has never heard in his whole damn life, something that cracks with grief and buries itself in the swell of shamed anger. “I got you another one, since you didn’t like your last one. Something you care about more than anything else.”

Though his face sits troubled, Ren decides it’s alright to smirk a bit as he picks it up. “Great. Canned olive loaf?” 

He digs into the wrapping paper, shredding it every which way til he’s granted access to the box and can pull out the little black hand mirror.

He doesn’t blink. Just swallows, dryly. 

It’s okay, he can breathe. It’s okay because he’s sure he’s done wrong now, and Stimpy may be an absolute raving fool but it’s only because he put all his intelligence into emotion. It’s okay because he’s not alone- when he looks down, the dog in the mirror is crying, too. 

“I...I…” Limp go his arms, hands next, fingers too loose to grip the mirror handle any longer. It thunks softly to the rug. Ren blinks away babbling streams, swallows just enough to speak. “I…”

The carpet burns his knees with how quickly he slides over to wrap his arms around Stimpy, face soaked as it rubs gainst the back of his head. “I’m sorry, Stimpy! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m SORRY! I’ve done such horrible, wretched things in my life!

He’s barely listening to himself, could never picture what the words might sound like with his voice and won’t start now. There’s this odd little feeling flapping in his chest, and if he were in the first grade again in the psychologist’s big ornate office, he might color that feeling a deep, miserable, vivacious scarlet red. But she never asked him what it felt like to feel sorry, only picked his brain on why he wasn’t when he’d do such things as hit his classmates and break his mother’s pearls. Ren would try to tell her why being sorry doesn’t matter, because no matter how many times he said it, God wouldn’t forgive him unless he truly repented, but she’d never quite listen, and he knows she always tattled everything he said to his mother. No amount of coloring books could distract from the sound of her muffled choking sobs.

But he’s grown up now. He doesn’t have to think that way if he doesn’t want to. There’s no boot catching him by the tail before he can scramble under the bed. The last bible he’d smelled knocking the blood from his mouth had been years ago. His fingers clench deeper into Stimpy’s fur and only release at the feeling of him slowly, stiffly, turning around. 

Ren hardly dares to look him in the eye, though when he does it’s fleeting, and all he sees are the tears flooding Stimpy’s eyes before he’s crushed into his chest. “I’M SORRY, TOO, REN!

Blinking, Ren at first wishes to get away but he’s swift to relax there listening to the beat of his heart. 

“I never wanted to make you cry,” Stimpy wails, holding him for dear life. “I should never ha-have been so CRUEL! Please forgive me, Ren! Oh, the humanity!

“H-Hey, it’s okay, man,” Ren sniffs. His hands shake now for dual reason. “‘S not your fault. I’ve had...kind of a rough day…eheh…”

He shifts just enough to look up at him. The screen light halos Stimpy’s head in radioactive blues. Ren reaches up just to cup his face and squish it, wipe the wetness away on the heels of his palms. “I haven’t been thinking right lately,” he musters under the breath. A hand lays to Stimpy’s shoulder. Ren gazes at him. “I did like the present you made me. I do.”

“You mean it?” Stimpy asks, and with a gust of gusto he’s sudden to perk up, grinning. “Don’t worry! I did say there’s plenty more where that came from, remember?”

There’s no use in backing up by the time Ren gets the sense to on Stimpy’s third closed mouth gag. Wet hair splatters him like a fine mink coat. He stands within it for a solid four seconds before bringing a hand up to wipe his face clean enough to see. 

“I’ll take that without complaint this once,” Ren allows. He shakes scuz from his hands. “Uckgh. Now I have to go get in the shower.”

“Me too, me too!” 

Stimpy leaps up to chase after him. Ren pulls his mouth back into a tight grimace, but decides he ought not to be alone in a room full of razors and toxins after all and shrugs his shoulders lamely. And it’ll be nice to have his back scrubbed. 

He doesn’t expect how naturally Stimpy fits into his life, yet such a revelation should’ve come years ago, for it’s the very second they meet that Ren revels in comfort. It’s natural to be wet and naked turned toward the bath drain, hot water stripping him even further as it falls from the showerhead, natural to feel bare hands rubbing a soaped up cloth through the divots of his shoulders, spine, lumbar. When he’s rinsed of it all, the dirty soap, dirty hairballs, dirty filthy raunch of the evening behind him, he’s whistling, stepping out onto the bathmat to shake his wet body in a hard frenzy. A towel tucks up under his arms, another fashioned up on his head. Whistling, some tune or other he’d heard in passing, some happy happy...bat-ba...hmhm hmhm bat-ba, Ren peeks past the shower curtain to remind, “Don’t take too much longer in there. Hot water’s on the electric bill.”

“Yes, sir!” Stimpy nods.

The curtain drops back, humming within the shower resumed. Ren thinks it sounds suspiciously like a mimic of his whistling. Adjusting the tuck of his towel, he approaches the bathroom sink to dump the single toothbrush and fill its cup with cold tap water. The anticipated yelp pierces the air just the same second he splashes it over the shower rod. 

It’s natural to slip from the steam and find their bedroom, sit and drip dry on their bed, which is theirs, which is natural. Always has been. Maybe if he told anybody he slept in the same bed as his best friend, showered with him, ate every meal together, dreamed of a long joyous life together, maybe that anybody might cock an eyebrow at him, but Ren would tell them they just don’t know what it’s like to have a real friendship. One where everything’s natural, where they do share their lives like unholy matrimony, but it isn’t really anything like that. Hugs and kisses only occur on necessary occasion, that’s what he’d tell them, no doy. 

It’s natural when Stimpy walks in the bedroom with a towel round his waist. Entirely normal that they dry and dress for night together. Nothing more than convention when they fall into bed, Ren curled up into a tight little ball and Stimpy pressed up against his back, tongue grooming the fur around his ears and face. Ren pities anyone who doesn’t have a friend this good to them.

Stimpy’s been good to him since the second they met, and it’s a little under four years into their friendship that Ren figures he might reciprocate. 

They’ve jumped from their city apartment to sleeping in the car a few weeks, a backyard treehouse another, finally reached the breaking point of trading in the Volkswagen for nine hundred dollars and trading in the nine hundred dollars for a third floor apartment somewhere far from home. 1989 feels just around the corner even if it’s hardly yet Fall. Some point in between their last house and this one, Ren settled on a convenience store job down the block, the kind with the paint chipping off the outside, signs that advertise decade old deals, kids getting cigarettes sold to them as long as they act old enough. It makes enough to keep them stable. They’ve even had this place since January. That’s long enough to justify taping his name on the mailbox and setting up the record player betwixt the living room windows. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds spins under the needle as he sets to work in the kitchen.

Wouldn’t it be nice to live together, dum da doo,” he idly hums, foot tapping as he reaches for a handful of flour, clapping it on his face and apron. “And after having spent the day together, hold each other close the whole night through…”

Two plates set to the dining table. The finest fake China they own. Mashed potato splats on both of them, chicken thighs and drumsticks placed delicately beside. He spoons a kind amount of gravy onto each and, satisfied with his work, brushes his hands clean, nodding. The empty KFC bucket is stomped down deep into the kitchen trash. For good measure, Ren flicks a spoon and paints his shirt in cooking oil, the remainder of it poured over the clean pans in the sink. Just as he’s turned toward the front door is when it clicks open.

“Hi, Ren,” Stimpy smiles the way he always does. He’s dressed to Ren’s uncertainty as a sailboat captain, though rips the hat and suit away to be cast into oblivion. “I’m back. Smells good in here.”

“It’d better, I’ve been slaving away for hours.” A single step left, and he lifts both hands to gesture at the set table, grinning closed eyed and proud. “I made dinner tonight.”

“Wowza!” The shock in his voice is overshadowed by too much excitement for Ren to care. Stimpy is over to him in a flash. “You’re amazing, Ren! You really did all this?”

“Yep. It was all me.” His smirk curls even harder until he clears his throat into a fist. “Just a little something nice to surprise my best pal when he gets home.”

A finger ticks at Stimpy’s bottom lip. “Oh. When’ll that be?”

Ren frowns sharply. “I’m talking about you, blithering halfwit.”

“Really? You mean it? I’m your- I’m your best friend?!” He wriggles all his fingers, flaps his hands giddy, looking to Ren as if he’s just had all the breath restored to his lungs. 

“Sure,” Ren nods, breaking apart their eyes out of a sudden urge for modesty. “I don’t have anybody else to choose from.”

Stimpy clasps his hands together tight enough to bother the sinew. “I’m so happy! I’m so happy I could just kiss you!”

In fact- Ren doesn’t know why he doesn’t expect the mouth that puckers swiftly against his, but he does know that it’s so run of the mill, so natural, that he doesn’t even bother to wipe the rented spit off his lip anymore. Just a push of him away, a nonchalant, “Whatever. Let’s eat,” just to move the night along. 

But Stimpy doesn’t buckle under the pressure to conform. Has he ever? “You’re my best friend, too, Ren, you’re my most favorite person in the whole world.” He holds his face, watches Ren avoid his gaze and pull his seat at the table out. “Even if we weren’t best friends, you’d still be my best friend.”

“Please make some sense, Stimpy,” Ren says, placing himself delicately in his chair. He whisks his dirtied apron off, unfolds a napkin over his lap. 

Across the table, Stimpy drops down in his own seat and leans inward to him. “If we were married, you’d still be my best friend, too.”

“What are you making that comparison for?” Ren barks, flicking a lighter from his pocket to light the candles in between their plates. 

Stimpy blinks, and dare Ren call his little laugh a shy one. “No reason.” Silverware clatters when he leans even further, close enough to dart his lips out and smeck Ren’s cheek as he chews ferally on a chicken bone. “I love you.”

“Uh-huh,” Ren says.

“I-” Stimpy grins, biting his lip. “I love you a lot.”

“Uh-huh,” Ren says, teeth all pointed triangles in gnaws and drools. “Pass the salt.”

“I love you, Ren,” Stimpy says as he slides the shaker across the table.

Ren stops it with a palm at the edge, grips it in long fingers, pours enough on his potatoes to meet his sodium quota for the year. “Uh-huh, me too. Pass the butter.”

Me too like you looove me too?” bats his eyes, spinning the butter dish to him. 

“Yes, Stimpy, I love-” As if an arrow’s impaled him, Ren sits austerely straight, eyes unhinged, chicken leg dropping from his greasy hand. Meat and spit fleck around his flatline of a mouth. The butter dish whizzes past him and shatters on the kitchen floor. 

“I...I love you, Stimpy.” 

Bare palms grip his scalp, teeth showing up for the party just to form a cringe. “CRIPES! How did I not notice it sooner?!”

Tongue lolled out, Stimpy frowns in a way that’s purely inquisitive. “Duhh...notice what, Ren?”

Ren flies forward and grabs him up by the shoulders like a Black Friday deal. “Don’t you see it, man? Look at us! We’re-! We’re-!” Violently he shakes him about, yells red hot panic and saliva in his face once he’s able to swallow the golfball in his dry, aching throat. “We’re...domestic!”

He draws back, nibbling on eight fingertips before throwing a wrist over the forehead and exhaling a single sob. 

Stimpy stares on at him. “Oh. Sure.” Halfway smiling, his shoulders shrug high. “I thought you figured that out when we started having sex.”

“Shut up, you fool!” says Ren and the slap of his hand over Stimpy’s palavering mouth. “Don’t speak of that. Have you any shame left in your fat, bloated, stupid body?!”

Staring him down, he looks for everything that hides in Stimpy’s eyes, explores his every inch right there in their kitchen, and right there in their kitchen, Stimpy sweeps him off his feet and hugs him close, relentless kisses pressing all across his face. Ren gags, can do nothing more with every last pent up feeling in his body than slap him silly across both cheeks. Kiss. Smack. Kiss. Smack. 

1990 is the real turning point. Their we’ve-lost-counteenth house is seized up from them like they’d never had it at all, because it turns out thirteen year old boys can look as old as they want, they still crack under the first hint of pressure and will rat out the shitty convenience store that sold them tobacco without a second thought. Ren doesn’t wait for an eviction to leave this one, just comes home and pulls Stimpy out the door by a wrist. He can’t quite fathom why God’s punished him to this life of chasing his own tail. From a stable house to the streets to the car to a house to the streets again, always stuck shivering over sewer grates til the sunlight comes to blind them. It’s a hot Sunday now, standing in the middle of the road, mulling over every blunder and misfortune, starved to bone thin and sick off the sickness of cursing himself. Ren thinks he doesn’t deserve this. Ren looks up at the one beside him, poised in the perfect spot to bear the sweat of the sun and allow Ren his shade, and Ren thinks, dreamily, this time, oh, he doesn’t deserve this one bit.

His ears perk up at the sound of a truck rolling toward them. If he squints, he can make out something scrawled on the side, something catcher, frog catcher, bog catcher? Ren doesn’t know, but he keeps his place solid there with Stimpy just beside him, same as ever, same as he always prays it to be.

It’s 1990, and their life is just beginning.