Eddie wakes up, knowing that he fell asleep but also not convinced it was a big deal. He’s a little perplexed that the nurses didn’t come by to run him through exercises again, but they do give him a break to get a good night’s sleep sometimes, and maybe this is like that. Immediately he has a surging, clutching anxiety—blood clots! Pneumothorax—but he takes a breath and feels none of the sharp alarming pain, just the reassuring ache. He’s still here. He’s alive.
The dreams are still there, because he’s still on the morphine, and they’re… weird. Eerie. Not frightening, per se—Eddie doesn’t know if he’ll ever be properly frightened again, the way that he’s been for his life since he came back to Maine—but they’re unsettling. The one he wakes from is just his brain twisting the quick glimpses of Richie he catches when he opens his eyes until he’s back in high school, and some kind of curse of paralysis is coming down over him, but Richie can save it through some complicated magical procedure that involves trying to use a guitar like an abacus. He wakes feeling oddly grateful to Richie, and sweaty, and generally disoriented.
Richie is still in the chair, by the loosest definition of “in.” It would be more accurate to say he’s barely perched on top of one chair, looking as though he could go toppling over at any moment, stretched out across both chairs, one foot braced on the furthest armrest, his knee jabbed up at a sharp angle. The other leg is crossed over that. He looks positively geographic there, assembled like a mountain range on the far side of the room. It doesn’t look even a little bit comfortable.
On his folded knee, he has his phone balanced carefully, and his headphones are in. He doesn’t look forty years old. He looks… young and sharp-boned and somehow ageless. And he’s not still—his head is bobbing back and forth. At first Eddie thinks that he’s listening to music, but then he watches Richie’s eyebrows climb, his expression pull into incredulity, into a scowl. He waves one big hand like he’s swatting something aside, and Eddie realizes abruptly that Richie’s talking to himself. Or arguing with himself. Silently.
The fondness rolls through him, intense as a wave crashing. He hears his heart monitor pick up and he waits for Richie to notice, but he’s completely in his own little world. It’s kind of fun to watch him—the unexamined comedian—as Richie continues his wordless monologue, until at last he turns his head and makes eye contact with Eddie. Then his face blanks out and he freezes with his arm still up mid-gesture, eyes wide and caught.
“No, go on,” Eddie says, but the words bubble and creak out, choked with phlegm. He rolls his eyes and sits up to cough properly, feeling his lungs inflate all the way at the bottom and the little reassuring creak of pain. He twists away and covers his mouth with his elbow. When he coughs, the sharp percussion has an answering stab of pain in his torso—one, two, three.
“Do you need the nurse?” Richie asks. “Or the—the doctor, or—”
Eddie shakes his head. It’s a productive cough, at least. The stuff’s coming up and it sits thick in the back of his mouth. “Tissue?” he asks, pointing towards the box sitting on the sink.
Richie’s phone clatters to the floor as he lunges across the room to get Eddie what he asked for. Eddie winces automatically, still coughing. Richie comes around the foot of the bed and holds the tissue out to Eddie. Eddie takes it and braces himself.
If there’s blood, he’ll have to call the nurse. It’ll be a whole thing. He doesn’t want there to be blood, and he’s just going to have to steel himself for the possibility. For a moment he wants to cover his mouth, but then he remembers that Richie spent a good portion of their childhood watching him hock loogies off cliffs. He rolls his eyes at himself and spits into the tissue.
It’s green. Not red, not black, not dark brown. Just good old anaerobic bacteria, and getting lighter every day.
He almost dissolves in relief. “Garbage?” he asks, and Richie twists around to pick up the garbage can and holds it out. Eddie tries to throw, but he misses and bounces the tissue off Richie like he’s a backboard.
“What is that, two points?” Richie asks.
“I’m fucking hospitalized, it’s infinite points.”
“Well, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter,” Richie says good-naturedly, and sets the garbage can back down.
Eddie waits for a moment to see what he’s going to do, but Richie keeps standing there. Eddie waits for him to say or do something, but instead he just remains still, his hands tucked defensively in his pockets.
“Did you break your phone?” Eddie asks, when the silence gets too long.
Richie seems to snap back to life, immediately rounding the corner of the bed again and stooping to pick up his phone.
“Do not look at any of the bags!” Eddie says immediately, because there’s not just a bag of his chest fluid down there, he’s pretty sure there’s a bag of his urine.
“You’ve been asleep for a while, dude, I have seen the bags.” Richie stands up and holds up his phone, gleeful. The screen is undamaged.
“That fucker dropped you seven feet and your phone’s fine,” Eddie mutters. “Mine’s at the bottom of the sewers.”
“Yeah, well, you got the short end of the stick—which is appropriate, because all ends of your stick are short.”
“You fucking wish,” Eddie shoots back automatically, and then realizes what he’s said and blushes.
Richie raises his eyebrows dubiously and throws himself back down into the chair. “I don’t know, man, you’ve been asleep for long enough for me to make an Instagram completely dedicated to your catheter.”
Of all the things Richie could talk about, Eddie’s catheter is not quite the absolute bottom of the list, but it’s definitely low. Eddie stares at him. “What?”
“Very popular. Couple thousand followers.”
“What?” He sits up again, resisting the urge to shield himself with his hands, because he’s under the blanket. “What does that mean? Richie?”
Richie drops his phone into his pocket and holds up both hands. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I don’t know how the fuck to make an Instagram, I’m old.”
“What the fuck?”
He can recognize that Richie’s trying to re-establish their old pattern, but Eddie’s freaked out a little. Kind of stripped raw, actually. The blanket feels too thin, and he’s still wearing a hospital gown, every time he gets up from bed his ass is hanging out because nobody has seen fit to give him underwear since he woke up, and he can only hope they’ve burned his clothes as medical waste, and he’s so fucking cold.
Richie looks like he’s losing his confidence too. His eyes are widening a little, his expression turning softer at the edges. “I wouldn’t,” he says. “You know I wouldn’t, right?”
Eddie relaxes a little bit but braces himself on the safety rail. “Why are you being such an asshole?”
He looks surprised, but he asks, “You have met me, right? No serious memory loss with the injury?”
“Not to me, you dick,” he says. “To Stan. To Mike. Probably to Bill, but he didn’t complain about anything specific.”
Richie looks at him for a moment, his chin lowering and his eyes sharpening into a glare. “No serious memory loss? With the injury?” he repeats.
“Nuh-uh,” Eddie says, trying to shut that shit down. “I’m not pissed at them. And you didn’t get hurt, so I don’t see why you are.”
“You—” Richie’s mouth opens and closes. We’ll be seventy years old, asshole! He lowers his gaze to his knees again. “How’re your ribs?” he asks.
Eddie blinks once or twice, then taps experimentally at his own chest.
“Jesus,” Richie manages. Eddie looks up. The expression Richie’s giving him is genuinely horrified.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he says. “I’m bandaged to hell and back.”
“Christ,” Richie says. His lips have gone weirdly white, and he swallows once.
Eddie waits and then asks, “Are you going to throw up?”
“I have emotional responses other than throwing up,” Richie says, averting his gaze.
“Mm. Not an answer.”
Richie flips him off.
Eddie laughs. “I’ll take that.” He holds one hand braced on his ribs, but he really doesn’t feel much under the bandages. If Richie makes him laugh incoherently, for a long period of time, he’s going to hurt. But that used to happen, he thinks. He used to be thirteen years old and laughing with his best friends, his diaphragm aching because they’d been together all day and he’d laughed more than he talked.
Richie leans all the way back in his chair and watches Eddie contemplatively. He’s very aware of the patchy beard growing in on his face, more on his chin than on his cheeks—which is something of a mercy around the stab wound on his face—and the way he must look wizened and shriveled in this bed, under the thin blanket. He’s self-conscious in a way he usually isn’t—not the usual things he’s self-conscious about.
“You ever broken a branch off a tree?” Richie asks him. “Or like, pulled one up by the roots, or something?”
Eddie stares at him. Richie’s prone to nonsequiturs, but he’s completely left in the dust on this one. “No,” he says. “Not a lot of lawn care in the city. Or, uh. Botany. Arboreal care.”
“Arboreal care,” Richie repeats. And then, quieter, almost as though to himself: “God.”
He shakes his head. “Nothing. I just… forgot how much you sound like you.”
It almost hurts, and Eddie only barely understands why.
“Well, I should hope so,” he says. “Why?”
Richie considers and then says, “No reason.”
About eighteen hours after Eddie is congratulated on his intact intestines and granted Jell-O rights, certain events resume.
Sarah comes in when he rings and is polite about his visible discomfort. She’s overheard enough of his conversations with Richie during visiting hours—which these are not, Eddie is thankful for—that she seems perfectly unconcerned about professionalism when she asks, “Mr. Kaspbrak, would you say you’ve got to poop?”
Eddie wishes the clown had killed him.
He doesn’t, really, but he wishes to be as insensate in those lost hours immediately after his surgeries, where people talked to him and he remembers none of if. He covers both eyes with his hands and manages, “Yes.”
“Good!” Sarah says, with more enthusiasm than anyone has shown for Eddie’s bowel movements since he was two. One of the side effects of morphine is constipation. Eddie knows, generally, that this is a sign of good health and improvement, but then Sarah says the words that confirm his anxieties: “Would you prefer a male nurse to help you with the bedpan?”
Eddie considers. He supposes he’s supposed to feel more comfortable with his ass out in front of someone who also has a penis. But there are a lot of expectations and general assumptions Eddie has failed to meet over the years, and now he’s decided not to feel bad about it. At this point, he doesn’t think the gender of the nurse will make a difference.
“I will give you ten thousand dollars if you walk me to a toilet instead of a bedpan,” he mutters, lowering his hands so Sarah can see how dead his eyes must look.
Sarah immediately looks dubious. “You remember what Dr. Fox said about falling?”
“I promise not to fall off the toilet.”
“Oh, well, if you promise.” She smiles at her little joke, but she’s clearly thinking ahead. “I’ll have to see if anyone else is free to help you walk down to the bathroom, unless you think you can wait until the hour.”
“I can wait,” Eddie says immediately. He’s thinking of those rats that drowned in a bucket, who survived twice as long when they believed that someone was coming to save him.
Sarah gives him an assessing glance, like she can determine the capacity of his gastrointestinal system by looking at him, and says, “I’ll see if Nathan’s free. And Mr. Kaspbrak, I’m not allowed to accept bribes.”
Nathan is not free, and as if turns out Eddie cannot wait until the hour. The urge to evacuate his bowels fades after some time, which perplexes him, and then the nausea arrives, and then he throws up. He manages to twist to the side to puke off the bed, but it’s still onto the floor, and he feels awful as Sarah comes by to help clean up.
“Now will you use the bedpan?” she asks him, her expression far less judgmental than she could be. Less than Eddie probably deserves.
“Please don’t add insult to injury,” Eddie murmurs from where he’s curled on the pillows. They are so flat that they feel like they are filled with cotton balls only, and he’s miserable.
He still counts it as a victory when he makes it to his scheduled walk to prevent blood clots and Sarah and Nathan (tall, black, ex-military, sci-fi fan) help escort him to the hall bathroom. Even though he falls asleep sitting up on the toilet, like a drunk.
Nathan is turned politely with his back to him, but he hears when Eddie slumps back and rocks the porcelain tank. “Mr. Kaspbrak?”
“It’s been a long day,” Eddie allows.
“I think you’ve earned one,” Nathan allows, and waits while it takes Eddie maybe twice as long as it should for him to wipe his own ass, and carefully helps Eddie to a standing position so he can walk over and wash his hands. The catheter came out today, and his penis hurts, and his chest hurts. As he scrubs his hands in the hot water, very aware of his ass in the wind, Nathan asks, “Have you thought about assistance once you’re discharged?”
Eddie blinks. “What?”
Nathan’s face remains very calm in the mirror over Eddie’s shoulder. “Someone to help you when you’re back home? Take care of things in the house while your mobility’s restricted, run errands before you’re good to drive, pick up your scrips, get you water?”
Intellectually Eddie knew he wasn’t allowed to drive—he’s allowed to do precious little—but the reminder of how trapped he is closes down on him like jaws. He tries not to think about it. “Like a nurse?”
“Like a nurse,” Nathan says. “Or like a family member, a close friend—someone who can stay with you while you recover and do your PT, you know.”
Someone to clean up his vomit and help him to the bathroom. Eddie turns off the tap and stares at the drain. “I’d rather it be a nurse,” he says. He feels less horrible about the idea of assistance from someone who chose it as a job, from someone who’s getting paid to take care of him. He can’t imagine asking anyone to help him out of the goodness of their heart.
“I can recommend some agencies,” Nathan offers.
“Are any of them in New York?” Eddie asks dully.
“No,” he says. “Sorry, I’ve been here since I was like five, I’m a local boy.”
So with that on his mind, he’s just a delight by the time Richie arrives when visiting hours open at seven, as he promised. Apparently hours are extended on Saturdays and Sundays, visitors being kicked out at seven PM instead of five. Eddie’s morphine dosage has been reduced and he’s cranky and unshaven and itchy and achy by the time Richie comes in, hair still wet from the shower and holding a Starbucks cup.
“Fuck you,” Eddie greets him.
Richie peers at Eddie over his glasses, a gesture that makes him look weirdly studious. “Fuck you too, sugah,” he says in a sunny Southern drawl.
Eddie resists the urge to pull a pillow over his own face like a child.
“Bill still remembers us,” Richie says. “He’s been texting. If that’s what pissed you off. Unless someone finally broke it to you that you have a hole through your chest, because let me tell you, sitting on that has not been easy.”
Eddie turns his head far enough into the pillowcase to roar into it a little. Immediately afterward there is a moment of silence.
“Well,” Richie says. “That was adorable.”
And now Eddie wants to throw something at him. He’s just regressing down into thirteen years old again, ready to drown Richie in the quarry.
“I’m so fucking itchy,” he says, because it’s not just his hair, or even his stitches; it’s an itch so deep in his chest he imagines it rests on his heart. “And I’m disgusting, and I puked on the floor and I hate puking, and I don’t want to go back to New York.”
Richie says nothing for long moments, and then he sits down in the chair. Eddie can hear the faint scrape of its metal legs on the linoleum as he jostles it a bit.
“Like, at all?”
“No,” Eddie says, because he feels bad and he’s being childish and everywhere in the world is a stupid place full of stupid people. He had kind of naïvely hoped that Richie’s presence would take his mind off it, make him feel better, but his skin is crawling.
“I hate to break this to you, but you left something kind of important in New York.”
“Car needs work anyway,” Eddie replies automatically, muffled by the cheap pillow.
“...Oh my dear sweet lord,” Richie says slowly.
“I wrecked when Mike called me.”
“I… We’re gonna get into that, because you reek of safe driving discounts, but I was talking about your wife, genius.”
“Oh,” Eddie says.
Richie scoffs. “Yeah, ‘oh.’”
And that doesn’t make him feel much better. If life is going on—bodies are working, days are passing, Bill is flying back to England—Eddie’s going to have to call Myra sooner rather than later. The longer he puts it off, the worse it’s going to be. But that doesn’t make the idea any more appealing.
Eddie sits up and scowls at Richie, like it’s his fault that there’s a world outside this hospital room but it’s not the one that he wants.
“I just want to take a shower,” he says. His voice comes out a little more raw and broken than he expected. It’s too vulnerable. Immediately he wants to reel the words back in.
Richie looks at him for a long moment, black eyes painfully sympathetic. Then he pulls his phone out of his pocket and starts tapping away at it with his free hand. Eddie assumes that Richie’s giving him the opportunity to get a grip on himself, so he tries to, taking deep breaths and trying to take comfort in the pain the way he did earlier, when he was drugged a little more. It works, but only barely. Eddie remembers that he has a body, and it’s difficult to focus on other things when it’s occupying so much of his conscious attention. This must be the principle behind meditation, behind yoga. It helps. Maybe he should take up yoga. Once the air vent cut through his chest is better and he can raise his arms above his head again, that is.
“Right.” Richie stands up. “Do you trust me?”
Eddie tries to convey fuck you again, but with just his eyes. “Are you gonna make me regret it?”
“I heard the ‘yes’ in there.” He claps his hands together. “I’ll be back, okay?”
Eddie stares at him. Being in the hospital fills up all his brain with its humming sounds and weird smells and constant low-level aching pain. But it’s so boring at the same time—excruciating to try to focus on, but impossible to forget long enough to think about something else. And Richie is just leaving?
“Don’t look at me like that, it’s extended hours, you’ll still get your usual dose of Trashmouth.” Richie smiles, tilts his head back to drain his coffee cup in several gulps, and then stoops to Eddie’s level. Before Eddie knows what’s happening, Richie has planted a kiss into his greasy hair and straightened up again. “Be good. Don’t make anyone cry.” And he just leaves.
But that’s plenty distracting. Eddie becomes almost immediately consumed with the kiss—the audible little click of his lips atop his head—and then the one he gave Eddie when he woke up. The latter could be excused by sheer relief that Eddie is alive at all, but he has no idea what to make of this one. Typical Richie Tozier audacity? Latent signaling? What does it mean when a guy brings up your wife and then kisses you on the head in the same conversation? What does it mean when he calls you sweetheart and sugar, but also says genius like he means you have the IQ of a candy bracelet?
Sarah looks in on him. “Where’d your guest go?”
“He asked me if I trusted him and then he bailed, so probably to commit a crime,” Eddie replies.
She laughs, but then she doesn’t know what they get up to.
Richie comes back just over an hour later, walking into the room without hesitation as if he’s just been down the hall getting something out of the vending machine.
Eddie is vomiting into a kidney dish. “Get out!” he snaps as best he can, but his words are slippery with acid.
Tracy, who has the misfortunate job of holding the kidney dish, tries to calm him with a murmured, “Easy.”
Vomiting into a kidney dish is not easy. Eddie is accustomed to—on the rare occasions he has had to throw up in his life—using either a toilet bowl or a garbage can, and the perimeters of those are much more forgiving. Tracy seems to expect him to simply sit there and open his mouth and be sick, instead of lowering his head and aiming, and if Eddie had the strength to do anything other than hold himself up, he’d hate it. The immobility of it, the expected helplessness.
He doesn’t look at Richie, but he knows that Richie is not getting out; he can hear the rustle of the plastic bag as Richie throws himself down into the visitor’s chair again. Between convulsions Eddie gasps out, “If you—sympathy vomit—”
Richie is loud in his response, so Eddie can hear it even as his ears pop and crackle. “Sorry, nothing about you grosses me out anymore, no danger there.”
“Fucking—liar,” Eddie manages, and pants. Tracy sets the one kidney dish down on the countertop and picks up a second one. Eddie focuses on not puking anymore. He dry-heaves once or twice, but tries to stop his stomach seizing. “I’m good,” he tells Tracy.
“Okay,” she says, and gets him a tiny cup of water to rinse his mouth out.
Richie is sitting in the chair with his feet drawn up to the seat, his chin on his knees, looking like he’s a seven-year-old watching Saturday morning cartoons. Eddie hates him a little. He doesn’t, but he does, a little. Richie’s arm is wrapped loosely around his leg, and the plastic bag hangs down past his feet.
Richie got tall first. Eddie remembers that. Spiky tall, like a grasshopper. It’s the width that’s new.
Eddie spits the oddly sweet water into the second kidney dish and then leans back on the pillows.
“On your side,” Tracy says.
“I know.” Eddie supposes he can’t blame her for not wanting him to aspirate on his own vomit, after all the trouble this hospital has expended to save his life. He rolls onto his side slightly and glares at Richie.
Richie opens his mouth and then makes a clicking sound. “So, uh, do you want me to...?”
Eddie continues glaring, just waiting.
“…Draw you like one of my French girls?” Richie finishes.
“Fuck you,” Eddie says. He thinks he can hear Tracy chuckling from where she’s cleaning up.
Richie unfolds his miles of legs and leans back in his chair, waving his free hand. In a French accent he asks, “In your portrait, sir, would you like the vomit to be orange or pink?”
Eddie stares at him. Did Richie get good at accents at some point? What the fuck? “What the fuck?” he says out loud.
“Mr. Tozier, I’m going to have to ask you not to agitate the patient,” Tracy says.
“Ah, madame, you wound me.”
“I’ll wound you,” Eddie says.
Richie grins. “If you can get up from the bed to hit me, I’ll let you. Come on.” He tilts his head back, presenting his chin for a sock in the jaw.
Eddie grips the safety rail and considers whether he could lean over to reach him.
“Absolutely not,” Tracy says.
Eddie releases the safety rail and wraps both arms around the pillow, and sulks.
“Cute,” says Richie.
Eddie puts his knuckles to his mouth and takes a deep breath in. He can’t keep doing this to him. He can’t be oblivious to what he’s doing, anyway, he’s just…
“Are you sweating?” Tracy asks.
Of course he’s sweating. He’s cold and he just puked his guts out and now he’s all clammy. “Yes,” he replies flatly.
“Does it itch?”
Eddie can’t tell what’s actual itching and what’s phantom skin-crawling from the morphine. “Not sure.” He knows what she’s going to say.
“Okay.” She smiles pleasantly at him. “We’re going to wipe you down, just to be sure.”
He doesn’t want to argue with Tracy, so he just looks at Richie. “Go.”
Richie’s expression switches quickly from entertained to surprised. “Why?”
“Because I said so.”
Eddie fires back with what he has. “Why’d you ask me about trees?”
Richie shakes his head, mouth puckering into a grimace. “Uh-uh, Eds, one of these things is not like the other.”
“Because I don’t want you here, all right?” Eddie says.
Tracy interrupts. “Mr. Tozier.”
“Here comes the half-nelson,” Richie says, and gets up. He gives Eddie an obsequious half-bow. “Can I come back later, or am I banished before you even get to see your presents?”
“Just—” Eddie half sits up, still feeling shaky and nauseous. “Go away, I don’t want you to see me naked.”
Richie gives him a look so dry it could cause brushfires in California. “Unless they’re getting your dick out—”
“Mr. Tozier,” Tracy repeats, her voice sharper. Her hand rests on the countertop. “The patient has made a request. You can follow through with it, or I can call security.”
Richie looks genuinely surprised. “Jesus, purple haze, I’m going.”
“You don’t have to call security,” Eddie says quickly. He’s not that angry.
But Richie leaves, taking his plastic bag with him.
Eddie waits, sitting up, with one hand braced on the safety rail and his other fist on his forehead, as Tracy wipes the sweat off the stitches in his back.
“Sorry,” he says to her.
“Him,” he says, and then sighs. “Me.”
Tracy huffs a laugh that he feels on the back of his head. “That was mild. Don’t worry about it.” She puts a new waterproof bandage across his stitches—he recognizes the plasticky grip—and then says, “All right, doing the front now, don’t look.”
“Not looking.” He shifts around so that she has better access to his incision and stares determinedly past her shoulder. He can see the sunlight reflecting off her purple hair. “Do you like your job?”
She laughs. “Most of the time.” The cloth is just as cold as the rest of the room. Eddie feels weirdly self-conscious about his nipples. “Do you like your job?”
Eddie thinks about it. Really tries to think about it. To find something about his job that he’s excited to do. He likes the feeling of closing a spreadsheet, when it’s done; but it’s still tempered with the gnawing anxiety of wondering whether he’s missed something. At this point in his career, he very rarely misses things, but it’s always a possibility.
“I don’t know,” he admits.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a risk analyst,” he says.
Eddie smiles. “Yeah, I know.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It’s, uh, economic risk,” he says. “Businesses need someone to tell them whether an investment’s a good idea, whether a new marketing campaign is a good idea. Not very exciting.”
“Does it pay?”
“Enough,” Eddie says. It was enough, then, to collect a paycheck for work he was good at and take it home and spend it on groceries and bills. Enough to make him keep going back. Enough to get him out of bed every day.
He can’t get out of bed now.
Tracy affixes the second plaster and then holds up the roll of gauze bandage. “Take a normal breath.”
“Well, you know I can’t do that now,” Eddie says, breathing manually.
Richie comes back forty-five minutes after Eddie kicked him out. Eddie’s not exactly checking the clock, but there’s very little to do. Tracy offered him a book of crossword puzzles, but Eddie’s struggled enough with trying to use his Jell-O spoon. He doesn’t want to see how his right hand does with a pencil. It’s the medical dexterity equivalent of not looking at your bank account balance and hoping everything’s okay.
When he comes in he has one hand over his eyes. “Are you decent?”
“Fuck you,” Eddie says.
“That’s not an answer, Eddie, I’m a Victorian lady, I need to know whether I’m going to see your ankles and just drop dead.”
“You’re an asshole, is what you are.” Eddie, hospital gown tied around his neck and everything, watches Richie performing a dramatic version of Blind-Man’s Bluff between the doorway and the chairs. He broke his glasses doing that, once, back in like second grade, maybe third. Wandering around with his eyes shut and walked straight off the play equipment, banged his face on the fireman’s pole.
“Okay, I’m putting my hand down,” Richie says, and lowers it with the speed of dripping molasses. His eyes are still scrunched shut. “I’m putting my hand down, Eddie. Can you see? I can’t see if you’re looking. Are you looking?”
“Didn’t you break your glasses doing that once?” Eddie asks. “In ’83?”
Richie drops the gag and opens his eyes, shrugging. “If I wasn’t breaking ’em, someone else was doing it for me.” He looks almost proud of the fact, his shoulders squared. Suddenly he’s taking up a lot of space in the room. He holds up the Target bag. “Do you want to see your surprise, or not?”
Just like that? Eddie’s thrown by the switching gears. Normally when Richie finds a weakness he turns into a terrier, worrying it and worrying it until it no longer means anything. What the hell did he buy that he’s so excited about?
“Fine,” Eddie says.
“Do you want to guess?”
Eddie gives him a flat look and says, half-heartedly, “A live cockroach.”
“A—” Richie interrupts himself laughing and then nods. “Yeah, they sell live cockroaches at Target.”
“I knew it. You’re so predictable.”
“Predict this, motherfucker,” Richie says, and pulls a purple bottle out of the plastic bag like he’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It looks like fancy sunscreen. “Ta-da!”
Eddie stares at him. “The hell is that?”
“Well, I googled ‘wash hair no water,’ and it turns out that dry shampoo is a thing that exists,” Richie says. He waves the bottle around. “Made with, like, clay and shit. Well, not shit. But you spray it in, you mush it around, you brush it out. Clean hair. Hospital bed.” He holds the bottle up like he’s going to toss it to Eddie.
“Do not throw that at me, I cannot catch.”
“You could never catch.”
“I can’t lift my arms, you dick.”
“Excuses, excuses.” But he doesn’t throw the bottle of dry shampoo.
Eddie holds his left arm out as far as the safety rail and waits for Richie to put it in his hand. He does, not touching Richie’s fingers as they make the exchange. Instead he focuses on reading the ingredients and the instructions.
His scalp itches. A lot, now that he’s thinking about it. More than the rest of his skin, which means it’s probably not a side-effect of either the morphine or healing from major surgery.
Richie is watching his face and its burgeoning relief. “I figured you’d go apeshit over carcinogens and aerosols and everything,” he says, sounding proud of himself. He sits down on the chair and looks at Eddie with the casual confidence of a cat who has just brought its owner something dead.
“I’m going apeshit over my oily scalp,” Eddie grumbles. “I’m gonna have dandruff, and I’m breaking out like a fucking teenager because they don’t change the pillowcases every day.”
“You’re not breaking out,” Richie says.
“I am.” It’s one of the things Eddie noticed when he was holding himself up by the sink in the bathroom down the hall, staring into the mirror and wondering how this became his life.
Richie frowns, squints, leans all the way forward, and then says, “Oh, yeah,” with the slow realization of a man discovering something right in front of him. He reaches out and Eddie barely notices what he’s doing until one finger curls across his cheek, just a gentle brush. Eddie fumbles the bottle of shampoo. “I didn’t notice,” Richie says casually.
He’s doing this on purpose. Is he doing this on purpose? He has to be doing this on purpose. Right? Eddie’s skin prickles. “Well, don’t touch it, you’ll make it worse!”
Richie withdraws his hand but remains in that close lean. “Probably just because you need to shave,” he says. “You know, like when you have a beard and you get all dry.”
“I don’t know because I don’t wear a beard, jackass,” Eddie mutters. It’s maybe a little more vehement than he would otherwise be, but he’s tired of fending off offers of help with it, and it took him a really long time to get to the point where he can grow a full beard. It still comes in awkward on his cheeks, and there are two spots below his lower lip where hair refuses to grow at all, and he’s never liked shaving below his nose.
Richie, on the other hand, has consistent scruff that adds to his air of perpetual dishevelment. If Eddie reached out and brushed a finger across Richie’s cheek, it would be rough. It would scratch.
“I’m sure they can get a mirror in here if you want to shave,” Richie says. “Like old-fashioned barbershop rules. They drag therapy animals through here, I’m sure a therapy barber is a thing.”
They have therapy animals here? There’s animal dander in this hospital? Eddie feels himself lock up in panic and consciously unclenches his grip on the bottle, trying to focus on something other than allergies he probably doesn’t have or fantasizing about touching Richie’s face.
“I don’t want to shave,” he says, for what he hopes is the last time. “I just want clean hair before I peel off my own scalp.”
Richie gives him a sweeping after-you gesture. “I don’t know if you’re allowed to have aerosols in here, actually, so do it fast.”
“I don’t have a brush,” Eddie says.
Richie produces a brush from the bag. Eddie feels a prickle at his temples and wonders if he’s sweating. He should be too cold in here to sweat.
“I—can’t lift my arms over my head,” he admits, and holds the bottle back out to Richie. “Thanks, though. It was a nice thought.”
Richie does not take the bottle, just stares at him while gnawing the inside of his own cheek, fuchsia hairbrush still held in his free hand.
He can see the wheels turning behind Richie’s eyes. “No,” Eddie says.
“It’s a complete fucking sentence, Richie.” He gestures a little more vehemently with the shampoo bottle and, when Richie doesn’t take it from him, drops the bottle between his hip and the safety rail and twists away from him. Slowly, though, because sudden movements hurt his chest.
“Clean hair,” Richie says.
His tone turns wheedling: “Clean hair.”
Oh god, is Eddie blushing? He might be blushing. “No.”
“Eddie.” Coaxing now: “Eddie.”
“Do not make me throw you out again.”
“Seriously?” Richie demands, all sugar gone now and just mad again. “Look, man, I’m not a doctor, I can do like very few things to help you, but this is one of them.”
“I don’t—” He grimaces. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Eddie doesn’t need help, because he does need help, and he hates it. But he also has help, in the form of several trained nurses who are receiving pay for what they’re doing and have several other patients besides. It doesn’t mean anything to them, that Eddie Kaspbrak in Room 15 needs someone (usually multiple someones) to take his weight on his walks every two hours, or is so constipated from morphine use that he keeps throwing up, and still insists on walking to the bathroom anyway. They’ve seen worse. Eddie’s not even a blip on their radars.
Richie, though—Richie doesn’t have to help him. Richie’s just a guy whose friend got hurt, and the fact that he’s still hanging around here while Eddie’s being a very large toddler still throws Eddie for something of a loop. Eddie doesn’t want to need help, doesn’t want to be taken care of, doesn’t want any of that—and he doesn’t want Richie to feel obligated to offer to help either.
But saying any of that out loud to Richie is way too intense for like nine in the goddamn morning, and the way that Eddie’s throat is tight makes him unsure about whether he’d go straight into an asth—panic attack, or whether he’d just cry. And both of those sound like the worst possible option at the same time.
He looks down at the purple bottle, its plastic cap, its pointed nozzle.
“I want to be able to wash my own hair,” he mutters.
Richie replies immediately, “Yeah, but you can’t.”
It stings. Like, Eddie’s ears ring a little bit, the way they did when he was little and someone swore in front of him, followed immediately by his mother’s bawling the offender out.
“What you can do, however, is get your old pal Trashmouth to make himself useful,” Richie says, tone just as chipper and bright. “And then you’ll have one less thing grating on you here. I mean—not me, I’m going to continue grating on you. But, like, you’ll have clean hair.”
Eddie thinks about it, considering. Richie’s going to have to touch him. Actually, Richie is asking to touch him, to help him clean himself up, to—put his hands all through Eddie’s hair.
“And,” Richie says, “I didn’t go out and buy this shit to wave it in your face and then yank it away from you. Come on, like, I made this mess.”
“You did not make this mess, my scalp made this mess,” Eddie says.
“Oh? One thing in the world that isn’t my fault? That’s nice.” When Eddie glances up at him, Richie’s grinning a little, eyes bright and mouth stretched wide in a parody of wholesomeness.
Richie’s too big to be cute. But like, he is, a little. Ghost of the frog-faced kid he was, beaming at Eddie from the other side of the hospital room.
“Okay,” Eddie says.
Richie’s smile opens to show teeth. “Okay?”
“Yes, fine, don’t make it weird.” He fumbles down with his left hand and looks away from Richie. It takes him two attempts to find the bottle, but he thrusts it blindly at him. Sweat prickles at the nape of his neck, and Tracy would be mad at him for it.
Richie plucks the bottle out of his hand. “Can’t help it, anything I do is by definition weird, and anything you do is definitely weird, so… net weirdness.” Eddie glances back up at him to find Richie is reading the instructions on the bottle, sliding his glasses down to the end of his nose to peer over them.
“You can’t read with your glasses on?”
“Just be happy I can read at all,” Richie replies immediately without looking up.
“Aren’t they—like, bifocals?”
He looks up for that one, grinning. “Bifocals? How old do you think I am, seriously?” He drops his gaze back to the bottle, face sobering, and says absently, “God, what black magic is this? Farrah Fawcett, eat your heart out.” He grimaces and then starts shaking the bottle aggressively. Eddie hears a metallic click from within its depths. “Seriously, this isn’t about to burst into flames, is it?”
Eddie squints at the little bottle in his hand, trying to figure out what the hell Richie is talking about. “Are you… thinking about open flame around oxygen tanks?” he guesses.
Richie’s expression clears immediately. “Yes, that’s it. Specifically guns, though, I saw this show one time where there was a shoot-out during bingo night at a retirement home. Okay. I feel a lot better now that I’m not about to kill you.”
There are a lot of things Eddie could pick at from that one, but he just asks, “You thought that this might kill me, and you were still trying to talk me into it?”
“Look, I don’t understand hair care, I’ve been using three-in-one shampoo, conditioner, and body wash my entire adult life.” He stops shaking the can. “Is that good enough?”
“Your personal hygiene? Absolutely not.” Richie had such beautiful hair when they were kids, all those curls. Eddie eyes his hair now, feeling something like grief. It’s not that Richie’s hair looks bad, per se, but he does look like he has never brushed his hair in his life.
“Your aerosolized clay, thanks,” Richie says pointedly, like he’s not delighted that Eddie took the joke he set him up for. “Is there a requisite hundred-and-fifty shakes before I can spray you, or what?”
“You read the instructions.”
“You also read the instructions! You committed the instructions to memory! If I gave you a stone tablet and a chisel, you could engrave those fuckers just off the top of your head.”
“God, it’s fine, Richie.”
And then Richie stands up, and Eddie’s whole limbic system does something weird.
Gets fuzzy around the edges, if that makes sense. Eddie is suddenly intensely aware of his body and the space he takes up in the hospital bed and how he’s still forced into a recline. It feels like the core of him is concentrated, somehow. Intense to make up for the way he can no longer feel his fingers or toes.
“Lean your head a little bit forward,” Richie says.
Eddie closes his eyes, takes a deep breath that aches, and holds it. He tilts his head forward so Richie can get the back of his head. He feels stiff as driftwood, as if he’s never leaned in his life. His body is a marionette and he's a puppeteer who has no idea what the fuck he's doing.
He almost startles at the touch over his eyebrows, as Richie lays the side of his hand there. “Trying not to blind you,” he says. Eddie opens his eyes reflexively, Richie’s palm and fingers so close they’re fuzzy in his peripheral vision, Richie’s thumb pressed to Eddie’s temple. He’s shielding Eddie’s eyes. Eddie closes them again. “Ready?” Richie asks.
Eddie says, “Ready,” and does not breathe in.
The bottle hisses. Eddie feels faint coldness on his scalp, a faint shift in pressure as something almost weightless lands on his hair. Hair strands don’t have nerve endings, but his scalp is trying to feel something. He can feel the trajectory, the way Richie moves his hand on Eddie’s forehead slightly as he shifts his weight to get the far side of his head, to work back around to above his other ear, to go over the part in Eddie’s hair.
Richie lifts his hand away. Clear cold spots stand out above Eddie’s brows where he’s no longer touching him.
“Oh god, you look like the kid who goes as Doc from Back to the Future for Halloween,” he says. “Like the kids who spray their hair gray. What even is this?” He doesn’t touch Eddie’s scalp as he combs through Eddie’s hair, but the bottle hushes again as he exposes new roots and coats them. Eddie feels like a book and Richie’s turning his pages.
“It absorbs the oil,” Eddie says, hoping that’s all that it is.
The hissing of the bottle stops. “Okay,” Richie says.
Eddie lifts his hands to the back of his neck and scrubs with his fingers as high as he can reach. He can get his elbows to a certain height without his shoulders rebelling. He doesn’t know why the tops of his shoulders are involved in a chest injury, but they have made it clear plenty of times that they’re on strike until he provides better working conditions. He’s not sure what to do about the numbness, the prickling, the nonresponsiveness of his right hand.
“Does it itch?” Richie asks, sounding nonplussed, and then: “Oh shit, did I buy itching powder by mistake?”
Eddie knows for a fact that Richie did not buy itching powder, but because Richie has a history of buying sneezing powder, a little part of Eddie’s brain still gets nervous about it. “I’m rubbing it in.”
Richie tosses the bottle onto the plastic chair. It rolls back off the seat, knocks into the wall, and then falls to the floor. “Whoops,” Richie says, and then cracks his knuckles dramatically.
The sudden flood of saliva under Eddie’s tongue is… startling. He has to swallow against it.
“All right, get ready to look like a Trollz doll.”
Eddie rolls his eyes, but Richie flattens his palms to the crown of Eddie’s head and smears them around.
“That’s not—it’s shampoo, Richie, you’re just messing up my hair.” And Richie’s definitely fucking with him.
“Oh, am I doing it wrong?” Richie asks dryly. “Is this not the standard dry-shampoo application technique?” His hands shift and his knuckles dig into Eddie’s scalp. Eddie instinctively recoils like he’s getting noogied, but Richie stops immediately. Then he drags his fingertips from Eddie’s hairline to the back of his head.
Eddie’s shoulders want to jump up somewhere around his ears, he’s so tense. Fortunately, his broken body will not let him. “What are you doing?”
“Does it hurt?”
“No.” He cringes. “Is my hair super gross?”
“Super gross,” Richie agrees pleasantly, which makes Eddie feel better than if he had tried to soften the blow. “It’s like they pulled you out of a sewer and straight into surgery.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Eddie says. “Please tell me that someone has washed my hair in all this bullshit.”
Richie’s nails scratch across his scalp and Eddie’s eyes flutter shut, like Richie has discovered a cheat code to Eddie’s nervous system.
“Yeah, we took you out and hosed you down in the front yard before we called the ambulance.”
“Ha fucking ha.”
“I mean, Stan wasn’t going for it, but I know you, all right, I knew ‘Eddie would rather die clean than live dirty.’”
“Fuck you,” Eddie says, because otherwise he’s going to have to explain to Richie about his new life philosophy. And Richie’s fingers are making small spirals across the top of Eddie’s head, which for some reason isn’t conducive to talking. He swallows again. “Are you moonlighting as a hairdresser?” His voice comes out lower than he expected.
Richie keeps making little circles on his scalp. “Yeah, people absolutely trust me enough to put their personal styling into my hands,” he says, as though Eddie isn’t doing just that. His fingers sink into the hair at the nape of Eddie’s neck, and then he pushes his fingers forward toward the crown of Eddie’s head. His nails score the back of Eddie’s skull.
It feels… really good. Like, really good. He keeps trying to open his eyes but they want to stay closed.
“It’s the homeless raccoon look,” Richie goes on. “Really sells them on me.”
He massages on either side of Eddie’s head, stroking from his temples, down behind his ears, and then comes back up to make little circles again. Eddie’s still leaning forward slightly so Richie has access to the back of his head while he’s still upright in the hospital bed, and as Richie moves his head around he has to kind of compensate from his abdomen so Richie doesn’t just push him over. But. It’s nice.
“You good, Spaghetti?” Richie asks.
Eddie has a snappy answer somewhere, but then Richie’s thumbs push into the tendons on the back of his neck, and his comeback just wisps away into nothing.
“Mmm,” he says vaguely.
There’s a laugh in Richie’s voice when he asks, “What, no complaints?”
No, not really. Eddie kind of expected noogies and scrubbing at his hair and generally something abrasive but that would leave him feeling stinging but clean when Richie was through with him. He didn’t expect to be… lulled.
“For someone who’s been sleeping for like a week straight, you’re still the tensest motherfucker I’ve ever met.”
Both of his palms settle on either side of Eddie’s head. He moves them back and forth, loosely pulling at Eddie’s scalp and hair, more purposeful and less willfully disorderly than before.
“It’s the company,” Eddie says slowly. He did puke, like, recently. He’s kind of physically wiped out. It’s not surprising that Richie trying to be… relaxing? (Is Richie trying to be relaxing?) is kind of winding him down, making him realize how tired he is.
“Oh, are you also scared of the nurse with the huge arms?”
“Her arms are normal-sized,” Eddie says, because what he almost says is You have huge arms. He feels stupid, but he’s not that stupid yet.
Richie curls his fingers in Eddie’s hair and tugs lightly. It doesn’t hurt. The pull is gentle and relaxes almost immediately.
Eddie should tell Richie to stop fucking around, to brush the dry shampoo out of his hair and get it over with. Acts of hygiene are for maintenance, not… whatever Richie’s doing.
Blissing Eddie the fuck out, is what he’s doing. His scalp is tingling where Richie’s nails raked over it.
Richie abandons any pretense of haircare and presses circles just behind Eddie’s ears, where it’s all skin and hopefully no shampoo. “Are you falling asleep?” he asks.
“Can’t,” he says without opening his eyes. “You’re running your mouth.”
“I have watched you sleep through my trashmouth, so I know that’s not true.”
Eddie doesn’t know why that surprises him, but he supposes it does, in a way. When he woke up this time Richie was silent—still talking, but he seemed to be careful not to wake Eddie. But the first time that Eddie woke up and Richie was there, he was running his mouth without concern about either disturbing Eddie or the lack of response.
“I heard you talking,” Eddie says.
Richie’s hands still. “Did you?”
There’s a note of tension in Richie’s voice that makes Eddie remember the first thing he said was I love you. So of course now he’s wondering what Richie said. What he said that he didn’t think Eddie would hear. And Eddie is just starving to know, but when he tries to think back it’s like a dream filtering away.
Richie is still holding his head.
“About music,” he says, and then opens his eyes. “Right?”
Richie laughs once and then continues massaging behind Eddie’s ears. “Yeah. I tried to play music for you, but the nurses came by and yelled at me about ‘distracting the doctors’ and how ‘causing a disruption in a hospital is an act of domestic terrorism.’”
Eddie sputters. “You’re making that shit up.”
“I am,” Richie says. “One time in college I climbed on the roof of the local hospital and when security came to get me he threatened me with charges of domestic terrorism. I told him I didn’t think Rent-A-Cops were authorized to do that shit, that was the FBI or something. I was also high as balls at the time. Anyway.”
“You—” That’s a lot to try to pick apart. Eddie doesn’t know what to do with that.
“But like, there’s a music therapist who comes in and plays live guitar, and that’s fine. She can do whatever she wants, which seems to be rocking out to ‘You Are My Sunshine’ instead of things people want to listen to.”
“Does anyone want to listen to your music?” Eddie asks, dryly, habitually combative.
“I have a lot of Spotify followers,” Richie says.
Eddie frowns. “Is that how Spotify works?”
“Yeah, I make playlists, people can see them, people can see what I’m listening to.”
“What’s your playlist for ‘long-lost friend in the ICU’?”
Richie laughs a little and releases him. There’s a faint ghost of pressure where he held Eddie’s head, and his head and neck feel… probably more relaxed than he’s felt in his entire adult life. Eddie is well aware of the medical advantages of massage, but he’s never been that comfortable being touched. Being half-dressed and forced into a recline with a near-stranger putting their hands on him was just out of the question for so long.
“If you want me to make you a mixed tape, you’re gonna have to work a little harder for that,” Richie says. Eddie opens his eyes to find Richie holding up the hairbrush. There’s still a price sticker on it. “Brace yourself.”
Eddie, instead of acknowledging the light threat that is hair styling by Richie Tozier, frowns. “Did you make me a mixed tape when we were kids?”
“I mean, knowing me? Probably,” Richie says indifferently. He steadies Eddie’s head with his left hand and starts brushing Eddie with his right.
Eddie briefly thinks about his bandages, about getting clay powder in his bedding and on his pillow and on his drainage shunt, but he’s wearing the hospital gown and the blanket is pulled up almost to his chest. It’s all covered. The anxiety serves no purpose.
And the teeth of the brush raking over his head feels really good, too. Sharp plastic.
“You don’t remember?” he asks.
Richie says, “You know how music is supposed to be one of those things that stays in your brain? I mean, I can remember the words to songs I haven’t listened to in years, just because I got fucking obsessed the first time I heard it.”
“Yeah,” Eddie says. That makes sense. Music is related to brain development, and that’s why suddenly there’s a market for classical music made just for babies. You can play certain types of music to plants to make them grow better. It’s a documented phenomenon. No wonder this hospital has a music therapist.
Eddie woke up because he remembered the words to “American Pie” in his sleep.
“There is so much music I was into as a kid that I just forgot about,” Richie goes on. “I was listening to oldies. Not just the eighties, but like, the fifties. I was rocking out to the Bobby Day version of ‘Rockin’ Robin,’ not even the Michael Jackson one. I went in for all of my mom’s old records, and then the next time I heard them it was like—” He leans around Eddie and into his field of vision, gaze far away and dreamy, and mimes his own skull exploding. Then he goes back to brushing Eddie’s hair. “And I’m out here going, ‘Why the fuck do I know all these songs from yogurt commercials?”
“Yogurt commercials?” Eddie repeats uselessly.
“Yeah, they all end up in yogurt commercials sooner or later. ‘Hippy Hippy Shakes,’ ‘Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,’ it’s a whole marketing scheme. Maggie Tozier is their target audience.”
Eddie frowns. “Are your parents still alive?” he asks, stunned.
“Oh, do you want her number? Yeah, they’re still alive, fucker. In a retirement community in fucking Connecticut, playing bridge and going to wine night, Jesus, don’t ever let me get that old. My ma goes to Thirsty Thursday, I don’t even know what the fuck to do with that, it makes binge drinking uncool.”
A sinking, Maggie-Tozier-related horror is settling on Eddie. “I, uh, wouldn’t have said that about your mom if I knew—”
“Dude, is necrophilia okay with you but homewrecking is not?” The brush whisks over the top of his head, businesslike. Eddie closes his eyes to keep filaments of dust and clay out of them. “I won’t tell her if you won’t, but like, I talked a ton of shit about your mother, it’s only fair. I mean, to me, not to her.” His finger shift on Eddie’s head. Eddie feels like he’s in a hair salon. A hair salon that gets really weird Yelp reviews. “Uh, did your mom…?”
“2008,” Eddie replies dryly. “Pneumonia.”
Richie stills. “Shit, in this day and age?”
“No, in 2008.”
He goes back to brushing Eddie’s hair. “Oh, yes, the medical dark ages of 2008—man, your mom was up your ass about pneumonia literally all the time. You tried to convince me ‘walking pneumonia’ was a thing back in like ninth grade, do you remember?”
“Walking pneumonia is a thing, Richie.”
“No, it’s what you say when you have a chest cold but you’re mad that you still had to go to school.”
“Oh Jesus.” Eddie sighs through his nose. “She had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Diagnosed in 2005. Her lungs basically turned to stone.”
Richie stops brushing again. “Shit.”
“So yeah, pneumonia. She was on the lung transplant list, but for some reason—” He rolls his eyes under his closed lids. “—the ruling body thought she wasn’t a great candidate. And there’s something kinda gruesome about hoping someone’s gonna wipe out on their motorcycle and go brain dead so your mom can take their lungs and continue bitching you out for the rest of—all time, I don’t know.”
Richie says nothing. The brush moves rhythmically over Eddie’s head.
“You still there, Rich?”
“Are you an organ donor?” Richie asks.
Eddie frowns a little deeper. “What?”
“They asked us. I mean, they were going to check your name and see if it was on the registry, but.”
“Yes, obviously I’m an organ donor.”
“Oh, obviously,” Richie coughs.
Eddie thinks about that, feeling the brush continue scraping over his head.
“You gave me blood,” he says after a moment.
He waits for the next stroke of the brush. It doesn’t come.
Richie takes a step back and picks up the empty plastic bag, turning away from Eddie and throwing the brush back into it and then crouching to pick up the bottle of shampoo.
For a moment Eddie has the horrifying impression that Richie’s packing up to leave, and Eddie can’t stop him, and then he chokes down that particular anxiety. It’s his mother, roaring up out of him from eight years in the grave. Richie’s been camped out here and still came back after Eddie used his words and told him to get out. He’s not about to skip out of here because Eddie pointed out something Richie did.
Richie’s knee pops alarmingly. “Shit,” he groans. Eddie stares at the plane of the leather jacket spread over his back.
“Are you okay?”
“No, I’m forty.” He groans again as he stands up, holding the purple bottle up in muted victory. “Yeah, I’m fine, I’m just—fucking trashing your hospital room, why not?” He drops the bottle in the back with a crinkle of plastic and then stretches, arms up over his head and everything.
The hem of his shirt lifts slightly. Eddie can see the gleam of the button of his jeans, and he holds his breath again until Richie puts his arms back down. Immediately Eddie lowers his gaze to the linoleum floor, feeling his face burn. Part of him is afraid that Richie saw that, because if he did he’s definitely going to start in on that as a way of getting out of talking about something that makes him uncomfortable—and Eddie’s not sure why the blood transfusion makes him uncomfortable, but he’s being weird about it, instead of being grandiose and magnanimous and yes, Eddie, I gave you the very blood from my veins.
Actually it’s probably because Eddie threw a shitfit about Richie wanting to help wash his hair.
“Yeah, I gave you blood,” Richie says, voice almost understated.
It twigs something in the back of Eddie’s memory—Richie in the restaurant saying, Yeah, I got married. No big deal. Just like then, the delivery is all wrong. Being too cool about it. Something else coming up behind it. You didn’t know that I got married?
Probably because Eddie heard it and it set off rounds of screaming klaxons in his brain and he had no idea why, except he did, except he didn’t want to know why, because if he knew that he knew then—
“Type O, baby,” Richie says, and jerks two thumbs at his own chest. “Universal donor.” He sits down on the plastic chair. “I thought it would freak you out.”
Eddie blinks at him. “Why would it freak me out?”
Richie snorts. “Because you were super phobic about blood when you were a kid.”
“Yeah,” Eddie says, “but that was during the AIDS crisis, and then last week all the blood came out of my body and I needed some new blood.” He shrugs, hurts himself, and winces. He shakes his head at his own stupidity—both just then and when he was a kid. He’s feeling a kind of sinking realization, a new and deeper anxiety making itself known. If Richie gave Eddie blood, that says something, because—“All those stories about contaminated blood transfusions were bullshit, anyway, they test the blood before they use it, and men who have sex with men aren’t allowed to donate.”
Richie is… not smiling. In fact, he’s very still.
It’s frightening, how still he is.
“What?” Eddie says, on the inside thinking, stupid, if Richie’s never—why would I think he’d even be interested—
“Not anymore,” Richie says slowly.
Eddie blinks at him. “What?” he says, because of course the rules against gay men donating blood only came into being after it was a medical concern, and that’s why there’s no donation anymore—
Richie’s eyebrows lift and it seems significant somehow. “They changed the rule in 2015,” he says. “Now if you’ve had sex with a man, but not in the last year, you’re allowed to donate.”
Eddie didn’t know that.
Because Eddie’s never had sex with a man.
Why does Richie know that?
“Oh,” Eddie says, wondering if he should ask and also waiting, waiting for Richie to say something to fill in the silence, to go off on a tangent or maybe fucking come out to him so that Eddie can come out in turn and maybe explain what the fuck he meant when he woke up in his hospital bed and said I love you, to tell Richie that it’s nicer to hear sweetheart than it is to hear was that your first seizure? but that he’d still like a fucking explanation—
“Anyway, you kind of got a lot of blood all over my jacket,” Richie says. He throws the plastic bag casually onto the empty chair and then folds his arms behind his head, leaning back against the wall and stretching out his legs. He looks diagonal to the floor and wall that way, and at Eddie’s height from the bed his brain pipes up, on display, but Richie’s rolling his eyes up toward the ceiling.
“And Stan’s cardigan. And also all of our clothes. So we thought, Hey, Eddie needs some blood, better get tested to see if we match, except not Stan and Mike, because they still had open wounds, and frankly I’m surprised they let Bev donate, she was just soaking in blood, but maybe they thought it was yours? But only she and I were eligible, so.” He shrugs—big gesture, toward the ceiling. Richie’s playing for the back of the theater.
Eddie keeps staring at him. Did they—did they ask Richie? Did they say have you ever had sexual contact with a man?
Did Richie say yes?
Did they say when?
“Anyway, you’re not going to throw a tantrum over us doing that, are you?” Richie asks, his gaze lowering and focusing on Eddie again. “Because I’m not gonna fucking apologize for that one, jackass. If you’re dying, you can shut the fuck up and take the favor.”
“I’m not dying,” Eddie says.
Richie just looks at him.
He feels… unmoored. Which is not something he’s used to feeling in this bed, where he’s extremely centered and aware of where he is at all times and very aware of the perimeter of his body and blood and fluids. He feels like he’s been in orbit for he doesn’t know how long, but something collided with him and knocked him off course.
And Eddie’s not dying. He’s not dying, and his bodily systems are waking up, and Tracy is telling him that the clarity of his lung fluid is improving, and Nathan’s pointedly hinting about what kind of care he’s going to have once he’s discharged and.
He closes his eyes. “Can I ask another favor?” It comes out as a croak.
Immediately Richie switches to alert and earnest mode. “Yeah, man, anything. What is it?”
And that anything is tossed out so casually—that’s what got to Eddie, about Richie saying I got married, in the restaurant. He was fucking lying, of course, but it was how he said the words like they were insignificant. Like they meant nothing. Like they could be taken for granted. A big momentous concept—Richie Tozier got married. Richie Tozier would do anything for me—reduced down to syllables and spat out without waiting for someone else’s reaction.
Eddie wants to cover his eyes, because he believes him. At this moment, he genuinely believes that Richie would do anything for him—or maybe he wants to believe it, and Eddie just feels like a piece of shit.
“Can I borrow your phone?” he asks.
He doesn’t look at him, but he can hear the creak of plastic and metal as Richie shifts his weight in the chair.
And there’s something defeated in Richie’s voice when he says, “Yeah, man. Of course.” Like he wanted Eddie to ask for something else.
Don’t ask me, don’t ask me, don’t ask me, Eddie thinks.
“Gotta make an important phone call?” Richie asks, tone too gentle, too careless, like it doesn't mean anything at all. I got married. Didn't you know I got married?
And Richie knows. Richie’s not an idiot, no matter what he likes to pretend. Eddie just has to get this over with, and then he can explain everything, he just has to get this out of the way for decency’s sake.
He swallows again and forces the words out. “Yeah. I have to call my wife.”