Eddie spends approximately half an hour being very nervous about his bandages. His discharge instructions were not to take off the bandages for forty-eight hours. But they also told him to change them if they got wet. And he’s already had one infection in the incision on his back, and that’s the one he’s going to have trouble changing on his own. He doesn’t want to take off Richie’s shirt. He doesn’t want to ask Richie for help. He doesn’t want Richie to see his stitches. There are so many things he doesn’t want, but the fact that he’s letting them get in the way of his medical treatment is a bad sign, right? Unless it’s a good sign, because Eddie’s various neuroses would not have permitted this kind of hesitation before his new resolutions. But it’s definitely also a bad sign, because there’s no good reason not to take care of himself—there’s rational fear and then irrational fear, and now Eddie’s got to dial back all his phobias into rational fear, and he’s never been great at moderation or self-restraint, just self-denial, and—
He knows it’s been half an hour since he took the pills because suddenly he feels a headrush crash over his brain in a wave and he becomes aware that this is the best sandwich he’s ever eaten.
“Oh my god,” he says, muffled around the food in his mouth.
Everyone in the room goes very still. Opposite Eddie at the spindly table, Ben’s eyebrows go up slightly. This is the perpetually-calm Ben Hanscom warning sign that he’s ready to call emergency services.
Eddie looks down at the remaining three-quarters of a sandwich on his paper plate. “This is really good,” he says, staring at the edges of baby spinach leaves he can see poking out from the bread. He looks back up at Ben. “You make really good sandwiches.”
Ben’s eyebrows relax as he smiles. “Thank you.”
“Are his eyes all big again?” Richie asks from behind Eddie on the couch.
Eddie insisted on eating at the table, partially because they’re not animals and partially because his back will not allow him to lean over the coffee table like the others. He frowns, peering into Ben’s face. Ben has some big sad eyes, but he looks pretty happy right now.
“Uh, no?” Eddie says, perplexed.
Ben’s smile broadens into a grin.
“I meant you,” Richie says. “Ben, is Eddie high again?”
Eddie scowls and ignores Richie, because if he’s going to talk about Eddie like he’s not even here then Richie can see how he likes it.
“I fail to see how a man enjoying a sandwich means he’s gotta be high,” Ben demurs, because Ben is very nice. Eddie’s happy to be eating lunch with him.
“Yeah, Richie, Ben makes really good sandwiches,” Bev says. “Fig newton you.”
Mike and Stan take up the call: “Fig newton you!”
“I kind of want fig newtons now,” Eddie confesses to Ben. Then he gets concerned that Ben might not feel he’s appreciated enough for his sandwich making skills and quickly clarifies, “But this is a really good sandwich. Like, I can taste all the ingredients.”
Sandwiches have always been something of a stopgap for Eddie’s gastronomic needs. Sometimes he doesn’t have the energy to fight with Myra about making something for himself, because she’s always very happy to say, No, let me take care of it, you worked all day, but Eddie has never really enjoyed food, so being hungry has always been kind of unpleasant and waiting for well-done beef just kind of drags out a generally mediocre experience. Then he feels guilty for not complimenting Myra on her cooking or being properly appreciative of the things she does for him. Sometimes he just wants to eat something quickly and get back to answering his emails, he doesn’t want the rigmarole of a family dinner. I can do it myself, Marty—just let me make a sandwich really quick, my blood sugar’s low and I need to respond to this as soon as possible, this whole profile is urgent and can’t wait until tomorrow at the office. Or sometimes it’s all about forcing himself to eat breakfast because there are pills you don’t take on an empty stomach, so he’d choke down some granola and skim milk and still end up feeling queasy.
This is a good sandwich. Eddie went back and forth on whether he wanted to know what was in it, but Ben simply reported out loud when he was washing the spinach and tomatoes in the sink, and the meats and cheeses he pulled out of the grocery bags were in white deli wrapping paper, so everything seemed as trustworthy as a grocery trip could be. Then he just handed Eddie a prepaid cell phone and went to talk to the Urises about kosher ingredients.
Eddie got a little distracted, immediately going in and filling in contacts as a way to try to distract himself from the cooling sweat on his back and under his arms. Also Richie told him that the pharmacy couldn’t fill at least two of his prescriptions today—which Eddie should have foreseen, it being a Sunday and all—so their departure from Maine will be delayed by at least one day, which is making him feel more panicky than he suspects it should. So at some point he looked up from rapidly texting Bill (Bill, this is Edward Kaspbrak, can you confirm that this is your cell number?) to realize that Ben was holding a sandwich out to him.
Eddie cannot remember the last time he enjoyed a sandwich. Normally he ate very little meat that wasn’t certified grass-fed beef, and this is definitely some kind of poultry but it also tastes like actual food, which makes Eddie pretty sure this isn’t just sliced turkey. He knows things about the American poultry ranching industry. He should not be this okay with eating a bird.
Richie asks Stan if eating a bird is like cannibalism for him, and Stan, sounding bored, asks Richie if he knows even anything about kosher at all, and Richie’s answer is of course no, “but what is your deal with shrimp, man?”
“I can’t finish unless there’s cocktail sauce,” Stan says perfectly deadpan, and Patty covers her face with both hands as she laughs, like she’s embarrassed about finding it funny.
“...I think that’s just being gay, dude,” Richie says.
Eddie sits in the chair and tries to puzzle out whether that’s homophobic or just a real reach for a play on “cocktail sauce” and then wonders if the joke is that cocktail sauce is analogous to semen, which, gross. Eddie’s pretty sure now that he’s gay, but semen has not gained any magical appeal since he woke up and decided to start being honest with himself.
“I think that would really throw a wrench in my marriage,” Stan says blandly.
There’s a moment of silence before Eddie can’t help himself and blurts out, “You’re telling me,” and waits.
Richie loses it. There’s a thud and when Eddie slowly turns around in his chair to see what’s happening—twisting is one of the motions his back has decided he’s not allowed to do—he sees that there’s spinach and tomato seeds and bits of cheese basically flung across the table where Richie just threw his sandwich down, and Mike, Patty, and Stan have all recoiled to get clear, and Richie is just howling with laughter, tipped over on his side into the middle of the couch with his arms wrapped around himself. Bev gives him a look like she finds him faintly distasteful and then sets her plate down on the side of his head, like she can physically put Richie away.
Mike looks confused, peering over the back of his chair at Eddie. “Uh, is that…?” he asks, and then seems unsure how to continue.
“No, I’m absolutely divorcing my wife because I’m gay,” Eddie says. He tries to make it as matter-of-fact as he can—because it is a matter of fact that he is gay and that is why he is ending his heterosexual marriage, on top of not really being happy in it—but he also feels a little bit like the room is getting narrower around him and like maybe he might start sweating again—God those doctors were probably right about keeping everything subarctic, weren’t they?
And Richie’s bypassed laughter and appears to be just crying on the couch, under Bev’s paper plate.
Stan is grimacing and Eddie has a moment where he thinks oh no oh no oh no before Stan says, “Okay, I was not making a joke there out of your marriage, I was—I like my wife a lot—”
“We know,” Mike and Bev say at the same time, and Richie stammers out little hysterical giggles.
“—and the joke there is not that being gay is inherently funny—would you shut your mouth, Richie?!” Stan demands.
From the sound of it Richie does shut his mouth because the tone of his laughter becomes kind of muffled and frantic and also infinitely worse.
“So it was kind of a thoughtless response and I apologize,” Stan says, glaring at Richie the whole time instead of making eye contact with Eddie.
“No, it’s all right,” Eddie says. “Richie knew, that’s why he’s being such an asshole about it right now, but I, uh. Was planning on. Coming out to you all anyway, uh.”
“Congratulations!” Mike says, and Patty actually gives him another round of applause.
Bev is smiling at him. “I’m glad you felt like you could tell us.” Then she kicks Richie. “You knew and you still made that joke?”
“He said finish, cock, and sauce in the same sentence, what was I supposed to do?”
“Be fucking funny!” Bev hisses back, and then smooths her face out. “Sorry, Patty.”
Eddie glances back around to check on Ben but Ben is smiling gently. “Uh, I wasn’t keeping it a secret,” he manages, trying to justify himself, because Ben is perpetually receptive in a way that’s convenient for that. “It’s not like—not like I always knew and just didn’t tell you guys—I wanted to tell Myra first, is all, and, uh. It’s not you guys, it was me.”
Richie’s laughter dies down and the room settles.
“I mean, like. I had to be kind of high to put the dots together, which is… stupid, of me, I guess,” Eddie goes on. “And I was going to tell you because—I mean it’s not really anyone’s business if I’m not sleeping with them, but, uh. I love you guys, and you’re important to me, and. Um.” He breaks. “The joke was right there.”
That gets more laughs than Richie making that same argument, and Eddie feels warm in a pleasant kind of way, and also like his bones are settling for maybe the first time in his life after being jittery and dancing around for forty years.
Ben smiles at him again. “Do you want another sandwich?”
Eddie has to weigh the part of him that just wants to eat more fancy bread against his actual stomach capacity, which has diminished significantly over the course of his hospital stay. “No, I’m good for now,” he says. “They want me eating like six small meals a day or something but I don’t think I’m there yet.” He swallows and turns slowly in his chair and says, “I do need a favor though?”
Stan looks back at him, eyebrows lifted in something like surprise. In Eddie’s peripheral vision he sees Bev remove the plate and Richie sit up, but he keeps his eyes on Stanley. Stan silently points at himself, a quizzical look on his face, but when Eddie nods at him he only nods back in acceptance. Eddie turns, grabs one of the pharmacy bags off the table, and holds it up in demonstration. Understanding clicks onto Stan’s face.
“Gotcha. ’Scuse me, babylove.” He plants a kiss on her cheek, like a stamp on a letter, and Patty gets up. He has somehow eaten his lunch with one hand, using his other arm to keep Patty balanced in his lap. It’s ridiculous. Stan gets up, flicks his eyes at the bathroom, and walks in through the open door. Eddie picks up an unopened bottle of water and follows him.
Patty says, “Doesn’t semen look more like tartar sauce anyway?”
This sets off another small bomb in the room, obliterating the awkward silence with shrieks of disgust and hilarity, culminating in Richie yelling, “Stan, do you need medical attention?” as Eddie closes the bathroom door behind him.
He sets the bag of bandages and gauze on the counter. Stan is already washing his hands in the far sink. “One on your back?” he says knowingly.
Eddie exhales and it feels like all his stress of the last hour comes out in a miasma. “Yeah,” he says. “I sweated in my sleep.”
“Gotcha,” Stan says. “My right bandages were a mess.” He turns off the faucets and dries his hands on a clean towel.
He means the bandages on his right arm, where he had to change them with his nondominant hand. The simple understanding is why Eddie asked him.
“Can you get your shirt off?” Stan asks.
Eddie nods, undoing his buttons—Richie’s buttons. Shirt and jacket don’t want to come off over his shoulders, but he grits his teeth and manages it. It’s bearable with the painkillers, but he’s aware he’s probably making things worse for himself in the long run.
Stan accepts the clothes and sets them on the counter where they’re not in danger of wetness from the sink. Eddie turns to the side so that Stan has easy access to his back and also so that he doesn’t have to look in the mirror while this is happening. Stan starts gently peeling off the bandage. It is only mildly excruciating.
“So why does hydrogen peroxide fizz if it’s not killing germs?” Eddie asks.
The bandage comes free. Stan reports, “Doesn’t look like pus. No red streaks, doesn’t look swollen.” Eddie grimaces and scrunches his eyes shut at the thought that Stan’s looking directly at his incision. “Do I wipe around the wound or across it?”
Eddie takes a deep breath and grits his teeth. “Just water. Across it. Very gently.”
Stan replies with a word that Eddie does not understand, but he suspects it’s not in English. Stan seems to think this is unexceptional though, cracking open the bottle of water and wetting the gauze calmly, so Eddie doesn’t ask.
“And you know not to pull dirt into the wound?” he asks, nervous.
“Yes,” Stan replies. “Blood reacts with hydrogen peroxide because it has an enzyme called catalase in it.”
The first touch of the gauze on his back is cold. Eddie jumps a little, then grits his teeth. Stan is, true to his nature, careful about it.
“When the peroxide interacts with the blood, it creates water and oxygen. That’s why you can use peroxide to remove bloodstains from clothing.”
Eddie frowns. “Why do you know that?” What has Stan been up to that requires so much bloodstain removal, aside from the obvious recent trauma?
Stan sounds quizzical. “I live with a woman?” he replies. “Sometimes I do the laundry?”
Eddie does not understand until he remembers taking Myra’s Midol with him when he left the house in New York, and then he feels like a moron and a bad husband both. Myra did not like to let him do laundry, but she became very defensive about it when she had her period, embarrassed about it. Eddie genuinely did not mind that time of the month because Myra never suggested they have sex then, and Eddie was a little quietly relieved by that brief reprieve from pressure, and didn’t mind fitting up against her back and being her hot water bottle on those days. He never even saw bloody sheets when they were sharing a bed, Myra took care of them so rapidly.
“Oh,” Eddie says, wondering how much of that makes him a misogynist on top of being closeted. His mother never talked to him about women’s periods. He has vague memories of Bev explaining the process in high school and being very uncomfortable, but at least he no longer was horrified that women could walk around losing so much vital blood supply on a regular basis.
“I mean, hydrogen peroxide kills germs,” Stan says, oblivious to Eddie’s meditations. “But it also damages healthy cells.” He sets the gauze down in the nearest sink and wets a second one, which he wipes across Eddie’s shoulders. This is much less unpleasant, but Eddie is very aware of how long it’s been since he took a shower and that he reeks and poor Stan is subjected to it. “So it’s a double-edged sword.” He pauses in cleaning the sweat off Eddie’s back. “Is that actually the meaning of the phrase double-edged sword?”
Something that cuts both the wielder and the target? “I think so,” Eddie replies.
“I mean, I know what it means, it’s just not usually so literal.” Stan shrugs and drops the second piece of gauze in the sink. “How’s that feel?”
Cold. “Better,” Eddie says. “Thank you.”
“Do you want to do your front one while it dries and then I’ll help you cover it again?” Stan asks.
Eddie takes a deep breath. “Yeah.”
He manages to pick off his front bandage without any help despite his clumsy dominant hand. He wipes the incision and the wound down carefully.
“I swear I asked Richie to buy gloves,” Eddie says.
“Not to gross you out,” Stan says, “but if you have a bloodborne illness I definitely already have it.”
“I don’t have a bloodborne illness,” Eddie says. He remembers trying to tell Stanley—Stanley who was always rigid and particular—that it was okay as he was bleeding out, because his blood was clean. He glances up from his stitches and makes eye contact with Stan in the mirror. “I definitely thought about that in the cavern,” he admits.
Stan smiles. “I thought about it in the hospital bathroom. You were a little quicker on the uptake than me.”
And that makes sense too, because Stan was always clean, but Eddie was always afraid.
“Yeah,” Stan says. “I tried to breathe for you. I had—” He draws a circle around his mouth with his index finger. Lipstick, made of Eddie’s blood.
Eddie grimaces. “God, I’m so sorry.”
Stan shakes his head and looks down at the marble countertop. “Someone’s breathing, they’re still alive,” he says. “I got Richie to do compressions but I was not thinking clearly, I will be honest.”
“Hey, me neither,” Eddie says, and Stan makes a face a lot like Patty not wanting to laugh at the horrible thing but grins anyway. He throws his gauze in the sink and turns his back to Stan, looking in the bag for the bandages. “Thank you.”
Stan shakes his head. “You know who wrapped me up in the hospital?”
Hopefully a medical professional? “Who?”
“Ben,” Stan replies. “I was so afraid they were going to put me on psychiatric lockdown for a second attempt, I wouldn’t let any of the nurses see me. Ben found me in the men’s room.”
Eddie hisses. “Jeez.”
“Then Patty showed up and started thinking straight for both of us. Me and her, not me and Ben,” Stan says easily. He affixes the bandage to Eddie’s back, covering the wound without getting any adhesive on the stitches. “I still don’t like her to look at them, though.”
“Easier with Ben?”
“Easier with Ben,” Stan agrees. He takes a step back. “Do you need a new shirt, or do you feel better with the bandages?”
Eddie glances down at the watch shirt wrapped in his jacket on the countertop. “It’s fine,” he says. He doesn’t really want to give it up. And it’s dry by now, and he doesn’t want to go to the trouble of getting a new shirt, and…
Stan helps him pull the shirt over his shoulders and doesn’t say anything as Eddie fumbles the buttons closed. He tucks the used gauze pads into a Ziploc bag and washes his hands. When they come out of the bathroom, everyone is pointedly not paying attention to them.
“You good?” Ben asks.
From his space in the middle of the couch, Eddie jerks awake again, realizes that he was falling asleep, and groans. On his right, Bev looks amused. Richie is frowning down at his phone and texting with a speed that a man of his age should not possess.
“I’m sorry.” Eddie leans back, but most of the group are giving him indulgent smiles. “I’m really tired.”
“You just ate. All your blood’s in your stomach. It happens,” Ben says.
Eddie kind of automatically waits for Richie to make a boner joke, but it doesn’t happen. Into the awkward silence, he says, “I’m also kind of stoned.”
“Yeah you are,” Richie says without looking up, grinning.
“Richie, do you still own a D.A.R.E. t-shirt?” Bev asks.
“You bet I do.”
“Who are you texting?” Stan asks patiently.
“Eddie’s girlfriend,” Richie replies, still not looking up.
Eddie blinks. So does most of the room.
“Still gay,” Eddie says. This time there’s less pressure at the sides of his field of vision when he says it.
“I know, she’s gonna be crushed,” Richie says.
Bill actually texted Eddie back a little while ago—Hi Eddie yes this is Bill—but he hasn’t sent anything to the group chat yet today. Eddie signed into his email, then made Ben and Stan both proofread what he wrote to make sure he didn’t send his boss complete stoned gibberish to explain where he’s been since he took leave without warning back in August. That settled, he debated on whether or not to try online banking on his phone or whether he’d better give it a little bit and let some of the drugs process through his system before he tried to do anything serious with his finances.
Also, he’s a little afraid of what he might find there. He doesn’t know how angry Myra might be, and he’s too spooked to find out. What if he logs into his banking application and finds out that she’s cleaned the accounts? They have joint checking and savings accounts because they’re married, and she could have moved a lot of money out by now, even with a two-thousand-dollar per day withdrawal limit. Eddie’s both totally unequipped to fight her about it at this time and, in a way, stifled by his own guilt and wondering if he should just let it happen and try to get his half back later. And all that’s assuming that Myra would do something like that—which… he doesn’t know. He genuinely doesn’t know whether Myra would take all the money out of their shared accounts. There are some things he trusts her not to do and some things he doesn’t trust her not to do, and the fact that he doesn’t have an answer for this one is probably indicative of why he shouldn’t have married her.
You know, on top of the gay thing.
“If you want to go in and take a nap, you can,” Bev says. “I did.”
Eddie glances at the closed door to the bedroom and shifts his weight a little bit on the couch. He’s already fallen asleep on this couch once today, and while it wasn’t a bad experience overall, he is a little leery about falling asleep on these guys again. Not because there’s anything wrong with them, just because he feels like he’s failing some kind of social expectation. And if he falls asleep on this couch again, he just knows he’s going to end up slumped on Richie, and the fact that he wants that a lot is exactly why he shouldn’t do that.
No, self-abnegation is not why he shouldn’t do that. He shouldn’t do that because he would be getting more out of it than Richie would realize and what if it made Richie uncomfortable? And what if Richie had to get up or something but he just hung out there and didn’t move because Eddie kind of had him trapped? And also if he fell asleep on Richie all the others would see that and—he doesn’t need that. That idea is still embarrassing.
Stan and Patty are cuddled up to each other again, but they’re a couple and they’re married and both of them seem pretty happy about it. And Ben and Beverly are clearly together and sharing this hotel room by now, and that’s a different thing entirely. Even though they’re on other sides of the suite—Ben is still camped out at the table—he keeps shooting her soft looks and Bev keeps smiling. And there are no suitcases out here, so Eddie can only assume that there are suitcases in their bedroom, and what if they need something and have to go in there and Eddie is taking up space in their room and—no, it’s different.
And? he prompts himself.
He’d rather share a hotel room with Richie.
Which is fine, because Richie is absolutely coming to New York just to—be with him doesn’t sound right, but definitely to keep an eye on Eddie and help out if he needs it, and all Eddie’s bags are upstairs, and his discharge paperwork is upstairs, and he really ought to go put his new medicines in his toiletry bag and set up alarms for when he needs to take them and pack his bandages and—
“You can sleep upstairs if we’re being too loud,” Richie chips in. He’s still not looking up from his phone, and he says it in the same casual way he said I got married. Eddie feels himself tense up and tries to consciously relax. Richie raises his eyes and finds the rest of the Losers looking at him. “Fine, if I’m being too loud, I have my moments of self-awareness, okay?”
“Do you?” Stan asks.
“You missed the concert,” Mike says.
Richie frowns. “The what?”
“Mike and Eddie sang!” Patty says, sounding delighted.
“I did hear that,” Bev says. “Can I record that as my wake-up alarm? It was great.”
“Oh god, let me learn the lyrics first,” Mike says.
Richie turns to look at Eddie with an expression of utter betrayal.
“I did not sing,” Eddie says. “I have a gaping hole through my chest.”
“Not really gaping so much anymore,” Stan says helpfully. Eddie grimaces. “No? Sorry.”
“What did you sing?” Richie says, accusatory, like he’s saying Where’s my money? Maybe Eddie’s projecting.
There’s a headache pulsing at Eddie’s temples that he didn’t notice until now. “Choir music,” he says. “From thirty years ago.”
Richie peers over his glasses at Patty. “Was it good?”
“It sounded nice,” Patty replies.
Richie returns to giving Eddie the stink-eye, phone completely forgotten where it rests on his thigh. Eddie glances down just enough to see that the contact he’s texting is labeled Tu Madre.
“Your mom?” he demands, incredibly disappointed. “You called your mother my girlfriend?”
“Turnabout is fair play, Eddie my Eds,” Richie says, picking up his phone again and clicking the screen off.
“That is not what that means,” Eddie says. “It would be turnabout if I told you that I was dating your mom, which I am not—it is not turnabout if you are the one making jokes about me and your mother, you deeply disturbed person, I have a headache now.”
Richie purses his lips and whistles a little bit, small and shrill. “Mean stepdad.”
“Oh fu—fffffruit roll-ups,” he says, remembering Patty mid-sentence.
“Fruit roll-ups you,” Eddie finishes, glaring at Richie. “I’m going upstairs. You’re exhausting.” He folds his arms over his chest and leans back into a sulk on the couch.
Bev looks deeply amused.
“I have the key,” Richie sing-songs.
“Give me the key.”
“I will,” Richie says, the but first clear in his tone. “Once you sing for me.”
His voice turns almost sinister. “Sing. Sing, my angel of music.”
“Maybe we could go for frozen yogurt later?” Ben suggests.
Eddie considers. There are like thirty different frozen yogurt places that have popped up on his commute to work in the last five years, ever since frozen yogurt got trendy, and he has never been to a single one. But he has seen them. And he is aware of their diverse spread of toppings.
And man he’s been craving sugar.
Everyone is still looking at him, waiting for him to decide whether they’re all going to have an outing together or remain in this hotel room talking and doing nothing athletic.
“I want frozen yogurt,” he admits. He holds up his phone and looks at Ben, considering that Ben seems most concerned with logistics out of all of them. “I could set an alarm for when you guys want to go?”
Ben shakes his head. “We’ll go when you wake up.”
Eddie grimaces. He has no idea how long that could take.
“I, uh, threw out my ibuprofen,” he adds.
“I have ibuprofen,” Bev says.
“Is it gonna interact with your meds?” Stan asks.
Eddie grimaces. “She said to supplement with ibuprofen.” Feeling good reassuring pain in his body is one thing; a headache is just an annoyance.
Bev gets up and returns with a bottle of Advil. The pills are coated and sugared, so at least Eddie doesn’t get the instinct to retch the way he did when he took his prescription pills, but he still grimaces and chugs a lot of water. Actually, frozen yogurt is looking more and more appealing now. He gets up, picks up a new bottle of water—Ben seems to have stuffed an entire case into the minifridge and there’s another resting on the countertop—and surveys all the pharmacy bags he has to take upstairs.
He goes into the bathroom, picks up his jacket, and then comes back out. He points at Richie. Richie, who had returned to his phone, looks back up and immediately drops it, holding up both hands like don’t shoot.
“Help me carry stuff,” Eddie instructs him. He almost went full-out and said Make yourself useful, carry my bags, but he feels like that would be going too far.
Richie’s expression doesn’t change at all. “’Kay,” he says, and gets up and jams his phone in his back pocket. Eddie picks up some of his pharmacy bags and realizes quickly that Richie’s strategy is grab everything before Eddie can, because Eddie ends up with like two paper prescription bags and Richie ends up with several plastic grocery bags. Eddie peers in one and finds that, yes, Richie did buy gloves as Eddie requested, Eddie just didn’t see them when he was bringing his bandage materials into the bathroom. Did he get all of his bandage materials out of the bathroom? He ducks back in there to check.
“We’ll see you after naptime,” Richie says, holding the door open for Eddie.
Eddie creeps out under his arm, scowling. “I’m not a child.”
“I am very aware of that,” Richie says.
Eddie resists the instinctive what the fuck is that supposed to mean and tries to calm down a little. “Naptime is for children.”
“Naptime is for me.” The door swings shut behind them and they walk to the elevator. “Do you remember the first time I had coffee?”
Eddie blinks a couple of times against his vague memories. They all went and got snacks at the gas station at some point in high school. He remembers Richie pouring himself a big thing of coffee and cackling to himself under his breath, and Stan going, “Oh no, please no,” but Richie had lawnmowing money and he would not be stopped. They went to Ben’s house to study, and Richie drank the whole thing and immediately fell asleep on Ben’s living room floor, and only woke up two hours later when Ben’s mom came home and Stan started throwing pens at him.
“I do!” Eddie says, astonished. He glances up at Richie and Richie just grins down at him.
“Yeah, the effect did not change,” Richie says. “I turned my sheets blue in college because I kept climbing in between classes with my jeans on. Naptime every day, man.”
“You are a child,” Eddie blatantly lies. “A giant child.” That’s a little more accurate.
Richie grins and pitches his voice up as high and nasal as it’ll go: “I know you are, but what am I?”
Eddie makes an incoherent groan and gets in the elevator. As soon as the elevator starts moving he gets a rush of nausea, and he grimaces. “I think there’s something wrong with my inner ear,” he says, and then hears himself and says out loud, “Fuck.”
“Is it just when you’re moving?” Richie asks.
The meds left him kind of queasy in general, but as soon as the elevator starts he wants to puke. “Elevator’s worse,” he says. Oh god, he’s going to have to get in a car tomorrow. Or—whenever the rest of his prescriptions come in. “How long did they say it would take them to fill my prescriptions?”
“They said by Tuesday at the latest,” Richie replies. “And they said they’d have to special order the intrusive spectrometer, which I’m like, ‘why didn’t the doc send in the prescription earlier’—”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Eddie says, trying to ignore his own nausea. “Did you just say ‘intrusive spectrometer’?”
“Yeah,” Richie says, his face perfectly straight.
“Did you say ‘intrusive spectrometer’ to the pharmacy?”
“Yeah, the invasive splenectomy.”
He’s fucking with him. Goddamn it.
“Did they not have it because you kept making up stupid names for incentive spirometer?” Eddie demands.
“You mean the interesting spiralography?”
“I hate you,” Eddie says, and then shakes his head. “I don’t. But you’re an idiot.”
“Aww, you say the sweetest things,” Richie says. “No, they had no idea what the fuck I was talking about, then I said, ‘the medical bong’—”
“You did not,” Eddie says.
Richie just smiles.
“You did not. You are lying to me. You are lying to me right now. You better be lying to me.”
“The medical hookah.”
“Anyway, I checked and I can order one online,” Richie says, shrugging. “If you can wait that long, anyway.”
The incentive spirometer is supposed to measure his lung capacity and help incentivize him to take full breaths and increase it. Eddie grimaces. It’s changing the bandages all over again—if he behaved exactly like he did for most of his adult life he’d be foaming at the mouth right now about not following the doctor’s orders to the letter; but his discharge papers spelled out his coughing and deep breathing exercises pretty clearly, and if he can just hold out until they get to New York—which should be Wednesday at the latest, that’s only three days—but what if he regresses in terms of lung capacity over three days?
“I guess I’m gonna have to wait that long,” Eddie says.
Richie raises his eyebrows. “New chill Eddie.”
“Yes,” Eddie says. “Exactly.” He is new chill Eddie.
“Give me your bags.”
Once they get into the hotel room Eddie decides to brush his teeth again, because he still feels nauseous and either he’ll throw up in the sink (not optimal, but at least the nausea will abate for hopefully long enough for him to fall asleep) or the minty taste will help. He sets his prescriptions down on the table and goes into the bathroom, and while he brushes his teeth his eyes flick to the side to look at the far sink, which Richie has visibly been using. He hasn’t rinsed any toothpaste out of the bottom of the sink, and his toothbrush is just hanging out there on the counter. If it weren’t for the doorway between the sinks and the toilet, Eddie would go back out and lecture him on the dangers of toilet plume.
Instead his brain clocks again that they use the same type of toothpaste and out of nowhere he has the thought I know what he tastes like.
Hooo boy Eddie needs a lie-down.
“I’m not setting an alarm,” he warns Richie when he comes back out into the living area.
Richie is already slung over the couch in the same spot and position he was downstairs. “No problem.”
Eddie’s kind of nonplussed, wondering if Richie’s going to go back to Ben’s room and the conversation now that Eddie and his stuff are secure in the room. “What are you going to do?”
Richie waves his phone over his head. “Wait until you’re snoring, then call Maggie.”
“I don’t snore,” Eddie says.
“You so do,” Richie replies.
“What’s your mom want?” He’s waiting for Richie to make a dirty joke out of it—not that he’s looking forward to that, but he knows Richie. He’s done like a statistically improbable phone guessing game that proves he knows Richie.
But Richie doesn’t take the joke set up for him. Instead he holds his phone out at arm’s length and squints at it like it’s something to interrogate. “Proof of life.”
Eddie raises an eyebrow at him. “And your texting back is not that?”
“Nah, for all she knows Steve—Steve’s my manager—took my phone and is Weekend at Bernie’s-ing me while I’m in rehab again.” He grins widely. A parody of sweetness.
Eddie stares blankly at him, horrified. “Is that a thing that happened?”
“No,” Richie says. “I asked if he would. He said no.”
Eddie doesn’t know whether to be relieved that Richie is… joking? or not, because he’s still not entirely sure.
“I, uh… don’t know what to do with that, so I’m going to sleep,” Eddie says. “Am I—couch?”
Richie lowers his phone and stares blankly at Eddie. “Are you couch?” he repeats.
“I mean—this is your room, it’s…”
Richie sits up straighter, hand coming down on the armrest as though to brace himself. “Yeah, and you’re fresh out of the hospital, so you’re not couch, you’re mattress, dude.”
Eddie doesn’t have anything more substantial to say than um so he just looks around at the suite, gesturing in a way he hopes conveys that he has no idea what he’s doing.
Richie’s expression softens. “Sorry about the—skin cells, I don’t know.”
“No, but, if we’re gonna be here for a couple of days. Uh.”
Eddie can see Richie switching gears, going from combative to teasing. “Oh, I thought I’d sleep, like, lying in front of the door to your room, ready to fight for your honor. Guard dog, you know.”
That’s a lot.
“It’s a sofa bed,” Richie says, reaching over and lifting up the middle cushion so Eddie can see the handle where the couch pulls out. “I’m good.”
“Oh.” He’s tired. He doesn’t know what to do with this swirling mixture of relief and disappointment.
“And I haven’t even jerked off in that bed, so like, it’s pretty clean as far as hotels go.”
That Eddie knows an easy answer to. He makes a loud revolted sound, steps back into the bedroom, and closes the door on Richie, who cackles, “I can jerk off in it if you want me to!” Eddie stands there for a few moments, letting the good old banter reassure him.
It’s quiet behind this door. He can see the early afternoon sun, bright behind the curtains. There would have been a time when Eddie never would have thought about taking a nap at this time of day, no matter how tired he was; he would have chewed the caffeine gum or drank water or got up and paced until he woke up. Then he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night so he’d take pills for that too. The rush came over him two hours after he swallowed them, making him come over so unsteady he’d creep up the stairs to bed, hanging onto the handrail and steadying himself with his other hand on the steps as needed. Like a kid, lurching up the stairs on all fours, playing at… something.
Slowly Eddie turns to look at the bed.
It’s just a hotel bed. No black-out curtains on the window, just cream-colored cloth, so the room is thrown into heavy golden shadows. TV unit on the wall opposite the bed, a nightstand in dark wood on either side of the bed.
Apparently Richie has no qualms about using a hotel duvet. It’s the same brown wooly material as the blanket Eddie used in Ben’s suite, so Eddie’s instinctive distaste about hotel linens are kind of a moot point by now. The blanket hangs half off the bed, and but the sheets are pulled up and—Eddie can see the imprint of how Richie sleeps. Curled like a crescent. Two pillows are abandoned on the floor; two are still on the bed. One is at the head, a visible dent in it where Richie sleeps on it. The other is squeezed in the middle so it looks like bowtie pasta, left in the middle of the bed.
Eddie stares at it and has—not quite a flashback. Strong visual memory. Richie at sixteen, sprawled asleep on Ben’s floor, arms wrapped around himself. And even earlier—camped out in Stan’s backyard in a pop-up tent, a practice round for when Stan was going to be out in the woods with his scouting troop. Richie at maybe eight years old, not asleep under his blanket but with his arms around it.
Ah, fuck, Eddie thinks clearly. He’s still a sleep hugger.
That’s gonna be difficult knowledge to get out of his brain. Good thing he doesn’t find Richie’s arms super distracting or anything, right?
Eddie steps out of his new shoes again, balancing himself carefully on the end of the bed, and then sits down to peel out of his socks. He lays himself down almost gingerly. Hotel pillows are reused and—and full of dust mites—and plenty of people have slept on this bed before him, before Richie, and that’s fine, he can take a shower—oh wait, no he can’t.
He’s almost annoyed by the time he realizes that the sheets smell like Richie.
He grits his teeth and mutters, “Fuck,” too quietly for Richie to hear him through the door, then gives up, pulls the sheet over himself, and turns his head to the side. The pillowcase smells like Richie’s hair. Not dirty or oily, just… warm. Him.
Chalk one up for self-indulgence.
The leper opens the door and walks in without ceremony. Eddie lies still on the bed, sheet pulled up almost to his chin like a child. He can’t stop seeing it, can’t peel his eyes open, can’t call for Richie, can’t wake himself up. Can’t move at all. Just has to watch.
It walks like a man. None of the crawling lurching gait it had when Eddie was a kid, no lunge like it had in the pharmacy. It could be meeting Eddie in the lobby of his office building, standing upright in the elevator. The face is still twisted and malformed, the eyes lopsided, the hair long and ragged. It wears rags and its skin is still sloughing off, but there’s something almost comic about the way it stands there. Situational humor. Something doesn’t belong here.
Eddie stares at it, waiting for it to reach out and touch him. Waiting for it to speak in that rattling gasp.
Instead, in a completely normal, faintly Manhattan inflection, it says, “Actually, leprosy’s curable these days.”
Eddie’s instinct is to blink, but he can’t control his eyes. So he just listens.
“And they call them leprosy patients now,” it says. “Calling someone a leper is just insensitive.”
So what the hell is Eddie supposed to call it?
Its face doesn’t change, but Eddie can feel—in that weird way of dreams—that it’s smiling. It’s not a nice smile—not that any smile it could give would be nice, would be aesthetically pleasing, but. It’s unkind. Eddie is not safe.
“But you were never afraid of leprosy, were you?” the leper asks.
It reaches up with its distorted hands, its fingers swollen and short and studded with patches of broken skin, and begins pulling its hair out. The action seems to take no effort at all, to cause it no pain—it grabs big handfuls of hair and simply pulls them away, then shakes its hands clean. Clumps of hair dry as straw fall to the floor, slow like cinematic snowflakes.
“You knew,” it says, its voice almost resigned. “Even then. You were a kid, but you knew.”
And it begins taking off its rags. They come away in pieces, much like the way it rips off its hair. It drops them to floor just as apathetically. There’s a little ring of hair and rotting cloth around its feet.
“It was AIDS you were afraid of.”
There’s a rash across its chest and abdomen, its sagging skin. Its nipples are indistinguishable from the lesions except for their position. It is thin, so thin, that where the ribcage ends there’s a drop off, and then a sag to the stomach, the way that happens when people go so hungry their abdominal muscles support their organs. The hip bones stand out prominently. Instead of stretched taut, the skin looks thick.
Eddie, on the mattress, is at eye level with its penis, when it takes off the rest of its rags. There is nothing exceptional about it. It is a flaccid uncircumcised penis. The skin is no different there than on the rest of its body—there are red lesions across the pelvis leading down into the groin, and where there are normally creases and folds in skin these are rough and pebbled and bumpy.
Naked, the leper looks at him and then begins taking off its skin.
Eddie is frightened—of course, it’s a nightmare—but some of the supernatural dread is gone. They killed It. It confronted him in the pharmacy basement and he put his hands around Its throat, and choked It, and frightened It, and made It small. And then they did it again in the cavern—him and the best friends he ever had, and him half alive, and they still won. This is an it, not an It; not a She.
The skin comes away as easily as the hair. There is no blood. It starts at the top of its head, hooking its fingers under its eyelids and pulling up. The skin peels away as easily as wrapping paper, with no sound, no fluids, no grotesque jiggling or oozing. The leper pulls in asymmetric strips, and keeps talking.
“You were thirteen. No one had ever touched you. No one was ever going to touch you.”
Where the thick rough swathes of skin come away, new skin shows through. It’s not pink or raw or shiny. It’s white and clean. No lesions or boils or pus. When it tears away one of its eye sockets the eye falls out onto the carpet and bounces once, and then Eddie hears it roll under the bed. In the empty hollow, Eddie can see the flash of something dark and wet. Another eye. Not mottled and blue and clouded this time. Dark pupil. Bright, under the shadow.
No, Eddie thinks. No, please don’t. Please don’t be…
“And you were still so convinced you were sick!” the leper says. It—he, Eddie supposes, since he’s eye level with his dick at this point, he might as well call it a he—sounds almost surprised by what he says. A little bit outraged. The leper hooks all four fingers in its mouth and pulls down on its lower lip, and that comes away too, skin shearing away in a thick panel down to its neck. The chin revealed under the flesh mask—that’s what this is, it’s a flesh mask, it’s not a living organ, it’s dead—is perfectly normal too, small in relation to the jaw, cleft in the middle.
The leper always had a long face. A long, long, long face.
“No teachers putting their hands on you—no priests, and that was the time for priests—no bus drivers touching you where they shouldn’t—no one ever touched you. No one ever touches you, Eddie.”
That’s not true. That’s not true. Eddie’s thinking of the hospital, of the nurses pulling him to his feet, of Ben rubbing his hands to warm them and then Mike tucking them into his mittens, of Beverly allowing him to fall asleep on her on the couch downstairs. Of Richie, sinking his hands into Eddie’s hair.
The leper takes off his scalp like it’s taking off a bald cap. The hair underneath it is thick and dark and—surprisingly neat, considering it was crushed under the disguise.
“And you still thought you were sick!”
Eddie remembers. Under the porch of Neibolt house, where his mother told him never to go because vagrants slept there. Graffiti and beer and spent matches and empty chip bags, the signs of people just trying to make it. Eddie was eleven and he pretended he had no home to go to, no one to miss him—and he could still feel something crawling inside him, tendrils reaching up from deep inside him for his throat.
One arm comes off like a sleeve. The other he yanks away from as high up as the collarbone, following the space he ripped clean when he freed his jaw. It’s just a human jaw. Just a human under there. Not warped, not twisted. With less detail to worry about, the leper strips out of his skin like a mechanic pulling off coveralls, or a fisherman stepping out of waders. It’s clumsy and it’s cumbersome and it’s more athletic than he has any right to be, but it’s not so hard, in the end.
“Just that it was something inherent to you. Something key in your nature. Something everyone could see but you, and you were so young, and how could you have known?”
The leper—who is not a leper anymore—no longer has a rash spreading across his chest. No sagging skin. His stomach doesn’t bulge—in fact it’s hollow, like he’s lost a lot of weight in a short period of time. There are freckles on the shoulders, up the sides of the thighs. A pale brown birthmark on the outside of one knee shaped like a tongue of flame. Sparse spatterings of hair, follicles deigning to make a cursory showing, trying harder the closer to his groin. Body hair wiry; pubic hair wirier, penis flaccid and unexceptional tucked away in its foreskin as it is, half-hidden in the crispy curls. Faint strain on the abdomen where muscles are visible—that’s a symptom of dehydration, of starvation, of deeply unhealthy practices. Eddie looks at it and thinks that person is sick. Nobody’s taking care of that person.
And bisecting the chest, slightly asymmetrical—a deep gash. Bright red in a way that suggests it should be bleeding, but it’s not. Notched shut with sutures, the thread as thick as barbed wire. Something unnatural there, something that should have killed but didn’t, but it did, but it didn’t. A hollow in the center without stitches, punching almost neatly through the sternum—a little more to the left, the side of the body in which the heart is mostly located. It never thought of precision, Eddie thinks, in Its attacks—It went for whatever would frighten the most, and symmetry would be one more way to categorize the fear, to put It into a box, to understand It. Barely visible on the side, under the level of the pectoral, is a secondary red slash from the intercostal drain.
Eddie stares up into his own face.
“But nothing made you sick,” it says. “It was just you all along.”
And it tries to climb in bed with him.
Just clambering over his body, hands braced on Eddie’s chest, one knee reaching to land on Eddie’s other side, weight shifting. Eddie’s whole body goes taut with something sharper than fear, something trapped animal, something ready to chew through its own leg to get out, but he can’t move, he can’t—
The door opens so gingerly that at first Eddie doesn’t realize it’s happening, and then the creak of the hinges banishes the dream. Eddie doesn’t move, breathing deep as he can manage through his nose, trying to stay awake to chase any remnants of the dream away. The sheet is pulled up almost over his face.
A dark head leans slowly into the room. Richie’s glasses appear before the rest of his face does properly. He peers in at Eddie and Eddie blinks at him, at the room suddenly so dark, and wonders how much of him is visible.
There’s a phone pressed to Richie’s ear. In a whisper, Richie says, “Yeah, he’s fine,” and then gently closes the door again, leaving Eddie alone.
No, Eddie thinks clearly. No, don’t go. His eyes are closing—his head and eyes feel so heavy and it’s the drugs, he knows it’s the drugs—and he can’t resist falling back asleep anymore than he could resist watching the leper’s transformation.
No. No, no, no. This is my dream. This is my head, this is my dream.
The door opens again. Eddie thinks, No, defiant now instead of pleading, and in response Richie walks in. He’s dressed—nothing particularly special, something like a t-shirt—and Eddie can tell it’s a dream because the excruciating detail is gone, leaving behind only something like relief as he slinks casually over to the bed.
“You okay?” dream-Richie asks him.
“I’m fine,” Eddie tells him without moving his lips. “I’m not bad.”
“You’re not bad,” dream-Richie agrees, and climbs into the bed from the other side. The mattress doesn’t sink under his weight. The sheets don’t move. There’s no warmth to his body when he fits himself to Eddie’s back and slings an arm over his ribs. Eddie keeps his eyes closed and clutches the dream with both hands and holds it to him.
Naps are a mistake. Eddie brushes his teeth for the fourth time today and proceeds sourly downstairs, jacket back on and teeth gritted against nausea in the elevator. His instinct tells him that he needs to get Dramamine or Bonine or something for the car ride—or better yet, that he should call his fucking doctor and say what gives? The part of him that’s a thirteen-year-old boy rebelling against authority doesn’t want pharmaceutical help.
That just means the nausea’s not bad enough yet. Eddie’s had food poisoning in his life where he was ready for the end, if only it meant he could get some peace from his body’s demands.
Richie does not understand why Eddie’s so grouchy. At first he seems amused by it—“I’m watching ‘not a morning person’ happen at like four PM”—but when Eddie refuses to relax and chatter back with him, Richie retreats into himself a little bit too. Eddie watches him out of his peripheral vision. Richie’s scrutinizing him hard, getting ready for whatever Eddie’s about to do—battening down the hatches.
Eddie does nothing. He downloads the Wikipedia app onto his new prepaid smartphone. He didn’t know that prepaid phones came in smartphone versions, but of course he’s never been the kind of person to consider having a prepaid phone before. Prepaid phones are for people who are leading double lives, conducting illicit activities, cheating on their wives, or evading the law. Eddie watches the little wheel unfurl as the app downloads and wonders whether any of those have an appeal, now that he has the equipment to do so.
Don’t think so, buddy, his body reports back to him. He woke up in bed alone, of course, but he wasn’t even half-hard from having a full bladder. It’s not like he’s having graphic sex dreams or anything, but it looks like that whole part of his body is completely absent without leave. He wonders why his doctor even bothered to give him a three-week ban on sexual activity, since his nervous system seems to have decided it’s a nonissue.
And the point is that he’s not leading a double life. He’s been leading a second, bland, inferior life that he never wanted in the first place, and now he’s righting the course. And—well, he’s involved in a conspiracy to hide a murder, but there were mitigating circumstances; and he’s told Myra he wants a divorce and even if he hadn’t, no activity which could be construed as cheating has occurred; and he’s not evading the law so much as he’s evading all of the arbitrary laws he set up for himself over the last couple of decades.
He got an automatic reply to his email to his boss. This is not surprising. It’s Sunday.
The rest of the Losers meet them in the lobby. Bev hugs him as though they didn’t see each other three and a half hours ago and asks him how he feels.
He puts his head on her shoulder and says, “Naps are for children.”
“Blasphemy!” Richie says.
“My point stands.”
Unfortunately, Eddie himself is also standing upright. He’s got full-body ache, which he doesn’t think makes sense as a symptom of either having a big hole in his chest or as a side-effect of his medication. The only thing he can think of is that he overexerted himself by being stupid and not asking for help earlier, and now it’s too late for that, and he should probably take more ibuprofen.
A heating pad would be nice. Or just an entire electric blanket, damn the fire hazard.
Instead of Mike’s truck, Eddie and Richie ride in Ben’s car to the frozen yogurt place. Richie has the shotgun seat. Bev climbed into the back without discussing it, and almost as soon as Ben puts the car into drive Eddie gets incredibly motion sick and has to put his head in Bev’s lap.
“What the fuck?” he groans.
Ben drives carefully, trying not to stop and start or take sharp turns. Richie peers over the back of his seat and watches Bev petting sympathetically at Eddie’s hair.
“Okay, we gotta call your fucking doctor,” Richie says.
Eddie takes a deep breath. He doesn’t want to think about eating food, so he just focuses on the frozen aspect of the frozen yogurt, the idea of putting something cold into his body. He would eat ice cubes right now, in fact. And then for the ache in his body—
“Can we buy an electric blanket?” he mumbles into Bev’s knee.
“I’m sure we can,” she says.
Ben didn’t hear him. “Huh?”
“Ooh,” says Ben, sounding genuinely intrigued.
“You hurting, sweetie?” Bev asks.
He thinks that if he didn’t have a hole punched through his body, he’d ask her to rub his back. That’s always done more for him when he’s feeling truly out of it than hair-petting. But also that’s way too intimate and he’s not going to ask Bev to do that, no matter how lousy he feels.
“It’ll stop when we get out of the car,” he says. “I got motion sick in the elevator too.” That is okay to say, because motion sickness is a response to stimulus and not a genuine illness.
There is a moment of silence where he can hear everyone considering the logistics of Eddie climbing three flights of stairs in his current condition. The idea of Ben Hanscom just hoisting him and carrying him up the stairwell is, fortunately, amusing in the way a cartoon is amusing, instead of humiliating. He wouldn’t want it in real life, obviously, but the mental image is funny.
The mental image of Richie carrying him is not funny. And not even because the last time Richie carried him anywhere Eddie was actually bleeding to death.
At that moment Eddie remembers that he’s not allowed to sweat, so an electric blanket is probably not a great idea. He immediately starts trying to bargain with himself—what if he just lies on top of it, like a lizard on a hot rock? Then can he get the blanket?
Then he remembers that he’s a goddamn adult and he can just buy the blanket and he doesn’t have to justify himself. He can just get out from under the blanket when he gets too hot. He can make those decisions.
Ben makes a left turn and Eddie tries to stifle his groan from the vicinity of Beverly’s knee.
Then Eddie remembers that, oh yeah, he has no goddamn money at the moment either, so never mind that.
And that’s basically how the car ride to the frozen yogurt place goes.
They don’t wait for Mike and the Urises to arrive. The second they walk into the little frozen yogurt outlet in the strip mall, Eddie sits down at one of their tables—they all look like aluminum patio furniture, but also like they’re supposed to look like aluminum patio furniture, and everything is extremely shiny and vaguely futuristic—and Richie walks up to the counter and asks, “You got bottled water?”
“Yes, sir,” says the tiny androgynous person behind the counter, who sounds as dead inside as Eddie feels.
And then Richie’s coming back over and handing Eddie a cold bottle of water. Eddie cracks the cap and sips it, imagining Sarah telling him to pace himself. It smells sweet in here but it’s still vaguely chilly. He knows he’ll be fine. He doesn’t even think he’s going to puke in this frozen yogurt store.
“Are you okay?” Patty asks when they arrive, because Richie’s definitely hovering.
Annoyed, Eddie grabs Richie by the hem of his t-shirt and yanks him down into the chair beside him. And Richie lets him, which is a whole different thing, because Eddie’s holding the bottle in his left hand so he has to pull with his nerve-damaged right, and he knows he’s not very strong, and Richie’s pretty big, but as soon as he works out why Eddie’s messing with his clothes he just drops into the chair.
Like gravity is increasing on him.
“Just motion sickness,” Eddie replies.
Patty looks around at all of the stainless-steel panels that promise to release cold bacteria-laden milk solids. “Do you want to eat?”
Well not right now. “I’ll give it a minute,” he says.
At which point Richie pokes Eddie in the neck with the bottom of the second cold bottle of water, and Eddie closes his own throat so he doesn’t moan out loud. Instead a weird stifled little sound comes out of his nose, and Richie grins and lays the side of the bottle flat against him, hand almost resting on the back of Eddie’s neck.
Eddie can’t look at him. He doesn’t have the energy to do that right now.
Stan slides into the booth across from Eddie, puts his elbows on the shiny square tabletop, and props his chin on his hands to look at him. Eddie raises his eyebrows at him in return and waits.
“So do you want us to stay?” Stan asks, voice low and calm.
Eddie frowns a little because at first he thinks he means in this frozen yogurt store—which obviously, Eddie wants everyone to stay, he doesn’t want to ruin anyone else’s time and he is absolutely getting something junk-food-adjacent in his stomach at some point this evening. Then he realizes that Stan’s asking because he wants to go back to Georgia.
“No,” Eddie says, shaking his head. His jaw touches the cold plastic, just lightly. “I mean—I’m surprised you guys stayed this long, actually.”
Stan makes finger guns at him. “It wasn’t all you. My mental health is not that great.”
“I’ll drink to that, bro,” Richie says.
“Don’t fucking call me bro,” Stan replies, and then winces.
“Fig newton?” Eddie asks.
“Fig newton,” Stan agrees calmly. “Patty’s taken off work, but she has to go back soon. And I want to stay with her, but if you need—”
Eddie, feeling very young with his childhood best friends around him, sticks his tongue out at Stan. Stan interrupts himself. Richie makes a little huffing sound like he’s laughing. The only thing they need is Bill there, looking blue-eyed and long-suffering again, and suddenly they’ll be back at a cafeteria table in the fourth grade.
“I’m fine,” Eddie says. And considering everything that’s happened to him—yes, he is, he’s doing very well. He died, and he’s up and walking around and going for frozen yogurt, which on average assessment of how well people do after they die, is something like ten-thousand percent better. He glances to the side at Richie, who’s rolling his eyes, and looks back at Stan.
Stan hunkers a little closer on the table, knowing that Eddie is getting ready to say something serious.
“Are you fine?” Eddie asks.
Because the worst possible thing happened to Stan when he was alone in Georgia, and that’s the only thing giving Eddie pause—not that Stan’s walking away from him and back to his life; Bill did that and Bill’s fine and Eddie doesn’t hold it against him because why would he?—but because Patty works during the day, and Eddie’s afraid of what will happen when Stan’s alone in Georgia again.
“I’m fine,” Stan says, and then frowns. “I think my mother-in-law is coming to visit?”
Richie makes an “oooh,” sound, not at all like Ben being excited by the idea of an electric blanket in the car. More like they’re in middle school and someone has just gotten summoned to the principal’s office.
Stan rolls his eyes. “Shut up. My mother-in-law is very nice.”
“Yeah.” Eddie swings his knee out and bangs his thigh into Richie’s, just making a point. “Like you know anything about mothers-in-law.”
“It’s my father-in-law who’s out to get me,” Stan replies seriously, before Richie can make the expected your mom joke. “He keeps cursing me out in Yiddish, like I don’t know what the f-f-f-f—” He stalls out, grimacing hard, and then glances to where Patty is looking over her options for frozen yogurt. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “—fuck—”
“Okay, Big Bill,” Richie says, and Eddie experiences déjà vu so strong that he gets a little lightheaded, trying to work out if this is actually the third grade and he’s listening to William Denbrough try out a swear for the first time.
Stanley just gives Richie a cold disappointed look, which is also painfully familiar. “—he’s saying,” he finishes, as though Richie had never interrupted.
Eddie frowns. “Are your parents still alive?”
“Dad is,” Stan replies, the same coldness in his voice as on his face, which tells Eddie exactly how that relationship is.
Richie voices what Eddie’s thinking. “Oooo-kay.”
Stan ignores this, looking over Eddie’s shoulder at Patty again. He raises his voice slightly and calls, “Babylove, do you need the—”
“Nope,” Patty replies immediately. “We need this.”
Stanley grins and drops his gaze to the tabletop in front of him, and it’s such a private affectionate look that Eddie suddenly feels a great wrench in his chest, like psych, you are hurt pretty badly, actually, and he loses his breath a little for just a moment. Then it passes.
“Haystack,” Richie says, and Eddie looks around at him to find that Richie is staring at Ben from across the whole shop, frank disbelief on his face. “What the fuck, man?”
Ben turns around, his little paper cup in hand, and just about sneers back at Richie, if Ben Hanscom were capable of sneering, which Eddie suspects he is not. “What?”
“No sugar added?” Richie reads, which is impressive because Eddie can’t read the sign from this distance.
Ben glares back at him. “Yeah?” he demands.
Richie tilts his head to the side like he’s exasperated and sighs, “Come on, man.”
Thank god they and the cashier are the only people in this restaurant, because they are being extremely annoying right now.
“What’s your problem, Richie?” Bev demands.
Richie still has one hand holding an increasingly warm bottle to Eddie’s neck, so he gestures with the other as he says, “My problem is that the man can get all the sugar he wants, and I do mean sugah—” Eddie’s stomach twists and he grimaces, not sure if this is revulsion or attraction or both. “—and he heads straight for the cold milk.”
Eddie glances over his shoulder to look at the cashier. They have leaned down on the counter much like Stan, braced their elbows, and appear to be watching the whole exchange like it’s a spectator sport.
Bev puts her hands on her hips. “Let people like what they like! What are you, the yogurt police?”
“No, but that sounds like something you’d have to give a credit card number if you wanted to watch it online, so I know my next career move now, thank you,” Richie says.
Eddie shrugs him and his bottle away. “Stop being weird and go get some yogurt.”
“I don’t know if I can, now that I know I’m gonna have to watch Haystack eat a frozen dairy confection,” Richie said, almost throwing the last words across the shop.
“What?” Eddie asks, completely lost.
Richie turns to him and with an expression of surprising seriousness says, “When you buy like a tub of ice cream, you gotta check on the side and make sure it’s real ice cream. If it says frozen dairy confection, it’s not as sweet, the texture’s all wrong when you go to scoop it, it’s just a big disappointment. And as a big disappointment, I know these things.”
“Are you deranged?” Stan asks. “Why do you know that? Why do you care about that?”
“Because I’ve just realized that what I want to be when I grow up is the yogurt police, keep up, Stantonio,” Richie replies. He leans back in his chair, drops the bottle onto the table, and splays both hands over his own stomach. “Do I not look like a man who prioritizes real goddamn ice cream?”
Eddie is… reasonably certain that the point Richie is trying to make here is about his weight, but. Richie looks good. Big and solid and soft, and his t-shirt is tight enough that Eddie can see a slight dip in the fabric over his navel, and Eddie wants to touch him so badly, to knock Richie’s hands aside and grab him instead, that he has to stand up and go look at frozen yogurt flavors.
The motion-sick nausea is gone; instead he can feel his heart beating too fast, it’s all emotional. The more space he puts between himself and Richie the easier it is to breathe.
Mike is the only one being quiet in this goddamn restaurant, including Eddie himself, so Eddie walks up next to him and leans on him. Mike looks down at him, looking pleasantly surprised by the sudden appearance of the top of Eddie’s head midway down his upper arm.
“What the fuck is a Dole Whip?” Eddie asks quietly, staring at the big silver levers now that he can read their signs.
“It is—” Mike stops as though confused and then says, “You know, I know it’s tropical, but I have no idea what’s in it.”
Eddie pulls out his new phone and looks up Dole Whip on Wikipedia. Apparently the term is trademarked—which this frozen yogurt flavor sign is electing to ignore. Dole Whip (also known as Dole Soft Serve)  is a soft serve dairy-free frozen dessert created by Dole Food Company in 1986.
“Dairy-free?” Eddie reads aloud. “Oh fuck that.” He walks away from the offerings in violation of Dole Food Company’s trademark. That’s not even a frozen dairy confection. Eddie just got out of the hospital. He also skips the no sugar added, nonfat, and low-fat options, because he’s on a mission, and that mission is hedonism.
There are a lot of fruit flavors. Like, an abundance of fruit flavors. It’s a whole damn fruit salad up in here. Eddie stares at the different options, feeling like he’s trying to access a strategic part of his brain that just keeps sending back 404 errors. It’s frozen yogurt. There is no wrong answer. The universe is not going to punish him for making a bad decision.
Patty walks up to him, pink plastic spoon sticking out of her mouth. She has a medium-sized cup full of pink and blue swirls, sprinkled with what looks like big pink fish eggs on top. Eddie stares directly down into her fro-yo.
“What is that?” he asks.
“Cotton candy,” she says, which answers only one of his questions. “Do you want to try?”
Eddie is trying to improve, but he’s not at a state in his life where he can just share a spoon with Stan’s wife. He thinks he could maybe share a spoon with Bev, but only because her blood is literally going around in his circulatory system right now. “What are the pink things?” he asks.
Patty’s face lights up and Eddie immediately becomes suspicious. “They’re tapioca pearls,” she replies. “They’re strawberry flavored.”
This is new to Eddie. He doesn’t know what a Dole Whip is. He has vague memories of his mother consuming Cozyshack tapioca pudding. He has no idea how one would transmute a cassava root into pearl form, or how it would become strawberry flavored.
What he does know, is that cassava as a plant sometimes contains cyanide, and he immediately becomes obsessed with consuming this one-time poisonous topping based on that alone.
“I’m gonna need all of those,” Eddie says without explaining his reasoning. He’s supposed to have protein and calories, too. There’s a peanut-butter frozen yogurt, but he contemplates the tapioca pearls and their strawberry flavor and weighs whether or not he’s in the phase of his life where he will without hesitation combine strawberry and peanut butter. Is that like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in frozen yogurt form? Or is it gross?
He contemplates the topping bar. The tapioca pearls are labeled “strawberry poppers” and are also available in a mango flavor. Eddie contemplates that sign for several seconds, wondering what the fuck the popping is about and whether he’s committed to a strange new snack food too soon. There’s also fresh fruit, pieces of candy bars, peanuts, sprinkles, assorted gummy candies, whole animal crackers, assorted movie-theater candies, cookie dough, brownie bites, cheesecake pieces, something labeled “marshmallow topping” that is clearly this trademark-infringing frozen yogurt shop’s answer for Marshmallow Fluff, and a little sign indicating that there’s hot fudge and whipped cream at the register.
Patty follows him in his investigation.
“Why are the walnuts wet?” he asks, looking at the little sign reading “wet walnuts.”
Richie would make a dirty joke. Patty tilts her head to the side and then shrugs, spoon still sticking out of her mouth. Did Stan marry an adorable cartoon character? How old is Patty, really?
“Are you and Stan the same age?” Eddie asks, more for his own curiosity than for any real need to know.
Patty pops the spoon out of her mouth and nods. “He’s a year older.”
So Patty’s thirty-eight, because Stan skipped a grade to end up in their class back in the day. Eddie remembers it all at once without ever having realized he’d forgotten it.
“You don’t look thirty-eight,” he says, because she doesn’t, she has this perpetually youthful glow, and he has the vague idea that women like to be complimented on their skin or something. Patty has nice skin. That’s a thing, right?
“Neither do you,” Patty replies, which makes Eddie laugh. “How old are you?”
He grins. “I’m forty-one in November,” he says.
Her eyes pop. “No,” she says, as though in disbelief. Maybe she’s like Eddie and trying to fumble through this social interaction by telling him how young he looks too. Eddie grins and tries to slide down the topping bar to inspect the raspberry sauce, see if it’s congealed or anything—and collides immediately with Richie.
“Whoa!” Richie visibly moves to steady him but his hands are full, and Eddie can identify the moment he remembers he can’t put a hand on Eddie’s back, because he falters. In that moment, Eddie grabs hold of the sleeves of the leather jacket and gets his balance back. Richie stands there, arms around Eddie in kind of a parody of a hug like a big stuffed animal or something.
“Jesus, Richie, warn a guy,” Eddie says. To cover how flustered he is, he releases Richie’s sleeves and sets about adjusting the way his jacket hangs over his chest, fussing with the zipper placket so he looks a little neater and a little bit less like he’s crashing into people in a frozen yogurt shop. His knuckles touch Richie’s chest. Eddie had to get up because Richie joking about his body fat was overwhelming, but there is not a lot of give there. He looks soft. His chest is pretty goddamn firm.
This was the worst idea for concealing how flustered he is. In fact, the situation is worse. Richie is right there, almost with his arms around Eddie, smelling like leather and heat under the sugary scent of this shop. He scrapes an imaginary bit of fluff off Richie’s shoulder with the palm of his hand—God he loves this jacket; holy shit he needs to take his hands off of Richie—and looks over his shoulder before taking a step back, just in case he’s going to bump into Patty. But Patty is standing at a distance that respects other people’s personal space.
You know. Like a normal human being.
And if Eddie’s being half as weird as he feels like he’s being, Patty has a stellar poker face. This is likely, because Eddie’s being really weird and she’s married to Stanley Uris.
“Hm,” Richie says noncommittally, and then he holds out one of the things in his hands to Eddie.
It’s a paper cup. The largest size they have, in bright lime green to differentiate from the pink and orange of the small and medium sizes. Patty has a small. Richie has picked up two large cups for their frozen yogurt and now he’s eyeing the topping bar speculatively, giving Eddie most of his side profile, his eyelids contemplative under the glasses.
Eddie realizes he completely on autopilot accepted the cup and looks down at it so he stops staring at Richie. “What is this?” he asks.
Richie blinks twice, short little lashes fluttering, and then turns to look back down at Eddie. “Were you just gonna put your chin up against the dispenser and—” He tilts his head back and mimes pulling the lever so frozen yogurt pours directly into his mouth. It is not hot, Eddie tells himself firmly. Richie’s tongue is lolling out. It is not hot.
“I—” The idea of having to respond to that in the English language is just out of the question, so he ignores it and says, “I’m putting this back, I’m getting a normal-sized amount of ice cream.”
Richie straightens up and grins. It’s not his usual congenial grin. Eddie’s… a little intimidated by the way his face changes; this smile says I know something you don’t know, and since at the moment the only thing Eddie can think about is how mad he is that the stupid condescending grin is still so goddamn charismatic, he feels his face burn in return. He should take another step back, Richie’s way too close, Eddie’s brain is full of the smell of leather. He can’t take a step back. He is absolutely convinced in this moment that he cannot yield even a little bit of ground to Richie, and he has no idea what he thinks will happen if he does, but—
“Okay,” Richie says. Easy. Calm. Not fighting him.
“Did you—” Eddie looks down into the white bottom of the paper cup and back up. “Did you lick it or something? What’s the joke? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Richie says, but Eddie can see so many of his teeth, that stupid fucking overbite. What is he doing?
Eddie narrows his eyes at him. “What?” He moves to twist to look back at the cashier’s counter. Something pulls in the middle of his back and he loses his breath. Please don’t let that be a stitch.
He doesn’t know what his face does but he immediately hears Richie going, “Shit, you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Eddie spits back, mostly honest. He inhales slowly, breathing through the pain. It’s tolerable. He can manage it. He goes back to trying to make his point, moving his feet to turn in place and look at the cashier’s counter. The cashier is on her? his? their phone now, and by all accounts appears to be praying for death. Eddie can’t blame them. Next to the register, there’s a scale. “They charge these by weight, Richie, I’m not getting the super fucking expensive ice cream.”
“Frozen yogurt,” Richie corrects, because he’s an asshole.
Eddie has a brief fantasy about being a completely uninjured martial arts practitioner in the peak of his health and strength so that he can roundhouse kick Richie in the chest.
He wouldn’t do it. But it’s a fantasy. He’s allowed to have that kind of fantasy in the frozen yogurt store. He’s overheating in the frozen yogurt store.
He needs some frozen yogurt immediately.
“And why not?” The smugness has vanished off his face and Richie genuinely looks confused by Eddie’s decision.
“Because—” He grimaces and leans in a little more so he can say quietly, “—because I don’t have any money with me and I’m not gonna make someone buy me like a thirty-dollar frozen yogurt, obviously.”
Richie’s confusion intensifies. His nose scrunches, his brows furrow, his mouth goes wide and flat as he frowns. “Why not? I’m buying.”
“You’re—” All the air goes out of Eddie again.
Mike walks up to the counter and pays for his non-trademarked Dole Whip, looking quietly content in the way of Mike Hanlon. He has a medium-sized cup, and it’s full of yellow soft serve studded with maraschino cherries. Eddie always loved the way that those looked, really, how bright the red. He rarely ever ordered anything with them. Sometimes a Manhattan in a bar, with one of the cherries resting round at the bottom. No milkshakes or anything—too unhealthy, too frivolous, couldn’t justify them.
Eddie’s in a difficult position. Because he had a sneaking suspicion that it was either going to be Ben or Richie paying his way here, but Ben suggested the venue and Eddie doesn’t want to be like, No, Richie, you can’t buy me a big frozen yogurt, I’m going to make Ben buy me a slightly smaller frozen yogurt. It’s just not acceptable behavior.
But also there’s a part of him that’s maybe thirteen years old and heard Richie talking smugly about the time he took Beverly to the movies—and complaining about how Ben tagged along “but it’s okay because he’s gonna pay me back, he said.”
Eddie looked up over his comic book and squinted at Richie and asked almost suspiciously, “You’re not gonna make Bev pay you back, are you?”
He told himself that it was because Bev had the same shivering anxiety about asking her parents for money that Eddie did, because his mother always wanted to know why he wanted it, when she could give him anything he needed. And his mother was always saying Bev was dirty—well, Eddie looked at her bike and her clothes, which Eddie got the sense were pretty for girls but were definitely worn in and made over and restyled—and decided it was more about Bev working with what she had. But he told himself, in that moment, he was anxious because he wanted to know if Richie was gonna hold money over Bev’s head, which was dicey in a way it wasn’t with Ben.
Richie, thirteen and cocky with his beer-bottle glasses, gave Eddie a condescending look, but there was something proud tucked in the corner of his mouth. “Of course not,” he said, which was how Eddie knew Richie had taken Bev on a date, and that was why he was mad that Ben came along.
And Richie’s bought Eddie a lot of stuff in the last week or so and hasn’t said anything about Eddie paying him back. This doesn’t mean anything, but Eddie’s brain gets stuck, sometimes, and this is so much more interesting to obsess about than the pasteurization of the milk products in this store.
“Uh,” Eddie says, staring down at his empty frozen yogurt cup. “Why?” he hears himself ask, and then fantasizes about being a martial artist in the prime of his life so he can roundhouse kick himself in the face.
Half of Richie’s face scrunches up, eye closing in something way more skeptical than a wink. “Uh, how often did you buy me ice cream when we were kids?” he says, like it’s obvious.
Oh. Oh, of course.
Relief and disappointment. Eddie covers both by snarling, “Because you were always blowing your money on bullshit like yo-yos you didn’t know how to—to—” What the fuck is the verb that goes with yo-yo?
“Yo?” Richie suggests drily.
“—and magician kits,” Eddie finishes.
“That magician kit was not bullshit, we got so much use out of that cauldron,” Richie says. He lifts his chin in the direction of the frozen yogurt dispensers. “Go on. I’ll lean over your shoulder and judge your choices.”
“You’re really selling this experience,” Eddie says.
He stands in front of the frozen yogurt options, watching Mike return to the table with his Dole Whip and cherries. He takes a seat at the table next to Stan and leans across to talk to him. Stan appears to be saving a seat for Patty. Bev stands at the counter and talks to the cashier, and the cashier turns and nods and starts doing something with a blender, and Ben goes to stand next to her. Their shoulders touch.
Eddie takes the brief reprieve to just stand by himself. He doesn’t feel lonely, exactly, not in a room with almost all of his closest friends, but he feels kind of overstimulated, which doesn’t bode well before he goes off on a food adventure. But he’s not so out of it, weighing the pros and cons of chocolate ice cream versus brownie batter frozen yogurt versus maybe he should try the chocolate peanut butter and the strawberry after all? There’s strawberry frozen yogurt. He notices Richie trying to sneak up behind him; his body is attuned to Richie like while he was in the hospital they installed a fucking radar.
“What do you want?” Richie whispers directly into his ear.
Eddie jerks, but it’s not out of surprise, it’s because Richie’s breathing on him. He glares at him and then sighs. “I don’t know. There are a lot of choices. Kind of want everything.”
Richie nods like this is reasonable and then proceeds toward the end of the display of soft serve dispensers. Eddie watches him go mechanically through the levers, putting just a blot of yogurt in the bowl, fussing with the cup as he pulls it away from the dispenser so that he gets a curling peak. Getting both brownie batter and chocolate is weird enough, but it’s not until he moves onto the pomegranate that Eddie caves and goes, “What are you doing?”
“Getting everything,” Richie replies without looking up, concentrating very hard on lemon frozen yogurt pouring into his cup of abominations.
“There are, like, a lot of flavors here.”
“Thirty-three,” Richie replies, sounding happy about it.
“That’s—” Eddie grimaces. “How old are you? Are you a child? Are you playing with the soda machine at Burger King? You may not have it your way.”
“You said you wanted everything.”
He's trying to have it Eddie’s way?
“I can get my own ice cream.”
Eddie barely restrains himself from yelling fuck you across the frozen yogurt shop. From the way that Richie turns to look back at him fuming and grins—that same fucking smug smile again—he’s pretty sure he gets the point across anyway.
“I’m not eating that,” Eddie announces.
“Okay,” Richie says indifferently.
“I’m getting my own yogurt.”
Eddie watches him float over toward the coffee-flavored frozen yogurt and just cringes. This is gonna be a mess. “Don’t bother with the no sugar added or the nonfat or the low-fat ones, I’m supposed to be eating lots of calories.”
“Yes, my liege.” Richie continues his unspeakable work.
Eddie keeps watching and, when he moves to a new group of dispensers, says, “I just don’t want to waste it.”
“Anything you can’t finish, I’ll eat,” Richie says. “I will be your goat. Your garbage disposal.” He looks over his shoulder at Eddie again and jerks his head toward the wall of choices. “Go on, get what you want.”
At the table once everyone’s paid up, Bev looks at Richie’s towering monstrosity of frozen yogurt. Instead of horror—which is the look that Ben is still wearing—she looks more like Stan. Just disappointed.
“You better eat fast,” Stan says, visibly judging both Richie and Eddie.
This thing is going to be disgusting at the bottom. Just a melted swirl of, like, Oreo and pineapple and cotton candy.
Eddie has his strawberry and chocolate peanut butter, with his cookie dough pieces and the tapioca pearls. He understands now why they were labeled poppers. He feels almost appalled by the discovery, but he can’t stop eating them. He is kind of responsible for the thirty-dollar frozen yogurt, which is a dangerous leaning tower studded with gummy bears, something called unicorn bark, and “make sure you get some maraschino cherries. More maraschino cherries than that, come on,” as Eddie had commanded.
Richie is eating it. He’s using more table manners than Eddie has ever seen him employ in his life: carefully scraping tiny bits from the sides with his spoon. Eddie suspects he’s trying not to completely consume any particular flavor until Eddie gets a chance to try it, which makes him feel repulsed, guilty, and kind of swirly inside all at once.
“I don’t think you get to comment, since you didn’t even get froyo,” Richie says, lifting his chin in the direction of Beverly’s root beer float.
Bev loudly slurps from her float so that the straw gurgles, her eyes defiant. Ben’s expression of horror and revulsion dissolves into amusement.
“I know I said I was going all-out,” Mike says, something just sad in his voice. “…But I should have clarified I was doing that in, like, an adult way.”
“That looks really good,” Patty tells him. Eddie doesn’t know if being encouraging is a reflex, but Mike seems to accept it, looking plenty happy with his nondairy frozen dessert.
Stan is sitting there with a small sensible cup of vanilla in front of him on the table. He’s holding the insides of both wrists to the cup and seems to be making no effort to eat it, despite having added fruit and nuts to the top.
Eddie eats more strawberry poppers and catches Stan’s eye, then glances down to the cold pack he improvised, then looks back up.
“They’re so fucking itchy,” Stan groans, head sinking low in something like defeat.
Eddie sits up straight. “I know, right?”
“Do you remember when I had chickenpox? Sorry, do you remember when Richie gave me chickenpox?”
“You’re welcome,” Richie says.
“Yes,” Eddie says, because his mother had pulled him out of school for the week and placed him in quarantine, and he didn’t even have it. He remembers sneaking out with Bill to go spy through Stan’s window and seeing him sitting in his room, looking dead-eyed and pale and speckled with blisters.
“This is worse,” Stan says. “It was easier not to scratch then.”
“You’re telling me,” Eddie says, gesturing at the fucking hole in his chest with the hand not holding his frozen yogurt spoon. He’s afraid to even touch it, afraid he’ll scrape something and open up a blood vessel, afraid he’ll get another infection—and he knows that while the itching means it’s healing, his body knitting itself back together, the parts of him that need healing are so deep down he could never satisfy that desire to scratch, he would never be able to reach.
Into the ensuing silence, Mike says slowly, “You know, guys, I’m really glad we can all bond like this. I’m really glad we found each other.”
Richie and Bev begin giggling. Ben cracks a smile.
Stan leans sideways into his wife. “Sorry.”
Patty is eyeing the Leaning Tower of Froyo speculatively. “Can I try it?” she asks.
Richie’s eyebrows shoot up and he glances automatically at Eddie, then turns back to her without waiting for a response. “Uh, yeah?” The obvious implication is Can’t see why you’d want to, but Patty doesn’t seem to mind. She leans over and sinks a spoonful into the multicolored swirl, hooking a gummy bear and a piece of unicorn bark in the process.
Everyone actually leans toward her a little bit to watch her eat it. Mike actually leans across the space between their tables to get a good look at her face.
Patty chews the gummy bear, swallows, and then gives her verdict. “It’s not bad.”
“Not bad!” Eddie cheers, and clinks his frozen yogurt cup against hers.
Stan looks at Richie, betrayed. “This is what you do to people,” he says.
Richie pops a maraschino cherry into his mouth and nods solemnly.