As soon as they come in sight of Ben’s house, both Eddie and Richie incline their heads in a slouch to peer at it from under the windshield. They look at it for long moments—Ben’s car parked outside in the driveway, Silver leaned up against the front steps. It is without a doubt the right place.
“Huh,” Richie says aloud.
Not that there could be any doubt that it’s the right place. Richie can follow directions adequately, though Eddie read them off his phone just in case the GPS made a mistake. Every time there was a slight differentiation between what Ben texted him and what the friendly AI voice suggested Richie do, Eddie narrowed his eyes at it in suspicion. Richie made I, Robot jokes. Eddie knows he watched that during his Academy Award phase, but he doesn’t think he’s watched it since, so his memory tried to supplement the blanks with what context clues Richie provided him, and after a certain point Eddie started to suspect Richie was making shit up to fuck with him.
Moreover, they know that it’s definitely Ben’s house, because they can see into it, because the house is all glass on one side. Just big windows. Eddie is fascinated, but in the same way that moves him to rubberneck when he sees car accidents, despite knowing that distracted driving is extremely dangerous.
“And he’s… an architect,” Eddie says slowly.
The visibility isn’t great in every room of the house—Eddie assumes that there are rooms, that Ben’s cabin in the woods isn’t just one massive sleek-chic studio apartment—but where the lights are on he can see in clearly. And—yep, Ben’s waving at them.
Richie parks the car with less attentiveness than Eddie would prefer, but it’s hard to blame him because they’re both staring at the affront to privacy that Ben calls home. As soon as he switches off the engine Richie leans back in the driver’s seat and just stares.
“Are we sure that Ben’s, uh… good at his job?” Richie asks. “Because, like, I saw the reviews for the BBC tower, I just figured that was everybody hating skyscrapers, but it looks like…”
“Did Ben really want to be a glassblower?” Eddie asks, craning his neck. He saw the BBC tower stuff too and paid it very little mind, just noting how shiny and metropolitan it looked, and that the critics seemed entirely too vehement in their responses—like the judge from Pink Floyd’s The Wall screaming that Ben’s tower filled him with the urge to defecate. It was a public building, a publicity thing.
This is a house. Where Ben lives. And Eddie understands why the house is in the woods, because otherwise Ben’s “hermit architect” schtick would be instead extremely public.
“Are we sure he’s an architect?” Richie asks. “Because I don’t want to be a bitch about this, but that’s a rectangle.”
Eddie tilts his head and looks at the edges of the building. “It’s more of a lozenge?” he offers.
In his peripheral vision, Eddie sees Richie turn his head very slowly, as though Eddie has just announced that he kind of likes Ben’s greenhouse for people.
“Because of the corners,” Eddie says, blushing despite himself. “They’re rounded. It’s like a—shut up, it’s not a drug thing.”
“A drug thing?” Richie repeats, the beginnings of a laugh in his voice. “Because if I was gonna say a drug thing about Ben’s house, I’d say that he should be supplementing his income growing weed, man, look at that, look at all the sun, nobody’s gonna come out here and bust him.”
“How much do you think he pays to heat it in the winter?” Eddie asks. All the glass means it has to be so subject to ambient weather; it must be blistering in the summer, too. Ben can’t possibly stay here during the winter, he has to have other houses in warmer climes, you just can’t live like this in a New England winter.
“Is Bev moving in with him?” Richie asks. “Because, like, she’s a redhead. She is going to get sunburned indoors here.”
Ben opens the front door and immediately Eddie plasters a big smile on his face and waves. In his peripheral vision he can see that Richie is doing the same thing.
“Do you hate it?” Eddie asks through his gritted teeth.
“I kind of hate it,” Richie replies, tense tone suggesting he’s doing the same thing.
“Oh boy.” Because if Richie thinks there’s something to make fun of here, he’s not going to keep quiet about it. And Eddie’s not ready to be rude to Ben about the house that he’s generously letting him stay in while he gets back on his feet, but he also knows that Richie’s going to make him laugh about it. He reflexively puts a hand on his chest, preparing for the pain.
“What?” Richie asks immediately.
It takes Eddie a second to realize that Richie thinks he’s in pain now. “Nothing,” Eddie says.
But Richie doesn’t push. Ben’s coming down the steps, and Bev is following. They get out of the car and a deep ache in Eddie’s knees makes itself known as soon as he stands and puts his weight on his feet. Also his ass is numb. He’s never had pins and needles in his ass before.
“Hey,” Ben says brightly. “How was your trip?”
Bev asks, “How many baby pictures did you smuggle out of the Toziers’ house?”
Eddie smiles at that and accepts the hugs they gingerly dispense to him. He’s never been touched so frequently, let alone by so many people. It’s still awkward—he isn’t really sure how to hold his shoulders when Ben approaches him with outstretched arms, isn’t sure how to receive affection so much—but it’s kind of nice too. Clearly they don’t want to hurt him, they’re very careful with the strength of their arms and where they place their hands, but every time Eddie feels something along the line of his spine relax. Like he could lean into them, if he wanted. It’s new.
“If you want to see pictures of me in a bathtub or naked in the backyard, you can just ask,” Richie says. For a moment Eddie makes the completely natural assumption that Richie is offering to take nude photos of himself now, but then Richie goes on: “Mags got real into scrapbooking in like 2005. There’s like, a display of me as a four-year-old committing public indecency. She put a leaf sticker over my dick.”
Eddie snorts at the idea of Maggie censoring baby pictures like Roman statues, but winces at the same time. “I don’t think you should call a four-year-old’s penis a dick,” he says.
“Well, pardon me, Dr. K, but I think if anyone gets to decide what I call my junk, it’s me,” Richie says.
Bev starts giggling suddenly and they all look at her. She looks down at her bare feet—her toenails are painted navy—in something like shame. “Little Richie,” she almost whispers.
Eddie holds his chest to brace himself, laughing.
“But it turns out, I’m taking suggestions,” Richie says, switching gears immediately. He looks around at the group and then says, “Oh shit, Little Richie and Big Ben.”
“And we’re done with that,” Ben says diplomatically, turning to Eddie. “How do you feel?”
Eddie scrunches his eyes shut and grits his teeth and trembles with the effort not to laugh out loud and aggravate his broken ribs. This results in vague snuffling snorting noises. He’s afraid to open his eyes to see Richie’s smug expression. “Fine,” he manages, his voice high.
“Hey, Ben, so, did you design this house? And was it a way to try to sublimate a desire to have sex in public places? Because like—”
“Eddie, we’ve missed you so much,” Ben says flatly. “And Richie, you’ll be sleeping in the car, right?”
Eddie gives in and laughs, leaning on the Subaru to support himself. When he opens his eyes little black dots spark over his field of vision and then clear after a moment.
He’s considering the logistics now. If Ben and Bev are taking off to… the Bahamas, or Switzerland, or wherever people go to hide from their abusive husbands while filing for divorce (he might be thinking of offshore bank accounts), he’s gonna be here in this glass house with just Richie. Which is something that he’s been considering with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety since Richie first proposed the idea, but now he’s considering that having no human contact other than a professional comedian might actually kill him.
God, his chest hurts. And he’s stupidly tired considering he’s done nothing all day except sit in the car and digest biscuits and gravy from the diner.
The biscuits and gravy were very good. He doesn’t want to know what’s in gravy, but it tasted really good in the moment. He’s adding breakfast gravy (not to be confused with Thanksgiving dinner gravy) to his new list of approved foods.
Everyone is looking at him with a certain amount of concern that they all quickly try to diguise when they realize he can see it.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Thanks for letting us stay.”
“Of course,” Ben says, blinking in something like surprise. Like he would just let anyone walk in off the street and into his shiny shiny house. Like opening doors for people is second nature to him.
God, is it just Eddie who grew up selfish? Is he missing something here? He knew that as a husband he kind of sucked, but between Richie and Ben he’s starting to wonder if he’s missing out on some serious empathy/generosity gene. With that in mind, he insists on grabbing his toiletry bag and his electric blanket out of the car.
“You don’t have to,” Ben says, like he’s going to serve as bellhop on top of everything else.
Eddie squints at him, daring Ben to take his belongings out of his hands.
Ben holds up both hands in the universal sign for get down with your bad self, crazy person.
Bev makes him feel slightly better, because she grabs Richie’s duffel and when Richie says, “Uh, Molly Ringwald, you—” she just beeps him and follows Eddie.
There’s no safety railing around the deck itself. Eddie’s just happy that there’s a rail on the stairs, because he definitely needs it. He touches Silver’s handlebars with a fingertip as he passes. Just to say hi, kind of; or maybe for luck.
He’s maybe three steps into hiking up the stairs before he realizes that Bev is very close behind him. “Oh, sorry,” he says, shuffling to the side so if she wants to walk around him she can. He knows he’s moving slowly.
“Nah, I’m good,” Bev says, and Eddie realizes that she’s following him in case he slips on the steps or collapses.
“Bev, if I fall on you, I’m big enough I’m gonna hurt you,” he says, alarmed.
Bev’s tone is extremely unimpressed. “You think you’re gonna collapse?”
“No,” Eddie says quickly.
From the car, Richie shouts, “Maybe she just wants a look at that ass, Kaspbrak!”
Eddie twists around and lets go of the railing so that he can flip Richie off.
It’s a short flight of stairs. Eddie ascends it without a real problem, but he does have to set his toiletry bag down on Ben’s deck table and sit in one of his deck chairs when he’s up there. He holds the electric blanket in his lap, convinced in some way that because a blanket is an indoor thing that if it touches the outdoor furniture it will become unsuitable for its purpose. There are heating coils in it so he doesn’t know how to clean it.
“Taking a break?” Bev asks.
He nods again.
“Gotcha.” And that’s it. She ascends the last little flight of steps, opens the front door, and drops Richie’s duffel in the entryway. Eddie can’t decide if that’s because she’s fulfilled the letter of her generous assistance with bringing the luggage inside or because everyone has the urge to hover around him.
He looks at the surface of the table. Ben has a little chess set resting there. There’s no overhang on his weird architectural house to protect his furniture from rain. He really hopes that Ben has some kind of presentation that explains his house to laypersons, because Eddie feels a lot like he did when Mike busted out Shakespeare at the hotel restaurant yesterday—like he’s the uncultured businessman in a group of artists.
He takes his phone out and texts the group chat. Made it to Ben’s, he says, just so that Bill, Mike, Stan, and Patty are all updated.
Patty replies first: Thank you for letting us know!
Eddie hears the answering buzzes and dings from Ben’s, Bev’s, and Richie’s phones. Richie gets both of Eddie’s suitcases in his hands and complains theatrically as he drags them up the stairs, but he doesn’t seem to have a real problem hauling them, or fending off Ben who appears to be half-jokingly half-incredibly-seriously trying to take one from him. Eddie watches this like a spectator sport, gets self-conscious about being seen looking at Richie’s biceps, looks back down at his phone, and then remembers that if there’s a spectacle going on he’s allowed to look. So.
“You look flushed,” Ben says when he comes up the steps empty-handed (Richie put his weight on both Eddie’s suitcases and fended Ben off with one leg, which Eddie didn’t think Richie was flexible enough to do at his age considering how he failed at the Risky Business spin this morning).
“I don’t have a fever,” Eddie says so quickly that it doesn’t sound like he’s concealing unprecedented attraction for an adult man who just threatened to Karate Kid crane-kick another adult man. It sounds like he’s concealing an infection in one of his massive life-threatening wounds, while ten hours away from the medical treatment familiar with his case. He feels his face prickle and averts his gaze to look around at the deck. “Did you design this house?”
“Yes,” Ben says easily, and Eddie recognizes that mixture of pride and embarrassment. It’s not like Richie loudly calling Ben gorgeous at the table at the Jade of the Orient; it’s more like the nonchalance with which Ben admitted to building an entire clubhouse complete with rafters and floorboards, just in his free time between school letting out in June and the fourth of July. Eddie is wondering if he can blame whatever magical powers gave Stan psychic abilities for Ben’s instinctive construction abilities, because it explains why all of Eddie’s expectations about how long construction should take are “unreasonable” and “laughable.”
Eddie can’t say he likes the house now, but it’s very modern and very elegant. Not quite Eddie’s masculine ideal, but certainly closer to the idea of the billionaire CEO, “the Most Interesting Man in the World” from Dos Equis campaigns, the successful entrepreneur. There were times when Eddie aspired to it—the sleek style, the cleanliness of it, the unbroken visual lines—but if he’s honest, he always felt like he was thinking too hard about it and that diminished any of the “effortlessness” that seemed to be a requirement. He told himself that real men didn’t care about interior decorating that much, and that Myra’s tastes—similarly polished, classic, black and white—meant he could probably leave it to her.
God, Eddie has such fucking issues. Is he gonna have to go out and figure out what clothes he actually likes, not just the ones he feels he’s supposed to wear? Is he gonna have to—
Yes, he is going to have to figure out how to decorate an apartment or a house, because he doesn’t have one to live in and all of his furniture is at the mercy of his wife, who is probably very angry with him right now.
“Holy shit, man,” he says to Ben, because at the moment he doesn’t have a compliment that feels sincere, and he’s not gonna lie to him. It is impressive that Ben builds houses, that Ben took something that was—what, a sketch on paper?—and willed it into existence. Eddie’s never done that, not that he can remember. Ben creates. Ben builds.
Ben gives a shy little smile, hearing the approval.
Richie thunks both suitcases down onto the deck at the top of the steps. “Behold, Eddie Kaspbrak, sat for ten hours for the opportunity to sit directly outside Ben’s house,” he says.
“Fuck you, Trashmouth,” Bev says immediately. “He’ll sit where he fucking wants.”
“Yeah, I’ll sit where I want!” Eddie agrees, though he knows Richie’s picking a fight just because he’s wound up and antsy from the long car ride, and apparently playing keepaway with Ben hasn’t gotten it out of his system. If Richie wants to play, he’ll play.
Richie doesn’t even go for the obvious, he just says, “Dick joke, dick joke,” and then starts hauling the suitcases up the next two stairs into the house. Bev holds the door open for him, and he gives her an overdramatic wink.
Eddie stands up, there’s a swooping sensation in his head, and he staggers into Ben.
“Whoa,” Ben says, hands coming up to hold Eddie at the elbows. “You okay?”
“Little concerned about the lack of safety rails,” Eddie says through the dizzy spell.
“Hey, what the fuck?” Richie says, not unkindly from behind them.
Eddie doesn’t turn around to look at him, wondering if this will go away or if he needs to sit back down. Is it a blood clot? Is that a thing? His legs feel fine, and the fact that they split up the drive into two legs instead of one long ten-hour trip means that’s less likely, right? He’s sure that he knows the statistics on circulatory problems in long haul truck drivers, he just… can’t remember them right now.
Hands touch his shoulders and Eddie jumps badly. “Shit,” Richie says practically in Eddie’s ear. He’s so fucking handsy, Eddie doesn’t know what to do with it, Ben in front of him and Richie behind him. He tilts his head back and looks up into Richie’s big concerned eyes, and then Eddie fucking gives up and slumps back to put his weight on Richie. He looks sturdier than Ben. “Are you passing out?” Richie asks.
“No,” Eddie says. “Give me a fucking minute, why do you think I was sitting down, asshole?”
“Eddie,” Ben says gently. “Can I touch your forehead?”
Eddie does not want his temperature taken, and palm to face isn’t an accurate measurement of it either. “No, thank you,” he says.
“There’s a thermometer in the first aid kit,” Ben says, glancing up toward the door in what Eddie has to assume is Bev’s general direction.
“I do not have an infection,” Eddie says, voice pressed out thin and higher than it would be otherwise. He swallows. “I just stood up too fast. I’m fine now.” He straightens up away from Richie—he knows he doesn’t have a fever, because Richie feels warm. “Let’s go in the house, I need some water.”
There’s concern in Bev’s face—she’s still holding the door—but she says nothing. Eddie climbs the two steps up to the house, Richie practically on his heels, and internally kicks himself for not doing the polite thing and letting Ben lead them in so he can show them around. Whatever. He needs to be on a couch, like, immediately.
It really looks like the house is one big rectangle. Eddie is confronted with a second small set of stairs leading up onto a landing, and then a regular-sized set of stairs on his right that leads to a lower level. They are, of course, architecturally attractive floating stairs that you can easily lose a sandal or a slipper on. Eddie is just relieved that there are any railings to them at all—simple dark wood slabs like the steps themselves.
“Okay, so it’s a split level,” Ben says. “But most everything is upstairs, Eddie, so you don’t have to worry about that. I was thinking you can take the guest room up here and then when Bev and I leave you can have the master suite; the bathroom’s nicer.”
It looks like Ben has taken “open concept” and run with it. On the left Eddie can see all the way back into what looks like a kitchen—not a big kitchen, but that’s definitely some kind of stainless-steel appliance tucked into a corner. He grabs hold of the railing and hikes up to the first level to look around.
On the right is a living room. The couch is long and low, black leather with alternating black and white throw pillows stacked across it. It’s at least the width of a twin-size bed.
I’ll be on the couch if you need me.
Eddie shivers a little and finally spots the collapsed blinds to the side of the floor-to-ceiling window—big panels like the ones he’s accustomed to in office buildings, but instead of descending from a height it looks like they can be pulled manually. He’ll have to ask about that—he knows that the ones that unfold from the top of the window frame get stuck on their motors a lot, so the idea of being able to manually darken your room is a good one, but what if they’re also supposed to be automated and Eddie just rips one out of its track? Also, how has that couch gone so long without being sunbleached? It still looks glossy.
The entryway leads into what strikes Eddie as kind of a home office sort of thing. If Ben’s an architect and his home is part of his portfolio, it makes sense that he wants the parts of it on display to be professional and presentable. Inset cabinets bracket either side of a painting that looks like a crane under some kind of swamp tree. Eddie stares at it for a long moment, the black and white obscurity.
“Hey, Ben, I didn’t know you were Asian,” Richie says. Eddie turns around to find he has lifted something off of Ben’s desk, a little statue that could be either a lion or a dog and probably really is neither. If Richie were within arm’s reach Eddie would swat at him again—what if the statue’s not Asian?—but Eddie is also getting real generic Asian vibes just from this crane painting.
Ben looks a little sheepish, rubbing at the back of his neck with a hand. “I’m not, I just did some work in China with a Japanese firm, and then we went to some awards in Thailand. Completely different aesthetics—the Thai awards were fun—but some of the stuff I picked up while I was traveling.” He points at the little statue in Richie’s hand. “The dragon’s from the year I spent in Nanjing.”
Eddie frowns down at the nondescript white cabinets with their birch tops. “Didn’t Bill have a grandma from Korea?” he asks, trying to access deep memory.
Bev and Ben, having met Bill far later than them, frown, but Richie turns around to look at Eddie, his eyes suddenly wide and his face breaking into a grin. “Oh my god, Mrs. Sunny!” he says.
“That was not her name,” Eddie says. “You’re being racist, that was not her name.”
“That’s what she told me to call her!” Richie says. “She had, like—” He holds out one hand and curves his fingers so that his pinkie and thumb point down and his other three fingers reach out. “—old people claws, she like, patted the back of my hand and said some shit about my glasses.”
“She did not,” Eddie says preemptively, taking out his phone and texting Bill to head this off before it becomes a thing. Was one of your grandmothers from Korea? Why is Richie calling her Mrs. Sunny?
There are a number of floating ellipses before Bill sends back THE TURTLE SHIP!!!
Eddie has no idea what that means but he happens to look over across Ben’s office—he doesn’t even have his desk pressed against a wall, it’s just out in the middle of the room, like a man who truly has no cares in the world—and land his eyes on a giant golden turtle statue.
“What the fuck, Ben?” he asks.
Richie has spotted it too and is cautiously stepping over it to straddle it, then crouching as though he’s going to sit on the turtle and ride it.
“That won’t support your weight,” Ben says casually. He walks past Eddie and Richie without concern about what they might do to his belongings and into the kitchen.
Automatically Eddie looks to Bev for support. She’s still standing by the stairs, her hands clasped loosely behind her back. Eddie thinks of her in her black and white when she arrived at the Jade of the Orient. She’s wearing a faded maroon sweatshirt now. Her hair’s still the brightest thing in the room—including the turtle statue.
Richie is mercifully not sitting on the turtle statue, just hovering over it as close as he can get without his legs giving out. Eddie looks at his thighs in his jeans, blushes, and returns to staring at the crane painting. Something about the vegetation and the way it hangs off the bird—like the bird itself is the trunk of the tree—reminds Eddie of that plant they called bamboo in the Barrens. At least four potted houseplants cluster in the sink directly under the canvas, the tips of their leaves crispy and brown.
Whatever Ben is doing, there are cabinets and what sounds like fridge doors opening and closing. He returns moments later and holds a glass of water out to Eddie. Eddie takes it, a little startled. The water is cold and he sips it gratefully.
“You can take a seat if you want,” Ben says. “Make yourself at home.” He glances at Bev when he says that, but Bev seems to be content to lean on the stair rail and watch Eddie and Richie look around. She has a contemplative expression that makes Eddie immediately self-conscious, though he doesn’t understand why. He sits in the rolling desk chair more for self-preservation than anything else.
Bill texts him: Sorry, that was something else, yes I did have a grandma from Korea. Her name was Eun-ji, I don’t know why Richie’s calling her Mrs. Sunny.
“Bill says you’re being weird,” Eddie reports.
Richie stands up from his straddle of the turtle statue. “Bill’s being weird,” he says sullenly, himself at ten again. He looks over at Bev. “Is it your turn?”
“Bill is being weird,” Eddie agrees, but that’s unrelated. What the fuck is a turtle ship?
Bev smiles at Richie. “I think I’m good,” she says.
Richie raises his eyebrows and tilts his head and says, “Oh, got enough riding in today already?”
Ben turns around immediately and points at Richie like his extended finger is a knife he’s suddenly drawn on him. “Watch your mouth, Richie,” he says, voice gone harsh.
But Bev puts one hand under her chin and says dreamily, “No, by all means, let’s talk about it. You start, Rich.”
Richie opens his mouth once, closes it, opens it again, and produces a stream of nonsense syllables that baffles Eddie more than perhaps any sound Richie has ever produced in his life. Then he turns, walks out of the room and into the next one (lightly defined by the wall that seems placed specifically so that Ben can display his canvas of a building under construction). The next thing Eddie hears is cabinets opening and closing.
Eddie blinks and looks at Bev, who looks extremely satisfied.
“Or we could hang out on the couch?” Ben offers.
Eddie enjoys the leather couch. It is as wide as the bed he grew up in. If he tucks his elbows in and stares up at the ceiling he remembers strongly those early days as a toddler when he thought that falling asleep was only possible if he was lying on his back. He wonders if that has to do with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—if that was something that Sonia Kaspbrak feared when he was born, if that was documented in the 1970s, and if she tried to ingrain that on him; or if it was just his own childish misunderstandings, like his conviction that wolves were more similar to cats than dogs. He flops on his back and pries his shoes off with his toes and lets them fall to the floor.
“Tired?” Ben asks.
Eddie nods. “The body makes microadjustments to keep you upright in a moving car.” He puts both hands on his own abdomen and imagines the muscles that have to move to keep him relatively dignified at sixty miles per hour.
“Also Richie’s exhausting?” Bev suggests.
“Also Richie’s exhausting,” Eddie says cheerfully, grinning and tilting his head back to look for Richie.
Richie slumps morosely into the living room, all sullen why can’t I ride the turtle statue and guess I’ll go fuck myself, then. He’s pouting in a way that’s a parody of sadness, which means he’s definitely trying to conceal how he’s a little bit bummed out for real. When Eddie looks up at him like a cat some of his frown softens a little and he throws Eddie a sad-eyed call me handsign and drops into one of Ben’s square armchairs.
“So that thing on your counter,” he says, tone descending.
Bev’s eyes widen and she grimaces as she sits down on the couch next to Eddie. Ben looks down at the floor.
Eddie immediately suspects that that thing is probably something more significant than whatever teasing Richie is naturally inclined to do. He looks around at them, looking for some other kind of facial cues.
Bev rests a hand on Eddie’s head like he’s some kind of horse that needs gentling. “We got Stan’s suicide note in the mail while he was gone.”
Eddie feels like he’s been punched. His numb right hand jerks up to shield his injuries, reflexively. “He—to Ben?”
Ben swallows and continues staring down at the floor. “Yeah,” he says.
“But he’s fine,” Eddie says. “Right? It was just—he probably put it in the mail and then…” Then went upstairs to kill himself, and Patty didn’t realize it because she was a little busy saving her husband’s life. “He’s fine, right? Did you tell him?”
“No,” Ben says.
And then Stan came to Maine and saved Eddie’s life—which sounds impossible but so much of their lives has been impossible. Thinking about it makes Eddie start to shake a little bit, as though with cold. A world without Stan Uris.
“We can call him. Can we call him? Why don’t we call him?”
Bev checks her phone and says, “He might be having dinner right now.”
“He has had a lot of dinners in his life,” Richie points out.
So they call Stan. Bev puts him on speakerphone.
The line clicks and they hear Stan demand, “What,” as flatly as if they’d banged on his door in the middle of the night. There’s laughter in the background and Patty’s voice saying Stanley with something just short of reproach.
“Sorry, is it a bad time?” Bev asks.
Stan’s voice relaxes. “Sorry, Bev, didn’t check caller ID. Uh—is it urgent?”
“Hi, Stanley!” Richie hollers.
In the wake of that, Bev says apologetically, “You might be on speaker.”
“Yeah, figured that out,” Stan replies. There’s a sigh and then he says, “I’m putting you on speaker. Patty’s here.”
“Do you have a girl over?” Richie asks. “Does Stan the man have a girl over?”
Stan snorts. “It’s her fucking house, dude, she put down the—sorry, baby.”
“It’s our house,” says Patty. “Hello, Richie.”
The group gives a chorus of hellos for Patty.
“So Stan’s a kept man,” Richie observes.
Patty says calmly, “I’m keeping him.”
Ben covers his mouth with both hands and looks at the other three with big eyes that suggest he’s seen something so cute it’s making him feel aggressive. Ben is a romantic.
Eddie thinks anxiously about his own finances, about when’s the appropriate time to ask Ben for access to his computer so that he can get started with ordering new bank cards, and probably a checkbook. Shit, his checkbooks are back in the apartment in the city. He’s never known Myra to be spiteful about their shared finances—but, in all fairness, Myra has never known Eddie to be gay. He feels as though their marriage has just lost a lot of its safety provisions. That’s what happens when you no longer trust someone.
“So I saw you finally got to Ben’s place,” Stan says. “Bev, how are you liking it?”
Everyone looks at Bev. Eddie watches Ben school his features, which means that her response matters very, very much to him.
“It’s very nice,” Bev says. “Out in the woods. Feels very hidden.”
That’s the opposite of what Eddie felt when they approached, but he doubts Bev would sugarcoat it if she felt unsafe. He reasons that if they draw the blinds at night (please tell him that Ben draws the blinds at night), it would feel very hidden. Like shutting out the world.
Unbidden, his eyes go to Richie.
Richie is in the chair with his typical bad posture, head stooped slightly despite that he’s sitting down now. He smiles a little bit as Stan talks, but there’s no crinkling at the corners of his eyes, which seem very far away instead of here in this room with Eddie.
And Ben and Bev. Of course.
Stan is describing how his last three days have gone since they got back to Traynor and Patty went back to work. “—of Patty’s kids is having some trouble at school that the substitute wasn’t really equipped to deal with, we think.”
“But the other kids were so great about it,” Patty says. “I’m really proud of them. They were like, ‘Rebecca’s a boy!’ and kept going back to the things we talked about. Sometimes I’m really proud of kids’ absolutist thinking. You tell them something is wrong once and how to respond to it, and they remember. But we’re having his mom in later this week to discuss what happened—she’s really nice, but I’m thinking she might want to take it to the administration to discuss a unified approach for handling Rebecca’s specific case. We’ve got another kid in the class who has some extremely dangerous dairy allergies and fortunately the nurse is ready to go to bat for him when necessary, and I’m thinking that might be a good place to start.”
“And John from the office stopped by today,” Stan says. “So that was nice. He’s… a weird guy.”
“John from the office?” Richie asks.
“Yeah, John from the office,” Stan agrees.
“Oh, John from the office,” says Richie.
“Weird how?” Bev asks.
Stan is quiet for a moment, and then he says, “Okay, so you know how the laws of the world don’t make sense anymore?”
Well that's certainly one way of prefacing a conversation.
“If they ever made sense?” Ben replies, smiling slightly.
“Yes, that,” Stan says. “I’m trying not to think about it. But… some of the stuff John said. I don’t know. It sounded like he’d been there before.”
Everyone is quiet for a moment.
“Not the suicide thing,” Stan says, because none of them else is willing to speak the word into existence. “I mean—maybe the suicide thing. I don’t know. That’s not my business. But. It felt like he knew. Bev, you know how it felt?”
Eddie looks at Bev, at her lowered eyes. She’s staring down at her own knees instead of toward the phone screen, and her face has gone shuttered and sad. “Yes,” she says, her voice soft but serious.
Eddie doesn’t know if Stan’s asking because Bev, in a way, witnessed his suicide attempt, perhaps even more graphically than Patty, or because Bev was in the deadlights and lived with the consequences for years. He looks to Richie again, also recently in the deadlights, blood coming out of his nose. Richie’s smile has slid off his face and he’s staring at the phone as though it is Stan and Stan’s face.
“You know how it felt,” Stan repeats. “I mean—you all know, but.”
“Yes,” Bev agrees again.
Ben asks, “Stan?”
There’s a soft noise, as though the phone on the other end of the line is being moved, and then Patty says, “Still here.” There’s something like a determined calm to her voice.
“Patty,” Bev says, speaking up a little.
“Yes,” Patty says.
“I’m sorry. It was.” Bev swallows and looks away. “Maybe the kind of thing you don’t talk about over the phone.”
“I won’t lie, my heart’s gonna jump every time Stanley gets a phone call for maybe the rest of our lives,” Patty says. “But eventually we’ll reach the point where the pings will just go into our brain interfaces, and then I can calm down.”
There’s the sound of Stan giggling a little hysterically on the other end of the line. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” he says. “I—we should make dinner.”
“Should we let you go?” Bev asks.
“Should they let us go?” Stan repeats.
It becomes clear to whom he’s directing the question when Patty replies, “No, you can stay, we’ll make dinner with your friends. I used to do that in college, it’s fun.”
Ben says, “Oh, what do you guys want for dinner?”
Richie and Eddie look at each other. Eddie, who ate breakfast around noon and has taken an antiemetic, is slowly getting the sense that he might actually be hungry. They have no idea what Ben has in his fridge.
“We went grocery shopping this morning,” Bev says.
“I eat a lot of salad,” Ben confesses. “But Eddie, you should have something with protein. There’s flank steak in the fridge? And shrimp?” He gets up and walks across the house, presumably to the kitchen.
“I miss shrimp,” Stan says sadly.
Richie cracks up. “Did you just grow up to be a forty-year-old slut for shrimp, or what?”
“I don’t like that word, Richard,” Patty says sharply.
Richie seems to get stuck a little, his face freezing up and his shoulders stiffening. He swallows once and seems to deliberately make himself relax. “Sorry, Patty.”
Eddie feels bad watching him, but he knows that’s not a great word to use, especially in a room with women. The idea of Richie joking about Stan being a slut for shrimp is funny; if he were to joke in that same way about Bev, Eddie’s pretty sure that Ben actually would hit him, and Richie would deserve it.
“That’s okay, just don’t use it anymore,” Patty says. “We’re having salmon burgers.”
Richie’s eyes flick sideways across the room at Eddie and Bev, but whatever’s going on in his head is unreadable. Eddie feels the same discomfort he always got watching Richie get sent out of the room in school.
“Oooh, burgers,” Bev says.
“Salmon burgers?” Richie repeats skeptically.
“I need cheese on my burgers, man,” Stan says.
There is more talking. Apparently Stan usually cooks during the day while Patty works, and then they have dinner together in the evenings. Bev looks at Eddie to see if he wants to get up and follow them into the kitchen or if he’d rather hang out on the couch, and Eddie, remembering the rolling chair in the office, follows. Stan describes some of his go-to recipes—apparently he and Patty eat a lot of fish, which makes Eddie a little anxious about Stan’s mercury levels but he has to assume that Stan has that in hand.
“I can do burgers,” Ben says, staring into his fridge. “I have, like, no bread though, it's all in the freezer because I buy it and never eat it—can you do a burger on an English muffin?”
“I feel like I’m eating in college again, but like, classy,” Richie says, peering around Ben to look into the fridge. “Is that a burger patty?”
“That’s a mushroom,” Ben replies.
“That shit is huge, man!” Richie says. “Bev, get a picture of that mushroom and show Stan.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, Trashmouth,” Bev says sweetly, and kisses Richie on the cheek as she goes to get a picture of the big mushroom.
“I have pita pockets?” Ben says, tilting his head. “Hang on, I know I have recipes around here somewhere.”
Eddie spins in place on the rolling desk chair, tucked as he is into the corner. After a moment his phone goes off and he checks it to see that Bev has posted a picture of the really big mushroom to the group chat.
“Shrimp burgers? Do you like shrimp burgers?” Ben asks.
“Are you just bullying me now?” Stan asks.
“Stan, isn’t that a huge mushroom?”
“That’s a pretty average-sized Portobello mushroom, Richie.”
“I don’t eat vegetables, I don’t know these things.”
Eddie makes a small despairing sound.
Ben comes over to him and shows him about twenty different burger recipes he pulled up from a website. “This one has coleslaw—do you like coleslaw?”
Eddie has no idea if he likes coleslaw or not. He’s a little intimidated by the prospect. “Ben,” he says. “Thank you for letting me stay here. Please do not make me make any decisions.”
Ben smiles at that and says, “Bev, I need a decision-maker.”
Bev crosses the kitchen—Stan is still arguing with Richie about the size of Portobello mushrooms—and leans over Ben’s shoulder. Very reasonably, Bev’s only question is, “Eddie, will you eat that?”
“I will eat that,” Eddie agrees.
“That’s what she said,” Richie says helpfully.
“Richie, I don’t care about your opinion, so I guess we’re having shrimp burgers,” Ben says. Stan laughs in the background.
Richie whistles. “Haystack got hot and sassy.”
“Beep beep, Richie,” Bev says.
Eddie volunteers to be in charge of the food processer and rather aggressively pulses a bunch of raw shrimp until the gray mixture is obliterated into small enough pieces to make a patty. If anyone notices that Eddie’s taking out his jealousy on shellfish, no one comments on it. Ben serenely folds the raw shrimp—which Eddie refuses to touch—into a mixture of red pepper and Sriracha. Richie is banned from touching anything mayonnaise or mayonnaise-adjacent, because they’re all a little concerned that he might ruin this dinner for them. Bev assigns him to knife duty to stop him from taking more pictures of the inside of Ben’s fridge, and Eddie discovers that Richie can do the thing chefs do on cooking shows, where he puts the heel of his hand on the back of the knife and fires it down over the cutting board rapidly. Unlike the TV chefs, Richie’s resulting vegetables are extremely irregular in shape and size, but Eddie still starts to worry that he might start sweating just from watching.
Bev sits on top of one of the counters and supervises, phone balanced on her thigh. Ben seems happy enough with this outcome, and Eddie manages his anxiety about sitting on surfaces where food is prepared by telling himself that if Bev stays where she is, no one will use that counter anyway, so there’s no risk of contamination. No one’s chopping vegetables in Eddie’s chair, after all. She swings her feet a little as she perches there, handing Ben tasting spoons as necessary and throwing them into the sink when he’s done with them.
“You okay?” Richie asks Eddie.
Eddie blinks and becomes aware that he’s clutching his chest again. He lowers his hand and clears his throat. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he says.
He’s never cooked with anyone before. Strictly speaking he’s not really cooking now, but he at least managed the food processer, and watching all of that shrimp just get annihilated was really cathartic. He’s used to people cooking for him—it used to be his mother, with her carefully bland, carefully portioned food served to him lovingly at the table (during puberty they really had an out-and-out Oliver Twist moment when he was so hungry he asked for more, but instead of throwing Eddie out of the house Sonia cried and Eddie went to bed hungry to prove that her love was enough for him); and then it was Myra wanting to cook for him to show that she cares. Eddie’s too impatient to be good at cooking, he thinks—he’s happy to slap something together, but on the rare occasions he’s home by himself to make prepackaged pasta and sauce or something he always turns the heat up too high trying to get things to cook faster, always burns things trying to cook them the maximum prescribed amount to be sure he reaches the correct internal temperature and kills the bacteria. He’s never had hot homemade food served to him without a side of guilt or the point someone else needs to prove, and he’s never enjoyed cooking to eat with other people.
Richie’s hands move almost elegantly as he sweeps scallions and sweet red peppers into a bowl. Then he frowns and pokes at some stuck to the cutting board with the tip of the knife. “Ben, gravity’s broken.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Rich,” Ben says.
Richie’s responding giggles have a curious echoing quality and it takes them all a moment to realize that’s Patty giggling on the other end of the phone.
“Oh, you like that?” Richie says loudly, looking pleased. “You like gravity jokes? Come on, Mrs. U, I’m trying to learn my audience.”
Stan makes a noise like chhchhchhchhchh on the line and Patty bursts out laughing.
“Gotta one-up me,” Richie says.
“I’m her favorite,” Stan says.
“Go wash your hands,” Patty admonishes Stan.
Richie yells, “Whoa, what are you two getting up to on the phone?”
When Patty speaks again her voice is disapproving. “Don’t be ridiculous, we would ask all of you first.”
There is silence as everyone considers the implications of that.
Then Stan bursts out laughing, so loud he crackles over the line. “Bev, take a picture of Richie’s face!”
Bev slides off the counter and tries to get a picture of Richie’s expression as Richie ducks and tries to hide from her.
“I’m holding a knife! I’m holding a knife!”
“Yeah, but you don’t know how to use it,” Eddie points out.
“Betrayal!” Richie says, spinning as he tries to dodge Bev in this tiny kitchen. “Perfidy!”
Ben covers the patties and tucks them into the fridge, looking satisfied.
When the sun goes down Ben pushes a button and the blinds slide over the windows all at the same time, so Eddie’s glad he didn’t try to pull one by hand. This does make him concerned about the level of automation in Ben’s home, though. There’s a panel on the fridge that looks electronic but he hopes doesn’t have Internet access. If this is a Smart house Eddie might lose respect for Ben as an architect and a homeowner, but he’ll still respect him as a chef.
Ben and Bev each have a beer with dinner; Richie drinks coffee because he apparently has no caffeine sensitivity. Richie seems very impressed with Ben’s locally-purchased coffee blend, which Ben reports is ethically grown and sourced from his local farmer’s market.
Eddie can imagine Ben at a farmer’s market quite easily. For some reason the idea doesn’t seem to gel with the general design of the house around them. It would have to be an upscale sort of farmer’s market, where people sell designer lemonades and very few farmers actually man their own tables.
The shrimp burgers are not bad. They say goodnight to Stan and Patty so that they can eat their dinner in peace, and then Richie and Bev quibble about the definitions of what constitutes a burger and what constitutes a patty in a pita pocket. Richie and Bev each eat two. Eddie eats his entire burger very quickly and decides that coleslaw, prepared with Ben’s reduced-calorie mayo, is acceptable.
“You’re being quiet,” Ben tells him in a lull in the conversation, which is how Eddie knows he’s really being quiet.
Eddie shrugs a little. “I don’t know, man, these uneven vegetable pieces are really cutting down on my enjoyment of the meal.”
Bev snickers into her dinner.
Instead of playing mock-offended, Richie just grins. “Cutting down,” he repeats, miming a chop with the blade of his hand, and Eddie tilts his head back because he did not mean to make that pun. Richie laughs at Eddie’s exasperation.
“Just tired,” Eddie says. “Dinner was good.”
“Yeah, now sing ‘Be Our Guest,’” Richie requests.
Ben obligingly hums a few bars instead of telling Richie to fuck off, because nobody does hospitality like Ben Hanscom.
After dinner Ben grabs Eddie’s suitcases as though they’re no less convenient to wield than a couple of grocery bags—Richie openly gawks and Eddie glares at him until he puts his eyes back in his head—and leads Eddie to the guest room. Ben has gone to the trouble of folding a bath towel, a hand towel, and a washcloth and stacking them on the dresser for him. The furnishings are all dark wood and very modern, and the linens are very white. Everything smells pleasantly of lemon Pledge, which does make Eddie feel very welcome. The bedroom is hidden behind a wall, not a floor-to-ceiling window, which goes just as far into making Eddie feel better. It turns out that Ben is eccentric, but he’s not a monster.
“So the bathroom is in here,” Ben says, leading him down the hall on the tour. It’s fairly large; Eddie immediately observes that there are no overhead cabinets to hide his toothbrush from the threat of toilet plume in, but there’s a small wall shielding the toilet from the sinks, or perhaps the sinks from the toilet. Eddie can carry his new toothbrush to and from the bathroom each time he needs to brush, that’s fine. The shower is a bathtub-showerhead combo with a sleek white curtain around it; Eddie tries to discreetly check the curtain for discoloration, but this also looks fine. Eddie gets the strong suspicion that Ben has never had guests here.
He might be the first person to use this bathroom.
“And there are more clean towels in here,” Ben says, opening a little closet opposite the toilet. Then he opens the cabinet under the sink and shows Eddie the first aid kit tucked carefully away. “So if you need anything else, just let me know—or, after we leave, you can call me.” He frowns. “Or message me. I don’t know how that works for international travelling, usually I don’t need to talk to people unless I’m working with them.”
He then takes Eddie back to his room and shows him where all the electrical outlets are, shows him an outlet for a phone charger in his bedside lamp, and generally looks very anxious and solicitous and maybe a little too excited to have people here.
“Uh, Ben,” Eddie asks, wondering what’s the gentlest way to phrase this. “Am I the first person to stay in this room?”
“Yes,” Ben says. “But it’s okay, I washed the sheets today and Bev and I made the bed fresh, it’s not like a showroom.”
That’s nice to know. Eddie grabs a handful of his electric blanket and rubs the material back and forth over his palm, just for something to hang onto. He wants to ask Ben why he made multiple guest rooms in the house he’d be living in by himself, but he’s afraid to accidentally convey to him that there was no reason for him to hope for company or anything.
“Did you ever feel like you were doing things, but you didn’t really know why you were doing them?” Ben asks. Eddie thinks of Richie’s rainy-day money, which he never used in Derry but then spent all at once on a used car. “I just felt like I’d need the space one day.”
Eddie tries to imagine what it must have been like for Ben to get up every day, wander through his big glass house and know that there were empty rooms. It reminds him faintly of the period dramas that Myra likes—the scene from Pride and Prejudice where the staff closes up the house and swing sheets over all the furniture. Ben mentioned that he traveled a lot for work, and Eddie wondered if that was how he treated this house, if he had people come in and close it for the season.
“Do you have other houses?”
Ben nods. “I’ve got the one out by Omaha. Internet connection’s not so great there. I’ve been remoting in to work from here, so I’ve been pretending to be professional.” He shrugs. “Like half the year I spend out there trying to brainstorm. I don’t really design so much here, I just try to let that part of me take a rest.”
Ben is giving Eddie his rest house. Eddie feels struck.
“Uh,” he says, and swallows. “I need to get on the computer and work things out with my bank. Can I do that tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Ben says. “I get up pretty early and run. I’ll have to write the password down for you, I can’t remember it unless I’m at the keyboard, but that’s no problem.”
Eddie feels a little relieved. It’s well past business hours now, but tomorrow morning should be fine. He’ll set an alarm and everything. “When do you get up to run?”
Ben tilts his head to the side. “Like seven?” he says. “I get up, run, eat breakfast, take a shower.”
“How far do you run?”
“There’s a little track kind of in a loop around the house,” Ben says. “It goes through the woods so the dried leaves can be kind of slippery certain times of the year, but I kind of wore it out, so it’s pretty safe. I just go around that.”
“Can I walk it?” Eddie asks. He’s supposed to be doing thirty minutes of light exercise every day, and he’s already missed out on a day of stretches. He’ll have to do that with his hand towel before he goes to sleep.
Ben nods. “Yeah, it’s fine if you watch where you’re going. If you want to get up I’ll walk a lap with you, just to, like, guide you.” He shifts a little in place like he’s stretching. “I haven’t been running since… Yeah. I’d probably better start slow.”
Eddie nods. He used to run back at home—not out on the sidewalk, but in their apartment building’s gym on the ground floor, usually late at night so he wouldn’t have to deal with other people being there and he could wipe down the equipment with his own disinfecting wipes without being judged. But now part of him thinks that a nice walk through nature is probably a good place to start. A good change of pace.
Ben brightens. “Oh, and I called the pharmacy, your… spirometer-thing arrived, I can run and pick it up tomorrow.”
Another knot in Eddie’s gut unwinds. “Oh good, thank you,” he says.
So. He’s all set up to recover here. It seems like everything’s in place and the only thing that remains is for him to do the work.
All right. Not bad.