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Reintroducing the Hometown Favorite

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Richie fell asleep on the couch, again. His neck was aching and he'd started to drift up out of uncomfortable dreams, weirdly shaped half-things that made his skin prickle, when someone turned him on his stomach. They did this gently, as if he were something that needed gentling, and he rewarded their kindness by throwing up on the hardwood floor of his apartment. Well, fuck the deposit. He was a rich bitch now. Rich bitch Rich. He giggled then threw up again, miserably, just a torrent of watermelon vodka, Greek-style pizza, and whatever else he'd managed to stuff down his pie hole.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "Fuck. Sorry." He flapped his hand out into the darkness, trying for the coffee table and hitting a leg instead. "Where's bowl. Bowl. Need the bowl." The bowl materialized beneath him. He gasped, "Thanks," and went on doing his thing. His eyes stung. Nose too.

Whoever he'd brought back to the apartment (who the fuck had he brought back to the apartment? After pizza and waffles? That was definitely waffles), they crouched next to the couch, laid a cool, dry hand on his hot, sticky nape, and said, "Why the hell did you go to sleep on your back? Did you want to choke to death? Did you want to aspirate on your puke and die?" in Eddie Kaspbrak's voice.

"It's my fetish, get off my back," said Richie. Then, heroically, he lifted his hangdog head and squinted at - how blind was he? Where the hell were his glasses? His stomach tightened into a queasy, empty knot that crushed at his ribs. He stared through his lashes, all creased together.

Eddie looked back at him. His mouth was twisted into a nervous, sour line. He was in that ratty hoodie and his once-crisp jeans, crouching in Richie's soon to be vacated apartment, elbows on his thighs and hands dangling between his knees. He shrugged a shoulder as if to say, yeah, I know. Hauntings. What the fuck's up with that? Then he opened his mouth and said, "Richie," and Richie slapped both hands over his face and threw himself as far back into the fold of the couch as he could get.

Oh, God, he thought. Oh, God. Oh, shit. No. Not Eddie. You amphibious son of a bitch, don't you send me Eddie. Send me Bowers with a tomahawk buried in his brain. Send me Pennywise in pasties and thigh-highs. Don't you fucking send me Eddie. Tears leaked out the corners of his eyes; they slipped out around his palms.

Eddie - the ghost - the fabrication of Richie's insane, drunken mind, sighed that long, heavy, put-upon Eddie sigh. "Richie. Look at me."

"No," said Richie. "I will not. I won't do it. You can't make me. Shoo. Scram. Get outta here." His shoulders trembled. His head was spinning, an uneven tilt-a-whirl, but that was probably his blood alcohol level and not the breakdown.

A hand touched his forehead. Richie wanted very badly to pull away, but he only shuddered. His stupid, traitor's body yearned for Eddie's palm to cup his sweaty face. His bones wanted to shiver and melt and slide liquidly out from his skin and down the sides of the couch. Eddie stroked the hair back from Richie's brow.

"Richie," said Eddie, "what are you doing?"

Richie dug his fingers into the ridge of bone that defined the upper arc of each eye socket. What he was doing was trying not to vomit tears all over himself. He thought, I'm dreaming is what I'm doing, Eds my sweet, Eddie my love. I'm having the worst god damn dream of my whole life and one time I dreamed that Pennywise made me stand in front of Derry Town Hall and announce that I'm just gagging for Henry Bowers' sweet kiss. At least Bowers would have just killed him. What a relief! But something like this, oh, Jesus, Eddie. I'm gonna have to live with this. Richie hiccuped into his hands.

Eddie sighed again, that aggravated sound he always made a gift of to Richie: Jeeeee-sus, Richie, why're you such a pain in my ass? Huh? Why do I always have to take care of you, why can't you take care of yourself, do you realize that if they tested every kid in like the entire state for how big a pain in the ass they were that you would definitely be, like, you would have to stand on the podium, you would be number three at the very least and I want you to know, Richie, hey, Richie, pay attention to me, hey, I'm talking to you, Richie, hey, Richie, I believe in you, I believe that you are the biggest pain in the ass in Maine, and you are specifically the pain in my ass!

As he sighed all this out in a single, warm breath that touched softly the knuckles of Richie's hands, Eddie stroked his brow again. Again. Like he was petting Richie, each pass of his fingertips stroking the sweat from Richie's skin and the sweat from his shaggy hair.

Eddie said, "Richie," with a patience that said I am about to lose my shit all over you, "look at me. Can you put your hands down for two seconds."

"No," whispered Richie.

"Richie, for fuck's sake. Can you please just look at me."

He shuddered again all over and slid his hands down his face so that his fingers were just on his cheeks, his palms on his jaw. Just look at him, he thought. He looked at Eddie, and his hands fell all the way.

Maybe the fifth week after Derry, Richie had sat down and written out a monologue he would never deliver, a real laugh-a-line riot that he put down on a yellow memo pad then chucked into the closet; how's that for a metaphor? The monologue goes like this:

All right, picture this, yours truly walks into some Chinese restaurant, and I know what you're thinking, you're thinking about Mr. Lo's that offers free eggroll if you spend $20, what a savings, right? I know you love that fucking eggroll, we all love fucking eggroll. But no, fuck Mr. Lo. Don't fuck him, Mr. Lo's a great guy and he doesn't need to see you answering the door in your underwear. Anyway, this restaurant's like, this is an upscale restaurant. This is a fucking, private rooms, decorative aquariums, no prices printed on the menus, sit-down restaurant, and it has some crazy racist name, and it's in Bumfuck, Maine! Maine has three things: meth - OK, yes, everybody's got meth, come see me after the show - meth and old fishermen spitting chewing tobacco into tin cups and Stephen fucking King, and also, in Derry, Maine, this tiny little town where I grew up young, handsome, traumatized, Buddy Holly reborn, this town with, I don't know, 50% unemployment, a Chinese restaurant that was air-lifted in from San Francisco.

And I walk into this place and I walk into this private room with its private table, ooh-la-la, right this way, Mr. Tozier, enjoy our many decorative aquariums, I walk into this room and there he is. Eddie fucking Kaspbrak. And I just hit this giant gong they have right there, because of course there's a giant gong, and of course I hit it, I'm Rich Tozier, it's in my contract, I see a gong and I knock that bitch up. But I look at Eddie Kaspbrak standing there with his hands at his sides and his mouth pinched tight in this nervous smile like he didn't one time call me, and I quote, a fat wet dog shit my mom barfed up in the street, like Jesus, Eddie, what did I do, fuck your mother?

And I don't hear that gong still reverberating - whhhhoooommm - I hear this bell. Ding ding ding. Like Santa's little lost elf is tip-toeing on my head. And you know what, he's maybe 5'4", he's built like a greyhound, he's got this face that looks kind of like a weasel and his eyebrows are just these angry underlines, I want to speak to your manager, and all I hear is this bell. Ding. Ding. Ding. And I look at him and I think two things. I think, oh, my God, his eyes are enormous. He's got Bambi eyes. He shot Bambi and he gouged out Bambi's eyes and he put them in his head and now I have to look at them. Ding. And I think, I love him. Holy shit. I love him. Ding.

And then he dies. Ding.

And here Eddie crouched by the couch next to Richie. Creases in his brow, around his tight, stressed mouth. The last time Richie saw that mouth, blood had squelched black and iron-stinking between Eddie's teeth. Eddie went on stroking Richie's head, these small soothing touches each of which made the heart in Richie hurt like a fruit, overripe. His teeth ached. The skin under his fingernails itched.

"Are you awake now?" Eddie prodded him.

Richie closed his eyes. "I don't wanna."

Eddie's fingers picked through the strands of his hair, through the flattened curls. "Richie. I kind of need you to wake up."

Blinking rapidly, he dared to look again at Eddie. Eddie with his long, tired face. He'd a livid scar on his cheek, the kind of scar he would have now, five months after Derry, if he hadn't died there in the refuse and the dark and the hate.

"I wish you were real," Richie blurted.

Eddie looked at him. His hand stilled on top of Richie's head. Tears picked at the corners of Richie's eyes again. Then Eddie slammed the side of his hand down on the center of Richie's forehead.

"Ow! Fuck! What the fuck, dude!"

"I am real, you dipshit!" Eddie snapped. "Did you not just throw up on my fucking shoes?"

"I threw up on the fucking floor!" Richie clutched at his head. He couldn't stop staring at Eddie, Eddie who said seethingly, "Backsplash, motherfucker."

"I," said Richie. "What. But you-- Eddie?"

Eddie looked irritable and red-cheeked, too, rumpled all over and somehow miraculously not smelling like the sewer that Richie left him in even though he was in the same clothes, even with the huge jagged hole torn through his hoodie and the shirt underneath. He snapped, "What?"

It was the stage in Chicago all over again. Richie said, "I," and his brain fell over like a turtle and just kicked uselessly. "Eddie. You're--" He struggled to sit up finally. "Eddie. Eddie!"

Eddie caught his flailing hands. He held them, inexplicably, to his chest. Wide-eyed, half-blind without his glasses, Richie stared uncomprehending at his own out-sized fingers, clumsily curled, the blistered knuckle on the middle finger of his left hand where hot grease had popped out of the pan to hit him. Eddie's fingers were long, lean, holding him with a calm and understated purpose.

"Hey," said Eddie. His mouth trembled. Something pinched the corner and tugged it grudgingly up. Richie realized slowly that Eddie's hands were shaking: that the look on Eddie was one of fear receding then surging forward again. "Fuckhead."

"You're real," said Richie. He dug his fingers into that ripped hoodie. "Holy shit. Eddie? But you're, Eds, I was. Holding you, I saw you--"

"Do not freak out," Eddie said. "Don't you dare freak out, I am barely hanging on right now--"

"You died in my arms," Richie gasped out, "and you said you fucked my mom, and--" He turned abruptly and barfed on the couch. It was mostly acid this time. The whole of his throat burned with it.

"Oh, my god," said Eddie, "I don't remember you vomiting this much."

Richie sagged against him and Eddie made a clicking sound in his throat, a disgusted chh! at the press of Richie's vomit-wet mouth on his shoulder. The yammering Voice in Richie's head said oh, fuck me upside down on the carousel with my panties in the air, he's really real.

"Only when I just killed a guy," Richie croaked, "or I drink, like, way, way, way too much. I mean, like, sorority girl black-out too much."

"That's fucking sexist." The tremors moved through Eddie's chest too. Through his shoulders: up, down. Up. He shivered like a man who had just come out of the cold. "Do you always drink like this?"

Richie leaned back so he could stare up his nose at Eddie. "I don't know, do you always slap drunk guys in the face?"

"No, dumbass, just you."

Richie burst into tears.

"Don't!" said Eddie, "Richie! Don't cry, I'm just--" then the worst thing of all, the absolutely worst: Eddie started to cry too. He had never cried like Richie (messy, snot everywhere, loud dragging breaths); he didn't cry like that now. Eddie shuddered all over and let go of Richie's hands just to latch his arms around Richie and he made a sound somewhere deep in his throat held back by his tongue, his teeth, and then a gasp, and he only shook. He was always so loud except for when he cried.

"Eddie," said Richie, "Eddie," sounding like a warped cassette tape someone kept rewinding then hitting play on: Eddie. Eddie. Eddie. Eddie.

And Eddie said, husking it, every word a tooth pulled from his mouth, pattering frantically as he spat out each bone: "Richie, I died. Why am I here. I don't know where I am. It was dark. It was dark and I was cold. And now I'm here and I don't know why. Richie, I died. And you're here and I thought okay, well, it was just a dream, it was just some stupid dream, except then you looked at me like I was a ghost and I got so-- I'm real!" He tore away from Richie. "I am. And I don't know why I'm here but I am here and I'm real, god damn it, fuck you, fuck you, Richie!" He shoved at him, like he'd chopped at Richie's head, furious to stand alone and over Richie: Eddie who was alive, Eddie whose shirts had a ragged hole in the front and the back, Eddie with the knife wound scarred over on his flashing bright-fire face, Eddie with Richie's vodka pizza puke on his worn out sneakers.

"You're real," said Richie.

"That's what I just said!" Richie shook his head and Eddie said, "I am! I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. I'm real. Look at me, Richie," and Richie shook his head harder because none of the voices inside him knew how to say you're the only real thing, I think maybe I'm the ghost and I'm haunting you, because those were the words of an insane man, and Richie was crazy but he wasn't that, not yet. But.

He lurched forward. His hands touched Eddie. He encircled each of Eddie's wrists in a hand. Eddie looked madly down at Richie. His heartbeat was pulsing against Richie's fingers, where the joints met the fleshy borderline of his palm. He couldn't see Eddie's face anymore, not really. A blob in the dark. Richie pressed Eddie's left hand over his face.

"Don't go away," Richie said.

"I'm alive," said Eddie again, "I'm--" and in that awful dark of Richie's shitty apartment he crumpled without warning into Richie, driving them both back onto the couch. For a single rattling moment Richie thought of the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the guy melting into bones and then away. Eddie's breath puffed against Richie's cheek, and Richie clutched him tightly. Hey, Eddie, he thought hysterically, can I keep you if I'm good?

Then Eddie kissed him. His lips lingered on Richie's stubbled jaw. He kissed Richie again, higher on his cheek, and Richie held all the breath inside him. It felt like the whole world had gone still inside of Richie. His hands loosened again. Eddie didn't hesitate. He rarely hesitated when he'd decided. His lips brushed across Richie's lips, a kiss from an old time war romance; then he kissed Richie again, firmer now, and then a third with his hand slipped from out of Richie's grip to hold Richie's jaw in the perfectly crafted, matching curve of his palm and to tip his head back and to kiss him like Cary Grant nuzzling at Ingmar Bergman in the half-light of a lamp beside her bed.

There were things inside of Richie that never shut up. Nothing had ever shut them up. Eddie kissing him didn't shut them up, but every voice in Richie said at last only the one thing, oh, yes. Oh, Eddie. I'll be good. I'll be good, said the voices inside Richie who had never once been good even a single day in his life. I don't know what good thing I did or maybe it was all the good things you did, Eddie, maybe that's why you got to come back, because the universe looked at you and saw how brave and good you are and said not this fucker, and if I'm good then you can keep me. Maybe he was insane after all because through the swirling confusion and the pressing, gentling, tugging touch of Eddie's lips against his, Richie thought, if I died, I'd haunt you, Eddie; I'd follow you everywhere; I'd go into the fucking bathroom behind you just to watch you shit and read Neurotics Weekly.

"I can hear you thinking," said Eddie into Richie's putrid, dehydrated mouth. "You taste like shit."

"I just threw up my asshole, so that's not a surprise," whispered Richie into Eddie's resurrected, not-a-corpse mouth. Richie started giggling. Eddie pulled away. This close Richie could see how huge his pupils were and how his eyebrows creased together, up in the center like a fretful emoticon. "Hey. Eddie. I can't believe it's not necrophilia."

Eddie muttered, "Fuck me," and shoved Richie flat on the couch. Richie went on giggling and saying, "Hey. Eddie. Know what my favorite candy is? A Hearse-y's kiss." He got another, half-hearted shove for that one, but he figured he deserved it.

A scowl had turned Eddie's expressive, Mr. Elastic mouth upside down; but he looked at Richie again. He looked at him for a long time, so long that the giggles went away and Richie found that he too was looking, looking but hardly seeing. Without his glasses on the shadows of the room had turned odd, full of motion. He guessed that was the vodka, too, was why he thought he saw the silhouette of a turtle brushing along the wall just behind Eddie's tightly drawn shoulder.

"What I said," said Eddie. "When I was dying."

Richie hooked his fingers on either side of Eddie's hips, in the belt loops of his jeans. "Not dead," he whispered.

No blood stained Eddie's mouth, his chin. The skin that showed through the ragged folds of his hoodie and shirt was fish-belly pale and whole.

"It's not what I wanted to say."

Richie's lips stung. He licked at them. "It's OK," he said. "I know that my mom, my mom turned you down." His heart was swollen in his throat; it made the joke tough, hard to grit out.

"And it's stupid," said Eddie, that patient if you say one more smartass thing I'm going to do the mashed potatoes on your neck note making its encore appearance, "because I wasn't afraid anymore, not of anything, except-- except I guess that--" He cut off.

Richie fumbled for glasses on the coffee table, but Eddie beat him to them. He unfolded the arms and slid the black frames into place for Richie, and Richie blinked up at him: Eddie in high definition, his fingertips still so gentle against Richie's temple.

"I love you," Richie said, and Eddie closed his horrible doe's eyes, lashes an inarticulate black spray made into a smudge by the poor light pollution streaming through the skylight overhead.

Eddie said, his thumb sweeping the hair back from Richie's glasses, "Except that I was afraid that. That if I told you. That I wouldn't. I'd tell you and then I'd be dead," he said with that explosive loudness he sometimes got, "and whatever was after that or wherever I went I'd get to go there knowing I didn't get to have you, and that I'd, that I stuck you with my feelings like some asshole and you'd have to live with them because I was a selfish dickhead--"

"You are always a selfish dickhead," Richie told him, and Eddie growled at him and tightened his fingers in Richie's hair so that it hurt, pinwheel sharp, a glittering knife line that ran right down Richie's spine and burst luminous in his skull. "But Eddie. Dumbass. I was already living with it."

Eddie shook his head. "Not with this. Not with--"

And it was Richie then who kissed Eddie. He didn't do as good a job of it. (Where the hell had Eddie learned to kiss? Richie had met Myra and he knew she was out there hounding the police to keep the missing persons investigation open but a) he was never letting Eddie go, sorry to that woman, and 2) oh, my god, if Eddie had been kissing her like that, then Jesus. Good for her.) Richie mashed his lips off-center; he'd remembered suddenly and too late that whatever lunacy had possessed Eddie before (that good old-fashioned baby I'm back from the grave throw everything to the wind recklessness), Richie had indeed puked and that meant he had puke germs all over his own face. So of the top forty kisses of 2017 this was probably a solid 702.

Eddie went liquid soft against Richie anyway, a kind of gift Richie had never expected and no idea of how to deal with it. He guessed he should just do what he wanted to do, what the unending clamor of his own brain told him to do, and that was to hold on tight to Eddie, to never let him go, to keep him.

"Because you love me," Richie murmured, dumb-drunk and pinned all over with sharp little tacks each of which had stuck a note to his skin in Eddie's handwriting that said, I'm real. I'm real.

And Eddie, Eddie, oh, Eddie, I love you, beautiful, brave, cruel-mouthed Eddie, Eddie in those red shorts on his bicycle loudly proclaiming the hour and manner of Richie's death if Richie ate the bag of gumdrops he'd found opened and in the dirt, Eddie standing in the private room in front of an aquarium smiling his tense smile, Eddie shrieking with laughter as Bill struggled through a profane rendition of Oh, Say Can You See!, Eddie shouting, "Beep-beep, motherfucker!" and winning gold in the Olympics men's javelin, Eddie whose narrow chest deepened with each breath he pulled in through his working nose, his working throat, into his working lungs:

Eddie kept Richie close and said, "Because I love you."

Because you love him, said the turtle; and was gone.