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Like a Bullet in the Back

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January moved bleakly into February with cold rains and more of those strange, warm days that spotted early 2017. Winter shifted nervously around New York City. Eddie alternated between layering a henley underneath his work shirt and wearing a white t-shirt instead.

“Don’t u know?” Richie texted into the groupchat. “Climate change = FAKE. its a govnt consp w chinese sientists.”

“Your spelling is so bad,” Bill replied. “You are terrible at spelling. Have you installed auto-correct on your phone?”

“P sure auto-correct is pre-installed,” Mike came back.

“YOU IDIOT,” Eddie wrote, “CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL. WE HAVE LITERALLY MURDERED THE PLANET AND YOU’RE STANDING OVER ITS CORPSE WITH A GUN IN YOUR HAND AND SHRUGGING. NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL.” Then he copied and pasted in five different articles from Scientific American, the New York Times, National Geographic, WIRED, and Forbes.

“hahahahaha,” Richie replied.

Eddie could have thrown his phone across the room just to hear the clatter of it against the hardwood floor and to feel the tightness in his chest, the healed incision sites pulled by the sharp motion of his arm, the tension of his shoulder. Rather, he fisted the phone and closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath for three seconds. Held it for seven. Released it slowly for five seconds through his nose. His therapist had talked at length with him about anger management.

He’d told Richie privately about that therapist, Dr J. Greene who worked out of Brooklyn. They were at Ben’s house in northern New Mexico for New Year’s, all the Losers scattered around the open, unfenced dirt and desert scrub backyard under an astonishing number of stars, huddling together in their little groups against the desert chill.

Eddie had stuck to the fire pit, this huge brick-ringed hole with a brutal iron peek-a-boo railing on top of it that Ben had built with his own hands and the blacksmith’s anvil he had back at his home in Nevada. That was the kind of person Ben had grown up to be: “a Canadian Home Workshop double page spread,” Bev had said slyly over drinks as Ben colored and turned his face to the dog.

“Ugh, disgusting,” Richie said. “Flirting. If I wanted to watch flirting I’d put on Golden Girls.”

“Don’t be jealous,” said Mike, leaning around them to grab a couple glasses out of the cabinet ceiling-mounted over the island. “You’ll find someone, Richie.”

“Probably at the zoo,” Eddie muttered.

“His name is Shabani,” said Richie, with a joking twist of his head. “He lives in Tokyo. You guys never met him.”

“Isn’t that the gorilla?” Ben said, confused. “The hot gorilla meme?” Richie steamrolled over him.

“And that’s easy for you to say, Mike, you grew up seven feet tall and built like a candy-coated dreamboat. I bet all the grannies in Florida are gagging for you.”

Bill said, “Beep beep,” and took one of the glasses from Mike with a smile.

Meanwhile Eddie had grown up to be someone with poor circulation in hands and feet, worsened by the circulatory damage he’d taken from the alien claw that had lanced through him. So he stuck to the fire pit, where the fire though ebbing still crackled and spat out bright and glimmering sparks, and he sat with his legs tucked in close and a zig-zag patterned blanket pulled around his shoulders. The divot in his chest and in his back ached with the cold. High here in the desert, thirty minutes from Taos and nearly seven thousand feet above sea level, the cold was unlike anything Eddie had ever known, a dry and biting thing.

“Yeah, it’s like that in Los Angeles, too,” Richie said when Eddie complained about it. “I mean, it’s not as bad there, just ‘cause you’re not forty miles above sea level, but it’s just desert, man.”

“Well, it blows,” Eddie said from under the blanket, pinned by his hands over his nose. “I’ve never been this cold in my entire life. At least if I wear a coat in New York, I can pretend I’m still warm.”

Richie laughed his obnoxious, snorfling laugh, and Eddie scrunched smaller under the blanket, pleased. A length of wood in the fire snapped. Fine and glittering sparks showered into the air, flickering against the blackness of the night and then coming slowly to the earth. They blinked out, each in its time.

“You’re such an East coast baby. You really oughtta come out to L.A. sometime, the smog would literally kill you the minute you got out of the airport.”

“That’s really tempting, Richie. Just the thought of all that environmental pollution.”

“Acid rain… Is that fog or is it just a cigarette cloud…”

“It really gets me going.”

“Oh, well, if it gets you going,” Richie said and then laughed again.

The firelight flickered red-orange across Richie’s neck. He’d shaved some this morning, trimmed away the rough hairs that had started wandering down his neck. The rest of the hair, though, that was filling out. He looked like he’d decided on a beard. Eddie curled his toes in his shoes, thinking of that.

Neither of them mentioned what did get Eddie going. He’d broken the news of his separation from Myra shortly after the hospital released him, and the Losers were all supportive and kind, full of an undemanding love that they gave up to him without hesitation, even though he knew that Bev had it worse.

After he’d texted the group, Richie had texted him privately just to say, “Told u u were brave Edsie.”

“Don’t call me Edsie,” Eddie retorted, and Richie had sent a string of palm tree emojis with a spinning heart at the end.

Around the fire pit they got to talking, nonsense shit about their day to days, what they were doing, things Eddie hated at family reunions or work events. Here, though, with Richie seated on the log next to him, Eddie’s knee bumping into Richie’s thigh because Richie’s legs were too long for their knees to match up, here with the rest of the Losers laughing and talking about fireworks later, it felt…

Use your words, Dr Greene would tell Eddie. When you’re overwhelmed with any feeling, just think it through. What do you feel? Why do you feel it? Give it a name and a house so you know where it lives.

It felt good, he thought. It felt like coming home, in a way that coming home had never felt to him. The closest he had ever felt to what he thought coming home after school or college or work should feel like was how he’d felt ducking into the clubhouse in the Barrens. Stan in his hair cap, pissily telling Richie it was his turn in the hammock. Richie swinging in the hammock with his shoes and socks off, long, bony feet and knobby ankles sticking out so that with each too-strong swing he nearly slapped Stan in the face with a foot.

The memory led the conversation deeper. Eddie brought up his therapist. He hadn’t before with anyone but his health insurance company.

“Oh, Brooklyn,” Richie said. “I hear that’s where all the good psychs are.”

“She’s not a psychiatrist, she’s a therapist,” Eddie said, aggrieved. “She helps me talk through my shit. Without meds.”

Richie hummed in his throat. Looking halfway to the stars, he reached over and idly cupped Eddie’s jumping knee in his hand. Eddie stilled. Richie kept his hand there, rubbing his thumb along the inside ridge of the patella.

“You’re shivering and it’s making me cold,” Richie told him. “Well, hey, I’m uh, seeing a psychiatrist. You know. For the drugs.”

“That’s not a funny joke.”

“It was pretty low-hanging.”

“No, I know you had that drug problem. A few years ago.”

“Creepazoid,” Richie teased him. “What are you, cyber-stalking me? Yeah, I did coke. But I’m on, uh, Paxil now.”

“You’re on an SSRI? And you drank?”

“I had one glass of wine,” said Richie, “I’m allowed to have one glass of wine.”

“One glass of wine negates your day of Paxil,” Eddie said. “What dosage are you on?”

Richie came out with the British voice: “Dr K, that’s confidential!” and Eddie startled at the crispness of the accent, the lilt to it. Then, normally, Richie said, “Twenty milligrams but we’re talking about increasing it in a few months.”

“Is it affecting your sleep?”

“No, actually, I take it in the morning.” Richie was grinning fondly down at him. He still massaged Eddie’s knee. A string inside Eddie twisted. “It’s the weirdest thing, my doc says Paxil’s supposed to knock you out, but it just gets me wired.”

“That’s the last thing the world needs. A wired Trashmouth.”

That got another laugh out of Richie, who squeezed Eddie’s knee once then took his hand away again. The laugh fizzled pleasantly in Eddie’s chest, deep in the half-filled holes of him, but as Richie moved his hand away Eddie’s breath caught, too, down in those holes, deep, deep in him. Use your words, Eddie. He wanted Richie to pet his knee again. He wanted Richie to touch him. He’d always wanted Richie to touch him.

“How do you know so much about it, anyway?” Richie asked. “You been moonlighting as a pharmacist? Slinging out the blister packs at Walgreens?”

Eddie shrugged. He shifted slightly, turning his legs away from Richie. He’d read that somewhere that your body displayed its interest in someone without your thought, that if you liked them then your feet would point to them sure as an arrow, that you moved to them like how some flowers turned with their petals opened wide to follow the sun.

“Myra takes Paxil.”

Another length of wood cracked, tumbling into the ash and embers. Eddie tipped his head back to watch the sparks reaching out for the stars, so clean and white and far above.

“Ah,” said Richie. He looked at his hands, clasping his own knees. “Got you.”

They talked some more after that, meaningless stuff. Then Bill came out with sparklers and Ben warned them not to go out too far with the sparklers. The scrub was dry. “Fires are no joke,” Ben said very seriously.

“Then we’ve got a problem,” Richie said.

“Why? What did you do?” Ben squinted at him.

Beverly swooped in before Richie, beaming, could deliver the punchline. She said, “Because you’re smoking, new kid,” and rising on the tips of her toes with a hand on his arm, she kissed Ben’s cheek with such softness that Eddie’s knees hurt.

That was New Year’s, and no matter what his therapist said, Eddie had refused to use the words to describe what he’d felt with Richie’s hand on his knee. He had bulleted a small list of facts for his reference.

• Richie was gay. He’d come out to them, all of them, before they’d left Derry. Eddie last of all, in the hospital in Bangor. He’d made a joke of it to Eddie and Eddie had told him to shut the fuck up. “It’s not a joke, loser,” Eddie said. “It’s fine. You’re gay. You’re still the most annoying dude in my life.” Richie had ducked his head and smiled, like a shy kid at his scuffed sneakers.

• Eddie was not heterosexual. He had known this for a while but he’d done what he had thought was a pretty good job of neatly sticking that in some dusty corner of his psyche. He was married and if he wasn’t a passionate husband, he was at least a dutiful husband. Then he almost died and he realized he hated his marriage and if he had to go on living his life, including with that marriage, then he might as well die after all. And he didn’t want to die.

• Richie was gay. Eddie was, he guessed, bisexual. He hadn’t hated sex with Myra or with the one girl he’d dated in college before his mom got sick and needed him to take care of her, so he probably wasn’t gay. It wasn’t okay or fair for Eddie to explore his sexuality with Richie just because Richie was the only gay man he had an emotional relationship with, since Danny in Accounting was ruled out on the grounds that he was an asshole and a moron and he watched American Horror Story.

• Eddie didn’t want to do the dating scene again. He hadn’t enjoyed it the first time. There was so much pressure, he thought, to do the right thing, to go performatively overboard for someone you barely knew. What if you didn’t like each other? Then he’d have humiliated himself buying flowers and chocolates for her. He hated the idea of it, of showing even the thinnest slice of his underbelly to a stranger.

And he didn’t want casual sex. Richie joked about casual sex in his sets, these raunchy fuck gags about women with plastic tits and fat asses, and none of it was real or true and it was all definitely wildly misogynistic. In late August, Richie had posted a screenshot of his Notes app: an apology for, he wrote, “basically everything I have ever said or done or implied about women, and people of color, and gay people, and like, anyone who isn’t Trump or Rush Limbaugh cuz fuck those guys. I don’t expect anyone to like me or forgive me and probably the guys who used to like me are going to hate me for this but fuck those guys too. Fuck me, I guess. Anyway, sorry. And not to distract from the sincerity or the importance of the above, because this doesn’t give me a free pass, but I’ve never actually fucked a woman. I am, how do you say, a gay bitch baby.” Then he’d gone off-line for a week. Eddie had spent most of that week yelling at Richie via text and yelling at the people yelling at Richie on Twitter.

Eddie hadn’t asked if Richie’s jokes about casual sex had come from any place of truth. He had a writing team before the ongoing reorganization of what Richie called “my entire fucking professional life,” but had he suggested things to them? Had Richie gone out to bars with neon lights and blue cigarette smoke and smiled that long, long smile he had at a man?

The thought made Eddie’s chest ache like a watermelon, ripe, ready for someone to split in half with a good knife. He didn’t think it. He’d more of those doubled memories now, emotions flashing through him with the same intensity and strange blurriness of an over-exposed photograph. His hands itched if he remembered being a child, chasing after Richie, shouting at him, hoarding Richie’s attention.

Dr Greene asked how the separation was going for Eddie.

“It’s, uh, it’s good,” Eddie said. “Um. The separation was mostly for Myra’s sake. I, uh, already know I want a divorce. And I told her that. But she wants to try this first and I already feel like a dick, so.”

Dr Greene had nodded and let him get a glass of water and asked him if he was seeing anybody else, all in that even and nonjudgmental way that she had that nevertheless made the hair on the back of Eddie’s neck stand on end.

He wasn’t an adulterer; he didn’t cheat. He’d never cheated. He’d never touched another woman outside of one or two handshakes necessitated at work. He didn’t like to touch people, period. Myra was the only person he’d held and made love to for the last ten years.

“It’s okay if you want to,” said Dr Greene. “But you’re right. It wouldn’t be a good idea if you’re thinking of divorce.” She made a face. “That’s not really my line to say. That’s for a lawyer.”

He mentioned it to Richie on accident after New Year’s, after all the Losers had scattered back to their vacations or their jobs or in Bill’s case, his wife.

“I don’t even have time to think about dating,” he complained over FaceTime. He was washing the dishes in the sink and just starting to scrub the wok he’d used for vegan stir fry three hours ago. “Like, obviously I’m dealing with my lawyer figuring out how to suggest this divorce to Myra in a humane way. Then at my job we’ve got this huge deal we’re working through with LG Chem and the fucking EPA. And meanwhile I’ve got this hole in my chest that should’ve taken like a whole year to heal but now it’s been, what, six and a half months?”

“And three days,” said Richie.

“Right, and three days, and it’s completely closed up, I feel fine, I’m a walking, talking human being and--” At that point he rocketed the metal scrubber in the sink, threw up his pink-gloved hands, and screamed.

“That’s it,” said Richie, “let it out. There you go, Wolfman.”

Eddie covered his face with the soap gloves and leaned forward, elbows on the sink. He could hear Richie’s breathing, calm and even, through the iPad mounted over the sink. With his fingers pressed to his forehead he imagined that Richie was standing next to him, standing over him, putting his own elbows down on the counter so he could lean forward beside Eddie. Breathing. Eddie pushed the thought away.

Richie asked quietly, “You okay?”

Eddie said, “Yeah. It’s just been a long week.”

“Eddie,” said Richie.

He was going to ask about the holes in Eddie’s chest. He was going to bring up the sewer, the foul lights, Eddie leaning over him and smiling and saying—

“I gotta go,” Eddie said. “I’ve got a headache and this wok is just. Fucked. I’ll talk to you later.”

Richie was quiet long enough Eddie thought maybe he’d hung up. Then he said, “Yeah, sure,” very brightly. “I gotta shoot some e-mails to my agent. We might still be able to save this Netflix special.”

I feel fine, Eddie thought at Dr Greene. I feel good. I feel normal.

And January, rainy, shivered and gave way at last to February, and February brought with it those odd sunny days then snow, a weather change that moved through Eddie too; and Richie. February brought Richie.