What do you want for your birthday, Richie?
When he was a little kid, no one had to ask him in the first place. He’d say his desire as soon as he thought it—an NES, to have Stan and Bill and Eddie over, to have chocolate cake, comic books, to go to bed late, money for movies, to have a sleepover, to order pizza, to be picked up from school for McDonald’s lunch in his father’s boat of a sedan like a little prince and to stick his tongue out at his classmates as he passed.
As a teenager, Richie realized that it was wiser, sometimes, to shut up about what he wanted or everyone would leave him. What do you want, Rich? someone would ask, and his heart, greedy as a stomach, would scream to be kissed, to be seen, to have my hand held, to be looked at on purpose by another boy, to be cared for. He imagined these desires somewhere around his stomach. What do you want for your birthday, Richie? And he’d shrug and say “I dunno” as if he was not a screaming slavering hole of want, space-dark inside and surrounded by howling teeth. What do you want? Money, I guess, something that looks just like what everyone else has, something tradeable for games or magazines or cars or gas for the tank of the car so it can carry me as far outside of Derry as I need to go, which is quite far.
As he got older, thank God, people stopped asking him about birthday presents—you either outgrow those completely or you have friends who know you well enough to guess what you’d like; birthday gifts become a way for people to prove to you that they care and understand. And Richie no longer had those kinds of people, which was a relief, he thought. Instead he got liquor and coke and once, memorably, a blowjob from the guy who went onstage after him and completely bombed. He thought maybe that guy’s insides screamed too.
Humiliatingly, in adulthood, the pit still shouted to be seen and held and kissed. It did not grow up with him to crave sex or weed or White Castle, all of which he still wanted and got, but the toothsome animal in him wanted to be pressed upon gently, studied and comprehended, tended to. In their own ways, some people tried to do so, but it was never enough. The canyons of his body felt ancient, like they’d been carved out by something so old he’d forgotten what it was.
It isn’t until Derry that he remembers why he always pictured it that way, the glistening throat and its rows of spinning teeth. That first time, the first fight, he’d looked into the awful eyes of the clown, yellow like a taxidermied animal, and thought: yeah, me too, you fuckin’ monster. Maybe that’s why it didn’t take the first time. He hadn’t been going after Pennywise with that bat, not really; he’d been going after himself.
This time, he has a better handle on his target. Fuck you, fuck everyone else that made me an easy target for you, a savoury kid-shaped piñata of fear and despair. And somehow, this time, it works.
Thank god for poetic justice. Gives him a way to get the point across to his therapist without making poor Kumail send him back to rehab.
The months after Pennywise pass in a way that itches. Like skin does under a scab. He always used to pick them off too early as a kid and he’d bleed everywhere. This time he manages to wait. Itching, Eddie tells him over the phone when the stitches in his chest are making him crazy, means healing. “Like a, a, a surprise birthday party,” Eddie says. “You wanna know what everyone is whispering about but if you bother it you’ll ruin their plans.”
“You hate surprise parties,” Richie says, adding a belated “I bet” when he realizes that Eddie at fifteen had hated them, but Eddie at forty might have changed.
“Fuck off while I am trying to have impulse control, will you?” Eddie snaps, which is what Richie wanted but also does not confirm Eddie’s feelings about surprise parties one way or the other. Schrödinger’s Eds. Maybe we still know each other precisely and maybe we do not.
So Eddie recovers, and Stan announces that Patty is expecting, and Eddie gets a divorce, and Richie goes to Atlanta for Hanukkah, and Eddie calls him just to talk at least once a week, and Richie stares at Stan and Patty knocking shoulders very gently, sweetly, as they clean up after dinner, and Richie feels the long toothy throat of all his wanting groan in envy.
He tries to picture it like Kirby instead, now, which is something Kumail-the-therapist calls “a step in the right direction.” He’s just a big pink vacuum, a cute monster who’s bent less on destruction than on just trying to be. To hold the things that make him happy in his cartoon flippers.
As it turns out, murdering a clown does not magically solve everything, but it’s (Richie thinks in a Kumail voice) “a step.” So is having friends, real ones, a whole phone full of them, and he suspects they mean it when they ask how he is and say they miss him. The want-monster is almost quiet sometimes. He starts to be less surprised when it is. Sometimes he doesn’t even notice.
He’s busy, after all: he has a talk with his manager that he’s been putting off and he cancels the rest of his tour and he writes a new ten minutes, just him, that he performs at a club he likes in L.A. He lets an iPhone recording posted by someone in the front row take over the business of coming out for him. He does the talk shows he’s supposed to and he works on new material and he takes a couple of voice acting spots and he schedules meeting after meeting after meeting. The months pass quickly, summer fading into fall and winter.
One day in February, Eddie Facetimes as he cooks dinner for himself. It’s two in California, a charmingly early five in New York City. The Kirby-monster in Richie’s stomach howls as it watches Eddie clumsily cut and measure and wash, listening to the little disapproving sounds he makes when he doesn’t know how to do something. Then Eddie asks “What do you wanna do for your birthday?”
And he cannot remember the last time he heard that question. He can’t remember the last time he’d really celebrated his birthday at all. Sometimes, from Steve, he’d heard “what are you gonna do for your birthday?” as in: will I need to pry you off the floor of your apartment and how many NDAs will I need to bring for your guests? But nobody asked in that particular way, that presumed inclusion. A little Eddie-ish “What shenanigans will I go along with for your sake? What trouble are we getting into, the two of us, together?”
Richie wants to cry, just a little.
When he’s silent for longer than a few seconds, Eddie looks up from the bell pepper he’s cutting. “Rich?”
“Sorry, couldn’t hear you for a sec,” Richie lies. “What’d you say?”
“I said, what do you wanna do for your birthday?” Eddie repeats. Just exactly the same way.
Richie swallows the lump in his throat. “Aww, spaghetti, you remembered,” he coos.
“Of course I remembered, dickweed.” Eddie has moved on to some kind of spice rub, carefully squinting at the different jars and spoons in a way that makes Richie’s pulse go lub-dup, lub-dup, the way they tell you it does in health class. Like Eddie makes his heart good at being a heart. “So, what, you wanna go sky-diving? To Vegas or some stupid shit like that?”
Richie laughs. “I think as soon as I cross into Vegas airspace they send my photo out to every cop in the city. Krrsh, Trashmouth spotted, over. Krrsh, do not approach, he’s highly dangerous, clear civilians from the area and wait for backup.”
“Oh, of course, you were the inspiration behind The Hangover,” Eddie says. “Skydiving it is, then.”
“No,” Richie says, rising to the bait. “No, I just wanna hang out with you guys, but I really don’t think I’ll be able to go out to your coast for the actual day; I got all kinds of shit to do that week. Might just get dinner with Bill, I dunno.”
“Don’t be stupid, why would you fly out to me?” Eddie says, and Richie’s heart drops. “No, it’s basically still winter out here in March, I’ll just come to you.”
“Aw, shucks, you’d really do all that for little ol’ me?” Richie fawns in his best-worst Southern Belle voice.
Eddie is offscreen washing his hands in the kitchen sink when he says, “Yeah, dumbass, I have disposable income, and the office can cope without me for like two and a half days.”
“You’re serious?” Richie asks quietly, a little overcome.
“Yeah, man,” Eddie says, stepping back into frame. “Only if you want me to, though, I mean—” His eyebrows come in for a worried landing over his eyes, as they often do, and Richie loves them when they do that but he does not want to miss out on the opportunity to have Eddie in his house instead of on his grainy cell phone screen.
“No, I want you to!” Richie says frantically. “I insist, Eduardo. Come to California.”
Eddie’s smile pops up, just briefly, a flash of white pixels as he looks down at his hands. “Okay,” he says.
Like he used to in grade school, Richie wants to tell everyone he talks to that Eddie’s coming over to his house. He’s in a meeting when Eddie sends him a picture of his plane ticket confirmation, and he has to stop himself from holding his phone up to show the Netflix executive on the other side of the conference table. He tells Steve three separate times to make sure he doesn’t schedule anything for Tuesday the 7th because Richie’s best friend is coming into town.
“I got it, Rich, Jesus,” he says the third time. “You’ll have your little day off, whaddaya want from me?”
Richie just smiles at him, big and gummy, the hungry animal in his chest chirping with joy.
The month between the plane tickets and the arrival of Eddie himself stretches out somehow longer than all six months since ClownBoy 2: Electric Boogaloo put together, but it still ends. When it does, Richie's so red dye no. 5, corn-syrup, bounce-off-the-walls excited that he’s actually early to the airport.
Richie’s just self-aware enough to feel embarrassed to be in the arrivals line at LAX. It feels pornographic. All the fuckin’ Uber drivers, because that’s how normal people leave the airport, can look at him and see his big raging heart boner: look at this chump, he went and picked up his man from LAX, he’s obviously gagging for it. Humiliating.
But still. Better to be humiliated than miss out on several valuable hours of Eddie time.
Rather than text Eddie when he walks out of the terminal, Richie lays on the horn and reaches out of his window to bang on the soft cover of his Corvette. Eddie jumps and then settles, one hand over his heart, lines around his mouth furious. He flips Richie off before he walks over.
“Spaghetti!” Richie cheers as Eddie bends to look through the open passenger-side window. “You came after all!”
“Your car rightfully belongs to a literal asshole,” Eddie had said. “A human rectum should own this car instead of you. It would be less annoying and also deserve it more.”
“I know!” Richie says. “I don’t know how this fuckin’ thing works! Do you need help with your bags?”
“Obviously I need help with my bags, fuckwad, I only have one and a half lungs—” Eddie starts to say, but Richie is already out of the car to throw Eddie’s gigantic suitcase in the trunk and his backpack in the backseat. When he reaches for the backpack, he’s close enough to Eddie to smell that he does smell like an airplane, but under that, just like Eddie, soapy and sharp and masculine. Richie is reminded of those ornaments they made on the last day of school before Christmas, oranges with a billion cloves stuck into them, looking like viruses but smelling out-of-this-world good. His backpack straps, where Richie grabs them to toss the backpack in past the passenger’s seat, are warm from his shoulders.
Eddie wears Ray Ban sunglasses, because of course he does, and they’re on his face by the time Richie stands up from heaving Eddie’s enormous suitcase into the Corvette’s slim little trunk. “Okay, Ferris Bueller,” Richie says, because Eddie is looking somewhere that’s not towards him and the monster in his chest shrieks. “You ready to go?”
It’s always been worse around Eddie. And better. That’s just how Richie’s life goes: the wanting, screaming monster is so much louder when it’s Eddie brushing his arm as Richie maneuvers out of the airport, Eddie frowning down at the curry takeout menu, Eddie letting his forehead land heavily between Richie’s shoulder blades as Richie unlocks the door to his apartment. But it loves Eddie best, as well: joyful yells at the way he scrubs at his eyes as he unloads boxes from the takeout bag.
“Tired out, little man?” Richie asks, feeling a warm kind of bruise where Eddie’s bony head had popped against his upper back, tingles radiating from it like pixie dust from Tinkerbell.
“It’s, like, eleven o’clock in New York,” Eddie says. “I’m usually asleep by now.”
“Do you wanna go to bed? Baby?” Richie says, both to tease him and to feel it roll off his tongue.
Eddie gives him a mean look and rips the plastic top off one of the takeout containers in one swift movement, the way Richie never can. “Do you have Netflix on your giant fucking homophobe-money TV? I haven’t seen the new House of Cards yet.”
“Whatever you want, spaguardo,” Richie says dreamily as he follows Eddie to the living room, and he thinks, man, I’m the one missing half a lung, and now that you’re here, holy shit did I miss you.
They only get through one episode of House of Cards; Claire’s mom appears and is a holy terror and Eddie watches the screen blandly as Richie watches him. Eddie eats cleanly, quiet cooling inhales with each bite of his pork vindaloo. His undershirt peeks out where he’s undone the top three buttons of his dress shirt. Richie can’t imagine being the kind of person who flies in business professional attire; he pictures sitting next to Eddie in his little suit on the plane and peeking over his shoulder at the sudoku or pie charts or whatever on his iPad screen and his blood starts sprinting around his body like mad. Eddie, neat and contained, manages to put his curry down before he starts to nod off.
When Richie shows him to the guest room, Eddie’s quiet and sleepy and pliable, mumbling “thanks, Rich,” to Richie’s rambled description of the amenities. Richie watches him run a clumsy finger along the pile of towels at the foot of the bed. He retreats to his own bedroom to roar into a pillow like the MGM lion.
Richie doesn’t sleep well that night in the same way kids don’t sleep well on the first night of summer. He rubs his eyes and cracks his back and he’s crunchy all over because he’s forty-one, which is a surprisingly okay thought. And then he sees his hair in the mirror at the exact same time that he remembers that Eddie’s somewhere in his house, and he’s filled with a twenty-two-year-old level of adrenaline.
He showers first, because he is not a masochist. He considers jerking off as a preventative measure for the day ahead, but his dick just kind of hangs there uselessly. “Really, dude?” he says aloud, squinting down at himself. “Well don’t come fuckin’ crying to me when you get all frustrated later. I don’t wanna hear shit out of you until at least midnight tonight.”
When he finally pops out of his bedroom, Eddie is unsurprisingly showered and dressed and fiddling with something on his Apple watch. “I got my fuckin’ steps in, you bastard, I swear to Christ,” he mutters, and Richie is overcome with the desire to throw himself at Eddie’s back and bury his nose in the nape of his neck.
“Only ten AM and already the world has it out for Eddie Kaspbrak,” Richie says happily. “How do you live?”
Eddie looks up at him, nose pinched like a pissed-off rabbit. “Oh, you’re awake.”
“Don’t sound so excited, Eds, you’ll give a girl ideas,” Richie says with an unconvincing laugh, and Eddie rolls his eyes.
“No, I just meant, like, you’re awake-awake. I assumed you’d need to bathe in coffee or something before you could string two words together. I made some, but.” He gestures to Richie’s general form.
“What, I’m already dressed? It’s too late for me? Coffee would do nothing now?” Richie wanders over to the pot and pours himself a mug, just to be petulant, even though it’s gonna hit his stomach like an atomic bomb with how jittery he already is.
Eddie humphs. “Dressed is a strong word for the state of wearing a shirt and shorts with two different flamingo patterns.”
“I’ll wear a jacket too!” Richie says, then giggles. “Hey, Eds. Eds.”
Eddie meets his eyes balefully.
“It’s my birthday suit.”
“You should be unemployed.”
Richie cackles, happy in the way that he imagines confetti cannons are happy. A job well done. Bits of shiny paper hanging in the air.
Stan and Patty call first, Patty’s glow shining through the phone screen like a candle. Then, at Eddie’s insistence, Richie picks a place for brunch—what are we gonna do, floor pitchers of mimosas like gay men in our twenties? he says, and Eddie says, no, we’re gonna drink bloody Marys like gay men in our forties. It’s a diner Richie likes, one of the ones that’s self-aware about how schlocky 50s nostalgia is but still kind of leans into the aesthetic a little bit. Chrome barstools, shiny teal-and-salmon dishware. They’re fast and unpretentious. They know who Richie is and won't be weird, which is a douchey thing that one considers as a C-list celebrity in Los Angeles.
“So, what do you wanna do today?” Eddie asks again, tapping the side of his mimosa because he does actually think that bloody Marys are disgusting. Maries?
“How would you say the plural of Bloody Mary?” Richie says.
Eddie flips his menu down in exasperation. “I wouldn’t, because they’re fucking gross. Will you focus?”
Richie waves his hand. “I don’t know, man, whatever! It’s your day in LA. We should do some touristy stuff.”
“Not how today works, asswipe. Your birthday gift is that you get to drive. You’re always pushing choices off onto other people; I want you to do shit that you want to do. Whatever you want.” Eddie’s got at least six wrinkles in his forehead when his eyebrows ratchet up like this and Richie wants nonsensically to press his cheek against them and feel all the little ridges. “So, what do you want, Rich?”
Richie gulps at his bloody Mary, because he does think that they’re good, and also because he wants to jump the table and bite Eddie’s ears where they’re turning pink. “My birthday wish is for you to order spaghetti,” he says. “Spaghetti at eleven in the morning. I’ll take a picture. That’s all I want in the world.”
“Fuck you,” Eddie says, and Richie thinks with relief that the moment has passed.
When the server comes back around in her jaunty little teal button-down, though, Eddie actually does it. He looks right into her eyes and orders spaghetti and meatballs at eleven in the morning.
Richie chokes out something about the special with the chorizo and waits for her to turn to another table before he says, “I was joking, man!”
Eddie, no longer holding a menu, folds his hands in between them instead. “I wasn’t. Your birthday. Your rules.”
“Don’t tell me that, man,” Richie says with a little sandy laugh. “I’ll turn into a monster. I’ll start asking for bowls full of M&Ms with all the green ones picked out.”
“Well, do you want a bowl of M&Ms with all the green ones picked out?” Eddie snaps.
“Okay, so we’re fine then.”
He looks stubborn and edible, lips pressed together around the rim of his glass. Richie’s heart bounces around in his chest like a baby in one of those little chairs that hang from a doorframe. “Okay,” he says, and he takes a long drink of his second bloody Mary.
They go to laser tag.
“You’re a child,” Eddie says, but he’s smiling as he puts the directions into his phone.
“Mean!” Richie says. “You said whatever I want!”
“I didn’t say I had to be nice to you about it,” Eddie says. “Unless one of your birthday wishes is for me to stop being mean to you.”
"Absolutely not," Richie says.
Eddie's fingers go tak-a-tak-a-tak on his phone keyboard as he coordinates with Bill and Bev, who are the only two in L.A. this week—Ben is on a project site in Quebec, and Mike is meeting with publishers in New York, which Bill refuses to shut up about in a way that Richie thinks is kind of sweet. Both of them have taken the afternoon off, because Eddie is a sneaky conniving bastard.
Eddie makes a lot of spelling mistakes, Richie notices, and just lets autocorrect take care of them. He types the way hackers type in movies, dead serious and totally ineffective. Oh, man, he thinks. You are my favorite person.
The teenager working the front desk at Ultrazone, a skinny girl in a visor and a nametag reading DANA, looks both disinterested and disappointed in them for being four middle-aged adults booking two rounds of laser tag on a Tuesday afternoon. Richie grins at her like a loon as she explains that there’s a group coming in at three, so they can play against just each other for the first round, but they’ll have to be on mixed teams for the second.
“Whaddaya think, everybody?” Richie says as he leans against the counter on one elbow. “You want to shoot lasers at a bunch of little kids?”
“You can’t say that,” Dana says, but she sounds like she couldn’t care less, so Richie ignores her.
Bill rolls his eyes. Bev puts her hands in the air. Eddie raises his eyebrows. “Up to you, Trashmouth. Use your powers for good.”
“Dana,” Richie says, turning back to her and holding out his hand as if sealing a real estate deal, “I think we’ll take it.”
He cackles with delight when she actually shakes it.
Richie has played laser tag a handful of times in his early twenties with a bunch of his old comedy friends. They were guys whose personalities had an inverse relationship with the quality of their weed, and their weed was always fucking great. He remembers that they were high as shit that first day and that he’d walked into the laser tag arena and thought that he would have absolutely lost his mind about this as a kid. He didn’t remember a lot about being a kid at the time, of course, but he’d just known. Laser tag would have absolutely sent him off the deep end. It still kind of does
The worker that hands over his vest and plastic gun tells him that he can’t wear his Birkenstocks into the arena because they don’t have straps on the back, but he can just go in his socks. “Incredible,” Richie says, smiling enormously. “Did you know you have the most important job in the world?”
The arena looks just like he remembers: lots of overlapping pathways and platforms, lots of safety nets to keep kids out of the other team’s area and also out of the emergency room. This place also happens to have enormous paintings of cleavage-y alien women on the wall, which is a fun touch. There’s a lot of safety foam, a lot of neon, a lot of glow-in-the-dark splatter painting. As they push through the door at the beginning of the first round, Eddie says, “You know, after I visit, this is exactly what your mom’s bedroom looks like under a blacklight.”
Richie laughs so loud that Bev manages to shoot him before the door’s even fully closed.
It’s Richie and Eddie against Bill and Bev, because neither Bill nor Richie had ever been able to aim for shit. Bev is incredible, hair in a bouncy red ponytail, cackling every time she lights up someone’s vest. Bill mostly manages not to get shot. Eddie’s fast, but shoots the way he types. Richie’s patently terrible and can’t stop laughing; he takes a selfie with the busty alien woman on the wall and Bev manages to shoot him right down the barrel of his gun while he’s distracted.
“That’s triple points, motherfucker!” she shrieks in delight.
It’s over far too quickly, and he runs headlong into Eddie as the scoreboard on the wall begins to count down the last thirty seconds. Bill and Bev are beating them by about two thousand points.
“Oh, it was an honor serving with you, Spagheddie,” Richie says, bear-hugging him dramatically in his long sweaty arms, and he hears Eddie make a few noises of disgust before he reaches up to shoot Richie in the back of the head.
The kids who join them for the second round are all about twelve, and they’re there for the birthday party of some tow-headed little fuck named Kyle that recognizes Richie and says he liked Richie’s older stuff better. “You let your kid watch my comedy?” Richie says to Kyle’s mom, just to be a dick.
“You go to laser tag without any kids?” Kyle’s mom snaps back tiredly.
Richie salutes her.
They’re still split up into pairs, Richie and Eddie with one half of the birthday party and Bill and Bev with the other. The kids send Richie into absolute hysterics, how serious they look when they’re shooting him from a distance—he is, after all, the biggest target—and how mad they get when they catch him fucking around. They’re right at that age where they are both terrified of adults and desperate to prove that they’re not: ten minutes in, Kyle screams at him to “just fucking hide if you’re not gonna be any help!” And some little twerp from the other team catches him right in the chest as he’s bent double laughing.
He lies right down in the middle of the platform after that, rendered totally inert by an uptight twelve-year-old. It’s kind of a hiding spot: you can’t really see him from enemy territory. He stares up at the ceiling and catches his breath. They’ve painted it with a clumsy combination of a vortex and the night sky, like maybe you’re traveling through interdimensional space, although it’s hard to tell whether you’re falling down or being sucked up and in. It’s terrible. Richie wants it on his bedroom ceiling.
Then Eddie’s head appears in the middle of the vortex and his eyes are so wild and worried that Richie immediately snaps into panic mode. “What happened?” Richie says, grabbing Eddie’s ankle to pull himself up to a sitting position. “Is something wrong?”
“I dunno, dude, is something wrong with you?” Eddie squawks, kneeling close enough to be heard over the atmospheric electro-pop blasting from the speakers. “You just like dropped to the ground out of nowhere. I thought you had a fuckin’ heart attack or something.”
“Shit, no, I’m fine,” Richie says, instinctively rubbing little circles into Eddie’s ankle bone, above the line of his boat shoes. “I was just taking a break. Because I’m old as dirt and I never exercise.”
Eddie huffs and drops to his haunches. “Jesus Christ.”
“Sorry,” Richie says.
“No, come on, man, you were doing something normal,” Eddie says, hitting the meat of Richie’s upper arm with a fist. “I just—I don’t know, sometimes I remember things and I feel like I’m gonna die.”
“I know,” Richie says, then squeezes Eddie’s ankle to make him look up. He’s close, eyes the size of baseballs, black like coffee, and Richie’s body starts to scream at how gentle they look, how badly he wants to keep Eddie’s eyes on him. “I’m okay, man. I’m alive. Getting older, actually,” he tries, and Eddie laughs too quietly to hear.
“Richie,” he says, and he moves his small hot hand over Richie’s bare knee. “I—”
Then Richie’s blinded, briefly, by the flashing red lights on Eddie’s headset: he’s been hit. A little 8-bit victory noise comes from just behind Richie, and he turns to see a kid crouching on an adjacent enemy platform.
“OH, FUCK YOU, YOU LITTLE ASSHOLE,” Eddie screams.
Richie has never been kicked out of laser tag before, but he thoroughly enjoys the experience. Eddie complains to the worker escorting them out as they leave the building: “the kids can say fuck, but I can’t?” It’s Dana from before, who Richie thinks has probably suffered enough, so Richie just drags him out by his elbow and plops down on the curb outside of the complex. “C’mon, Dennis the Menace.”
Eddie sits down at his side, legs crossed underneath him, and Richie stares at his ankle for just a second, as if there’s going to be a big red mark where Richie had touched it. There’s nothing, just his white socks peeking out from under the topsiders.
“Sorry, uh,” Eddie says, staring across the parking lot in the general direction of a Sally’s Beauty Supply, or maybe the bao place next to it. “Sorry for yelling at a child and getting you kicked out of laser tag.”
“You kidding me, man? That was the best part!” Richie says, swooning into Eddie’s lap because it feels like maybe he can get away with it. “You were my hero! You defended my honor! Against that awful little gremlin!”
He throws his arms up over his head, shoulders fully flopped over Eddie’s knees. Eddie squints down at him, face dark against the searingly blue sky, but doesn’t try to move. Richie grins appeasingly. “All right, numbnuts,” Eddie says, brushing Richie’s hair out of his eyes. “Then you’re welcome.”
The hungry thing in his stomach curls up. Purrs, maybe. It’s warm out, and bright and blue, and Eddie’s legs are bony underneath him, pressing into his spine. Perfect. Eddie doesn’t push him off until Richie waggles his eyebrows and says, “It was a little sexy of you, actually.”
Bev and Bill, who managed to stay to the end of the round because they are adults with self-control, emerge after another twenty minutes. Beverly proudly presents Richie with a little stuffed toy, a tie-dyed neon turtle: her prize for being the MVP of the winning team. “You showed those kids, huh?” Richie says.
“Somebody had to,” she says, smile highway-wide and beautiful.
“What next, birthday brat?” Eddie says as they walk toward their respective cars, and he spins Richie’s car keys around his fingers in a way that unfortunately gives Richie ideas.
He checks his phone. It’s barely four p.m., but their last meal was brunch. “You guys wanna eat?” he says.
“Do you?” Eddie asks stubbornly. Bill and Bev stay quiet in a way that Richie suspects means they were inducted into the make-Richie-choose scheme.
“Yeah, I do,” Richie says finally. “I’ll drive.”
Blessedly, there are two neighboring parking spots open, and Richie leans smugly against the hood of his Corvette as Bill and Bev pull into the second one.
“Sonic?” Bill asks in disbelief. “I was r-ready to pull some studio strings to get us in somewhere fancy.”
“I like Sonic!” Richie says.
Eddie pokes his head out through the passenger-side window to give a little shrug. “He likes Sonic.”
He’s got his little Ray Bans back on, and Richie can’t resist reaching over to ruffle his hair. “Fuck off,” Eddie says warmly.
“I like Sonic too! They have good fries!” Bev says, popping out of Bill’s car with her own designer sunglasses on. The late-afternoon sun makes her hair look lighter than usual, kind of strawberry. She looks like an immortal movie star.
“You look like an immortal movie star,” Richie calls over.
“Thanks!” she says.
“Plus, I think it’s really cute when they bring the food out on roller skates,” Richie adds. “It’s like having a butler but you’re on drugs.”
“You’re always on drugs,” Eddie says.
“Not yet!” Richie corrects, pleased. “Not for—how long, Eds?”
Eddie checks his phone. “Fifteen minutes.”
“What happens in fifteen minutes?” Bill asks.
“Abigail the weed driver gets here,” Richie says brightly. “You ready to get high as balls, Bill?”
Bill shakes his head. “Y’know, at your age, balls aren’t s-supposed to be up there anymore,” he says, and Eddie bursts open with laughter.
It is, Richie believes, one of the wonders of the modern world that you can have special brownies delivered directly to you. It is a wonder of the antique world that you can have a twenty-two-year-old in roller skates and enormous gauges bring regular food right to your car. Richie expounds on this idea as he and Bev huddle behind the Walgreens next to Sonic and try to discreetly smoke a cigarette.
“You ever think you should just start vaping instead?” she asks, interrupting the stumbling tangle of his train of thought.
“Oh,” Richie says. “I guess I mostly have. California, you know. Nowhere to really do it.”
“Do you have your vape on you?” She flicks the ash onto the pavement at their feet.
“Yeah?” he says.
“Then why are we doing this?” she asks, glancing around as a door clangs shut on another side of the building.
Richie grins. “You wanted to gossip, Ms. Marsh. How’s that edible treating you?”
She blinks very slowly, as if realizing for the first time that she has eyeballs. “God. It’s been a while,” she says, and she passes the cigarette to Richie. “Uh, gossip, right. The fucking.”
“You’re adopting a goat?” Richie suggests. “Mike is joining yours and Ben’s relationship? Ben has a—”
Bev grips his arm suddenly. “Oh, I bought Ben a ring!”
Richie starts. “You bought Ben a ring!”
“I bought him a ring!”
Her eyes are wide and a little pink and she goes easily into Richie’s arms, clutching his shoulders and swaying side to side with him. Richie stubs the cigarette out on the wall of the building behind her.
“You gonna use it?” he asks after a second.
“Yeah!” she cries, pulling back and looking him in the eyes. “Yeah, like, before summer, I think! We’re going to Scotland in May! Maybe then! I don’t know! I feel crazy!”
Richie bought a happy lamp once, at Kumail-the-therapist’s behest. His schedule on tour was so horrific that he’d go days without seeing the sun, and Kumail thought it was probably bad for him. He always felt like a stumbling corpse when he was on tour; he drank more than usual and would just sleep in his stage clothes on top of the hotel covers with the lights on. “The lamp’s supposed to help?” Richie had asked.
“It can’t hurt,” Kumail had said.
So he’d gotten this thing, a little plastic box, and he’d blasted himself with a couple hundred watts of something approximating daylight every morning for half an hour while he answered emails. There were worse things to try.
That’s how Bev looks to him. Bright white light just exploding out of her from every corner. She’s in love. In hope. It won’t fix everything, not by a long shot, but it can’t hurt.
“I know what you mean,” Richie says.
“Oh, yeah?” Bev says. “Who are you crazy about, dicktoes?”
Richie rubs his eyes under his glasses and says nothing. He glances over toward the Sonic where Bill and Eddie, still sober so they can drive, have been left to wait for their food. He looks back at her.
“How’s Eddie?” she says playfully, and Richie wants to cry.
“C’mon, Bev,” he says, and there’s a little crack in it.
She kisses him on the cheek suddenly, then grabs onto his left arm with both of hers. “He seems happy, Rich. Happier than when I see him in New York.”
“Yeah, well, he’s on vacation,” Richie says, prodding at the corner of his eye with his free hand, less to wipe tears and more to check for them.
“He’s with you,” Bev says.
“I dunno,” Richie says. “I want—I just want so much from him I think I’d eat him alive.”
Bev hums and squeezes him tighter. There’s a moment of silence, during which their phones ping with a text about the food arriving, and Bev begins leading him back toward Sonic by the hand. Before they round the corner of the building, she says, “With Ben, sometimes, I feel like a wild animal. Like I’m managing to behave now but I’m gonna become one of those pet tiger cubs that grows up and kills somebody.”
“Yeah?” Richie says.
“Yeah,” she says. “And then usually I draw a piece of clothing that looks crazy on paper and I tell him how I’m feeling and then when we’re both home from work I absolutely maul him. Y’know, it’s not all bad.”
Bill pops his torso halfway out of his car to wave a milkshake at them. Eddie does the same from the backseat, grinning hugely, sunlight caught all around the edges of his body like gold leaf. Richie, stomach roaring, wraps his other arm tightly around Bev.
They all squish into Bill’s car to eat, propping two phones up against the dashboard so they can Facetime Mike and Ben, who both look tired and happy. Richie sits in the front seat with Bill and smiles and peppers them with goading questions about work. He passes fries back to Eddie, who’d said he wouldn’t order any because he didn’t want them and is now hungry-eyed and grabby-handed. Bev cackles at Ben’s description of his foreman; Bill looks softly at Mike in his hotel-room lamplight. Richie wants to turn around and look at Eddie so bad his shoulders cramp up with it, but he settles for peering at his tiny face in the corner of the phone screen.
Bill and Bev have to leave after dinner; they both live on the other side of the valley and have work in the morning. Richie and Eddie both hug them tightly, wave at Bill’s car as it peels out of the driveway.
“We’re not going home already, are we?” Richie asks, and Eddie shrugs.
“It’s up to you, Rich. What do you wanna do?”
Richie blows a raspberry and feels the rivets in the cuffs of his jean jacket. “Uhh, the beach?” he says uncertainly, then firms up when he sees Eddie start to open his mouth. “The beach.”
“Okay,” Eddie says, and he doesn’t quite smile but his dimples stand out like he’d like to. “Let’s go.”
Eddie’s miraculous sense of direction takes them to Venice faster than Richie thought possible. It’s a dumb touristy area, but it’s also Richie’s favorite: he refuses to buy sunglasses that aren’t from a kiosk of some kind. Between the time of year and day of the week, it’s not terribly busy, either. They find parking right next to the pier, but someone still stops Richie for a photo. He obliges. He likes the people who stop him a lot more these days.
Eddie hangs back just a little. When Richie turns back to look at him, he’s smiling gently, sunlight limning his crow’s feet, and Richie can’t resist slinging an arm around his shoulder to lead him down the boardwalk.
He’s got the vague idea to watch the sunset, but they have an hour before that happens, so they split another one of the brownies. “Birthday wish,” Richie says as he holds out a quarter to Eddie. “Get high with me. We’ll just Uber home if we need to.”
Eddie tilts his head, considering. His hair is a mess and his eyes are warm and Richie feels like a fucking yeti for how badly he wants to throw Eddie over his shoulder and carry him off to a den somewhere and never leave. Instead, he adjusts his grip on the brownie, holding it like a delinquent in an anti-drug PSA. “You’ll be cool,” he goads in something akin to an Jafar voice. “Be like your friend Richie. He smokes dope and he’s got a sick house and the easiest job in the world.”
“Your job is harder than Bill’s,” Eddie says finally, swiping the brownie out of his hand and downing it in one bite. “You at least have to say things out loud after you write them.”
Richie hoots and throws his arms into the air. “Hell yeah! Fuck authors!”
“Fuck books!” Eddie screams.
They find a little bakery still open a block or so down, one of those ones that specializes mostly in oversized cupcakes decorated like a Mardi Gras float, but it has a little case of cakes, too. Richie bends down and squints at the small ones for about five minutes before he points wordlessly at a red velvet and cream cheese frosting, because sue him, he still falls for the red velvet schtick. Eddie rolls his eyes and orders it for them.
“Do you want something written on it?” the cashier asks as she slides it off the display shelf and onto one of those magical little boxes that folds up around the cake.
Richie’s eyes bug out. “We can do that?”
The cashier nods dutifully. “I mean, I’d be the one doing it, so no promises about the handwriting, but you can fit a couple words on there.”
Richie claps gleefully. “Can I write it on, like, a napkin so he doesn’t see?” he asks, tilting his head toward Eddie.
Eddie puts his hand on the small of Richie’s back as if to rein him in and mouths a little sorry at the cashier, and the possessiveness of it, the we-ness, makes Richie’s head feel like it’s going to explode.
“Sure,” the cashier says, and Richie grabs a pen out of the cup next to the register to scribble something down.
They leave with two plastic forks and two of those boxed waters and the cake, which Richie insists on holding so that Eddie doesn’t peek.
“I’m not gonna peek, jackass,” Eddie says. “I’m not a child.”
“No, you just yell at them,” Richie says.
“F-fuck you,” Eddie says, and at first Richie thinks he’s doing a Bill bit, but when he looks over he sees Eddie give another little shiver.
He stops in the middle of the boardwalk. “Eddie, are you cold?”
“It’s sixty degrees out,” Eddie says, still striding ahead, arms stiff at his sides like a little nutcracker. “It’s like thirty in New York right now.”
“That’s not an answer,” Richie sing-songs, running to catch up. “You have to tell me if you’re cold. It’s my birthday.”
“Fine, dick!” Eddie says, arms crossed tight over his chest. “I’m a little cold! It’s windy! I’m in short sleeves! Blame the fuckin’ clown for putting a big hole through my organs!”
It is a little windy, Richie notices finally, breeze skipping off the tops of the waves and flaring upwards at the boardwalk. His own bangs are whipping into his eyes. He stares through them to Eddie for a just a second.
“Okay, well, wait,” he says, and he puts the cake down on a bench to take his denim jacket off. “Here, take this.”
Eddie squints at him skeptically. “You live here year-round. And you’re in shorts.”
“Yeah, and I have a little bit more subcutaneous fat than you,” Richie says, shaking the jacket at him. “Plus I have all my organs.”
After another pause, Eddie sighs and takes the jacket. “How do you know the word subcutaneous when you’re stoned?” he grumbles.
Richie is positively fucking charmed to see that Eddie doesn’t put his arms through the jacket, instead draping it over his shoulders like a wealthy widow. It looks like a cloak on his weentsy little shoulders, and Richie grins down at him as they walk. “Where’s my thank you?”
Eddie gives him a dark look. “Where’s the fuckin’ cake?”
“Fuck!” Richie says, and he doubles back to the bench.
They go back to the car for the sunset; it really is a little cold to watch it from the boardwalk. Richie is fiddling with the heater as Eddie opens the cake box, so he almost smacks his head on the roof when Eddie says “R plus E forever, huh?”
“What?” Richie squeaks.
“The cake,” Eddie says, and Richie’s head clears. He looks over at the writing. It’s pink; that had been the only frosting color left besides black. The girl at the shop had even written it “4ever,” the way Richie had wanted.
“That is surprisingly sentimental,” Eddie says.
“What, you expected a dick joke?” Richie asks, hands in front of the fans to make sure hot air is coming out.
Eddie shrugs and hands Richie a fork. “Kind of?”
The sun sinks fast, and before long the entire ocean is a brilliant plate of red-gold. It burns Richie’s eyes a little, but he wants to keep staring; it reminds him of Bev. Bright and glowing. “You ever think about how happy everyone is?” Richie says into the silence.
Eddie, bite of red velvet halfway to his mouth, hums his acknowledgment.
“I mean, not everyone-everyone,” Richie rambles. “But us, you know, losers club. It’s fucking nuts. Stan and Patty with the baby, and Bev and Ben. Mike finally got to leave. Bill finally got to end something.”
“Is it crazy for people to be happy?” Eddie asks.
“For us?” Richie says. “Yeah, a little.”
Eddie leans heavily on his left elbow on the center console, and he’s close enough to smell, saltwater and sweat and frosting and that clove-orange something. Richie feels like a bug pinned to a corkboard. On display, limbs wide, a Wanter found in the wild, like you can just look at him and tell how twisted up and burning he is about Eddie.
“I think we deserve to be happy,” Eddie says authoritatively, the same way he’d say his own address or Richie’s middle name. “Are you?”
Richie looks down at his hands, takes a long drink from his water to clear his throat. “Some days more than others,” he says. “But more than before. Are you?”
Richie watches the glow fade off his face as the last edge of the sun slips underwater, and Eddie is suddenly not a gold-plated ghost but a person, one Richie can reach across to and love deeply. “Some days more than others,” he repeats. “Like, today? Today was—today was pretty perfect. The most fun I’ve had in years, probably. Maybe since we were kids.”
“Aww, Eds,” Richie says.
“I’m serious, fucker, I mean it. Thank you. For the jacket and for today and for, you know, talking to me on the phone and for, for calling my ex-wife a bitch when I needed to hear it.”
“Oh, my pleasure,” Richie says.
They lapse into silence that feels heavy and close, the kind that makes Richie’s heartbeat feel stronger in his stomach and his groin and the veins of his arms. Chapel silence, like what’s gonna happen had better be good, because it will matter. He is warm all over with the awareness of Eddie’s fingers spinning the plastic fork, of Eddie’s knee bouncing on the passenger seat.
“So we watched the sunset,” Eddie says.
“We did,” Richie says, not ready to look at his face.
But Eddie says, “What next, Richie?” and he puts two fingers on Richie’s wristbone and Richie looks up to see those Godiva eyes, deep brown and shining. He swallows.
“What do you want?” Eddie repeats.
And Richie leans across just the last few inches to kiss him.
In one way, it is impulsive, almost accidental, a decision that was hardly a decision at all. But in another, Richie presses everything into that kiss, because he might only get the one: the way his lungs jump when Eddie calls, the way his eyes get stuck on Eddie’s fine hands as he gestures and chops and cleans, the way his skin pulses when Eddie so much as stands on the same carpet, the way Richie’s whole body lies awake at night and howls for him and won’t be comforted. He can feel his brow furrow and his lips pull slowly across Eddie’s, his hand tighten on Eddie’s cheek.
And then Richie jumps back.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he babbles. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t—I shouldn’t have—”
“No, no, Richie, it’s okay,” Eddie says, always the only one fast enough to keep up. “Richie, it’s okay, you can—” and it’s too much, it’s Pandora’s box opening.
“Don’t tell me that,” Richie begs. “Please, Eddie, you can’t tell me I can have that from you or I’ll ask for everything.”
“Rich, stop, will you listen?” Eddie grabs his hand where it presses against the center console, where it pushes Richie as hard as it can against the far door. “Richie, you dipshit, what if I want all those things to be yours?”
All the air goes out of him, suddenly, and he’s still a wild animal pressed up against the car door in the deepening twilight, but he looks at Eddie and he listens. Eddie’s throat clicks as he swallows, and Richie’s eyes flick to the motion.
The streetlights click on over the car, and, stupidly, Richie says, “What?”
“I’m not an idiot, Richie,” Eddie says roughly. “I mean it. I love you, all right?”
“You love me,” Richie says, brain swimming frantically to stay afloat. Eddie’s hands look watery in the light that filters through the windshield. Richie grabs at them like lifelines. “Do you mean—”
“Yeah, I mean,” Eddie says. “I’m in love with you, I love you, and will you please for god’s sake say something back?”
Richie feels his eyes suddenly start making tears again, and before they can go too crazy, he reaches behind his back to the power-window button. “You just have to let me do one last thing. Birthday wish.”
The window rolls down too slowly, he thinks, watching Eddie’s eyes track frantically over Richie’s side of the car. When it’s all the way down and Richie can feel the saltwater breeze hit the back of his neck, he turns to put head and shoulders out through the window.
“EDDIE KASPBRAK LOVES ME BACK!” he screams.
“Oh, I’ll kill you,” Eddie says, pulling at Richie’s shoulders to pull him back into the car and kiss him again. He grabs at Richie’s neck, his jaw, his hair, little feral tugs and pushes that make Richie smile hugely into the kiss before he slips his tongue into Eddie’s mouth to take him apart properly. He wraps his arms around Eddie’s shoulders luxuriously, that urge to cover him completely still there but relaxing just a bit, the way he relaxes after the audience’s first big laugh. That oh, this’ll be good feeling.
He runs a hand through Eddie’s hair because he can fuck it up if he wants, and he wants: he cups the back of Eddie’s neck and plants two closed-mouth kisses on his top and bottom lip. “Yeah, Eddie Kaspbrak, I love you with every stupid bone in my body,” he says, and he reaches across to pinch Eddie’s ass.
He thinks Eddie says something to the effect of “I’ll show you a stupid bone,” but then they both lose the plot for a minute or two, and anyway that’s maybe the one thing Eddie could have said to make Richie even more helplessly in love.
He pulls back, gasping, when Eddie grabs the inside of his thigh. “We should hook up in the Corvette!”
Eddie rolls his eyes. “Absolutely not. This is a public place.”
“No, no,” Richie argues, kissing him under the chin because the spot just looks tempting. “Birthday wish. We should do it.”
Eddie’s hand tightens in Richie’s hair, but he stands firm. “No, actually, you see, your birthday’s over because the sun’s gone down. Like the Sabbath. New day. You’re not in charge anymore.”
“That’s not how the Sabbath fucking works,” Richie says, completely delighted. “You don’t know shit, dude!”
Eddie lets Richie finish the hickey under his chin, gasping a little and squirming in a way that makes Richie want to hulk out of his clothes completely.
“We are not,” Eddie puffs, pulling Richie up by the hair to make eye contact, “hooking up in the Corvette, because it’s past sunset which means I get to do what I want and what I want is to drive you home and suck your dick right off your body.”
And then he lets Eddie do it.