Eddie slams his car door shut, thumb pressing down on the lock button of his keys. The vehicle responds with a mournful chirp that pretty much sums up Eddie’s night as he trudges across the parking lot, rubbing at his eyes when he passes under the chemical yellow glow of a street-lamp.
His apartment isn’t far from the hospital where he works, but after another long night of interning during the graveyard shift, he’s not remotely prepared to take his chances on the freeway without some caffeine in his system, and the coffee at work makes the bathroom floors at Six Flags seem appetising.
The IHOP downtown is open twenty-four hours and even though he tends to steer clear from diners that are awake at the same time as the neighbourhood crackheads, he knows this one got an A from the health board and he’s getting desperate for a cup of coffee and a hash brown.
He’d murder someone for a hash brown right now.
Zipping his hoody up over his scrubs, he shoulders the door open and blinks stupidly at the harsh lightbulb buzzing over his head. Pushing past the same dread that any sane person would experience stepping into a liminal space like this, he hovers anxiously by the podium until he hears a clatter of metal and jumps.
A young redhead is dropping the cutlery she’d been organising when he’d walked in back into the tray and bounds over to him. She’s way too chipper to be serving a grumpy asshole like him at 3am, but the smile never leaves her face when she greets him with a polite, “Table for one?”
He nods and she plucks a menu from the pile, gesturing for him to follow her. As she weaves in and out of booths like she’s tackling Pan’s fucking labyrinth – seriously, there’s like, two other people here and she’s treating the task of finding him a spare table like it’s the Triwzard Tournament – she keeps up a merry string of conversation, asking how his night was.
“Fine,” he replies shortly. Then, for the sake of social graces, adds, “I was at work.”
“At the hospital?” the redhead asks. He notices her hair has been pulled into a tiny ponytail that only just sticks out from underneath her baseball cap. When she spots him frowning, she laughs and inclines her head towards him.
“Your scrubs,” she points out, with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh. Shit, yeah,” Eddie mumbles, sitting himself down on the bench and tugging at the toggle on his hoody.
“You want some coffee?” she asks, the wry smile on her face telling him that she already knows the answer to that and he feels a sudden rush of fondness for this nameless server.
“Please,” he replies, making sure the gratefulness he feels leaks into his tone.
“I’ll go get you a pot. Have a look at the menu and I’ll be back soon. If you need anything else, my name’s Bev.” She taps her nametag and leaves him alone with the menu, even though he already knows he’s going to order an omelette to cover up the fact that he’s a heathen currently salivating over the thought of a side of hash browns. He’s convinced himself that if he doesn’t get one soon, he’ll die. When he sat his pre-med exams, Lack Of Hash Browns had never been brought up as a life-threatening condition, but he’s pretty confident that if he goes without one for much longer, it’ll be fatal.
Not that he’s being dramatic or anything.
He pretends to peruse the menu because that’s what you do when you’re waiting for your server to come take your order. He only closes it when he hears Bev approach him from behind.
“Rich, here’s your breakfast melt,” she says to someone sitting two tables away. Eddie hasn’t lifted his head to look at them, too focused on his own gnawing hunger.
“And your coffee!” Bev announces, setting the pot down in front of him.
“Thank you,” Eddie says, the mug scraping across the table when he drags it towards him.
“Anyway, what can I get you?” She clicks her pen and holds it, poised over her notepad.
“The vegetable omelette,” he recites, pointing at the picture of it on the laminated menu. Just in case Bev, who’s evidently worked here for a while if the picture of her smiling face tacked on the wall underneath the words ‘Employee of the Month’ is anything to go by, had no clue what he meant when he asked for a mixture of egg, cheese and vegetables.
“Sure thing,” she nods. “And your side?”
“Hash browns, please.” The words come out of him in a rush, like he’s fighting against the urge to curl up in the booth and go to sleep right there. But no, he’s going to stay awake. Wide awake. He’s going to down his coffee and sit rigidly in the uncomfortable little booth and wait for his shredded, pan-fried potatoes to materialise in front of him and then he’s going to go home and sleep until noon, content in the knowledge that there was at least some sort of happy ending to this shitty, shitty night.
“Oh, I’m sorry – we actually just ran out of hash browns. I can give you some pancakes instead though!” Bev says brightly, like she hasn’t just brought Eddie’s world to a screeching halt.
“I’m sorry, what?” Eddie wheezes. This cannot be happening.
Judging by the look on her face, concern mixed with a wary sort of caution, it’s evidently become clear to Bev that this was the wrong thing to say. Her teeth disappear momentarily into her bottom lip before she squares her shoulders a little.
“I really am sorry,” she winces, sounding sincere without being condescendingly placating about it. “Our delivery won’t arrive until eight. We only have pancakes. We literally always have pancakes.”
“You’re IHOP,” he says bluntly.
“We’re IHOP,” she agrees with a nod, allowing him that.
“I… really needed a hash brown.”
Dread curls up in Eddie’s stomach, because he’s gutted, he really is. He’s absolutely, overwhelming, crushingly devastated that his night is ending like this – in an IHOP whose speakers are having a love affair with Tom Jones, wearing sneakers that probably still have bodily fluids on them no matter how hard he’d scrubbed them earlier.
In all honesty, he thinks he has every right to scream and shout and wholly demand that he get his hash browns. How did they just run out? What other greedy fucker in this establishment is out at this time of the morning, ordering hash browns when Eddie’s just finished a hellish shift and looking for one good thing in his life to see him through his drive home? His fingers shake a little and he’s not ashamed to admit that there are tears pricking at his eyes.
Bev looks like she doesn’t whether to hug him or call the police.
“I’m… really sorry,” she tries again.
And suddenly Eddie feels like an asshole.
It’s not Bev’s fault that Eddie got screamed at by a girl who said the stitches he was giving her head wound would drag down her Instagram following. It’s not Bev’s fault that he had to comfort a nauseated kid while his parents essentially filed for divorce on the other side of the curtain. And it’s definitely not Bev’s fault that a patient yelled and blamed Eddie for his ostomy bag bursting.
Hell, it isn’t even Bev’s fault for that there were no hash browns left.
Eddie doesn’t want to be that guy who takes his bad mood out on a service worker. He’s been a service worker before. He got through med school by waiting tables at an upper class restaurant wherea ‘team meeting’ was code for a gathering to decide who’s ass got sacked when they got lower than a four-star review on Yelp. He’s seen the ugly side of customers in all sorts of eateries and he really doesn’t want to be the jackass that yells at an innocent woman just because he’s sleep-deprived and craving potatoes that they don’t have.
“It’s fine,” he says quickly. She blinks in surprise.
“I’ll just have some pancakes.”
“Are you sure?” she asks, then wrinkles her nose. “Sorry, I don’t know why I even asked that. I mean, there’s not really another option.”
He stares at her for a second, shocked by her bluntness before he eventually huffs out a tired laugh. She rewards him with a bright grin of her own.
“Pancakes it is! I’ll bring them out to you shortly.”
As she leaves, Eddie slumps back against the seat of the booth and lets out a long sigh. He picks up his coffee mug and takes a tentative sip. It’s not the best he’s ever had, but it’s still miles better than the hospital coffee so he gulps it down quickly and scalds his throat in the process.
Just as he’s about to pour himself another mug, a loud ‘pssst’ breaks through his reverie.
Slowly turning his head to look over his shoulder, he comes face to face with a smiling, glasses-wearing man staring intently at him. His first instinct is to turn away and ignore the guy because the ‘stranger danger’ mantra has still managed to follow him well into his twenties.
But then the guy hunches forward and gives him a wave. All Eddie can do his raise his eyebrows.
“Can I help you?”
The guy’s brown hair is ruffled and his glasses are smudged with greasy thumbprints which immediately makes Eddie want to shudder. But there’s something about him that encourages Eddie to, well, keep looking. Maybe it’s the cut of his jaw that sharpens even more when he tilts his head to the side to grin at Eddie. Maybe it’s his teeth that protrude just slightly over his bottom lip. Maybe it’s his shoulders, covered by a heather-gray zip-up that does nothing to hide how absurdly broad they are.
Maybe it’s just that it’s three o’clock in the morning and Eddie hasn’t gotten any in months.
It’s not like no one else at the hospital is gay. Adrian and Don have adopted the annoying tendency to make everyone painfully aware that they like to go at it like rabbits in the on-call room. Honestly, Eddie’s pretty confident that arguments could be made for a study on their libidos to be conducted.
But Eddie’s never found himself attracted to any of the other guys he works with. Plus, he knows better than to shit where he eats, which is a horrible, if painfully appropriate turn of phrase.
So he keeps on staring at the guy until he feels heat prickling up his neck and jerks his head impatiently.
“Can I help you?” he asks. He doesn’t mean to sound so snappish but he also doesn’t have the energy to take it back now.
Luckily, the guy seems unperturbed. He even seems to perk up a little, a rumble sounding from the back of his throat. It could be a laugh but Eddie doesn’t have the patience to entertain a notion like that right now, not when he’s liable to throw something at anyone who wants to poke fun at him – even if the sharpest weapon he has on hand is a butter knife stuffed into a cup with a bunch of napkins and teaspoons.
“I heard you wanted a hash brown.”
“What about it?” Eddie says.
The guy points down at his plate. And there it fucking is. A golden, crispy, mouth-watering hash brown.
Eddie’s fingers twitch for the butter knife.
“Are you trying to make a fucking point or something?” Eddie asks, his eyes narrowing into furious little slits.
The other guy blinks owlishly as him for a minute before snorting out a laugh and shaking his head wildly. “Jeeze, dude, no! I was gonna ask if you wanted mine!”
Well, that draws Eddie up short. He blinks.
“Are you joking?” He’s not sure his sanity levels could cope with this being a practical joke.
The guy seems genuinely taken aback by the assumption, but recovers by letting out a soft laugh. “No dude, seriously. You obviously really fucking want one so have mine.”
Maybe it’s pride or genuine lunacy that suddenly makes Eddie sit ramrod straight and declare, “No. It’s fine.”
It’s not fine, he wants that hash brown. But he’s also used to being on his guard and doubting the kindness of strangers, a trait carefully drilled into him under the parentage of Sonia Kaspbrak. He’s only recently learned to smile back at strangers in the street, even if it’s more of a closed mouth grimace he gives them. It’s a start, but he figures he should draw the line at accepting food from some guy he doesn’t know. What’s he even doing awake and at a diner at this time anyway? At least Eddie has a good excuse.
“Are you sure?” the guy asks, and there’s a knowing glint in his eye that makes Eddie feel flushed.
“Yeah,” he replies stiffly.
“Alriiiiiight. If you’re not gonna have it then I guess I’ll just… smother it in mayonnaise.”
Eddie snaps his head around so fast he swears he gets whiplash. “What?”
“Mayonnaise! For my hash brown.” The man picks up the bottle and wiggles it in Eddie’s direction.
Now, Eddie was brought up in a Catholic household where being overhead muttering the words ‘Jesus Christ’ in an unholy way meant he had to stand in front of his mom’s crucifix statue and apologise, yet this seems vastly more blasphemous than anything he’s ever said against the Creator.
“Now let me just… shake this.” The man makes an obscenely exaggerated show of shaking the mayo bottle before Eddie all but rockets out of his chair and throws his hands up.
“Alright, fucking stop! I’ll take it. Just don’t put any of that cheap fucking mayo anywhere near that hash brown.”
His hysteria is rewarded by the guy tipping his head back and letting out a loud belly laugh. Eddie doesn’t know what’s so fucking funny, but it gives him a good glimpse of the other guy’s Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in his throat and he clenches his fists involuntarily, trim fingernails digging into his palms.
“Wow, no hash browns and cheap mayo,” he chuckles. “You really don’t think much of this place, do ya, Ace?”
Eddie pointedly ignores the nickname, even when it curls pleasantly around his gut. Instead he just glances over his shoulder to the kitchen to where Bev is singing along loudly and blessedly out-of-tune to “What’s New, Pussycat?”
“Don’t tell the waitress I said that,” he mumbles. “She’s actually really nice.”
“Bev’s a doll,” his new companion states with a solemn nod. Great, he must be a fucking regular, Eddie thinks. He points to the hash brown.
“Are you sure about that?”
The plate is pushed towards him with a vigorous nod. “You’re built like a fucking whippet, man. Maybe this’ll finally help you hit a growth spurt.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Eddie retorts but there’s no bite in his tone and the other guy evidently doesn’t view his words as a threat if the amused grin on his face is anything to go by. Eddie pointedly looks away to draw at the air with his nostrils before glancing back.
“Thank you,” he says, trying his best to sound sincere. “I just really fucking needed this tonight.”
“Hey, you were obviously off saving lives and shit, dude. Me? I’ve just been here.”
By the time Eddie gets back to his table, he’s practically trembling in anticipation. He shovels a forkful of hash brown into his mouth and practically melts. It’s the right mixture of crispy and soft he would fucking die for this particular plate of potatoes.
“All good?” comes a voice from his left. He rolls his eyes and casts a scowl towards the next table.
“Yeah.” Swallowing, he stabs at the food with his fork again. Then he remembers his manners and looks back over at the other table. “Seriously. Thank you. You actually saved my life tonight.”
“Well, hey. Go me!” the other guy says, sounding genuinely pleased. He raises one hand then smacks the other off it, giving himself a high-five, and that’s when Eddie has to look away again.
It belatedly occurs to him that this could be some sort of weird voyeuristic fetish for this guy though, watching Eddie eat and then getting off on it. The potato turns to mush in his mouth but when he looks back over, all the other diner is doing is tapping away at something on his phone. His hands dwarf the device and something burns deep in Eddie’s stomach.
And then he looks up.
Eddie swiftly looks away, their gazes barely grazing each other. He washes down his bite of hash brown with a gulp of coffee and then slyly peeks back over his shoulder. The guy is looking at his phone again, but the corners of his mouth have turned up.
Not entirely sure how to deal with that, Eddie returns to his food, flinching in surprise when Bev walks back up to him.
“Here’s your omelette!” She slides it onto the table and freezes when she sees the hash brown. His mouth too full to explain, Eddie simply uses his fork to point in the direction of the glasses-wearing guy.
Bev turns just as he looks up and as soon as he catches the amused twist of her lips, he quickly looks away again. Eddie isn’t too sure what to make of that, but it seems to put Bev in high spirits who lets out a loud laugh and shrugs to herself. “Okay then!” she sings.
As she’s walking away, drumming her fingertips against the cover of her notepad, she stops by the other table. “Your break ended like fifteen minutes ago. Are you gonna come help me now?”
Eddie’s fork clatters against his plate as Bev glides back to the kitchen. He twists in his seat and stares at Glasses Guy who doesn’t bother to have the decency to look sheepish. At least before, when he was eating the guy’s food and basking in the generosity of a total stranger, Eddie sort of had the higher ground since it hadn’t been him making Bev laugh smugly like that.
Now though, the guy is maintaining steady eye contact with Eddie and wearing a shit-eating grin as he unzips his hoody to reveal an IHOP polo shirt underneath.
His nametag reads ‘Richie’ and Eddie sort of wants to eat the table.
“Well, I gotta get back to work now, Ace,” Richie announces, sliding out of his booth. “But if you ever come back, I’ll make sure we get the expensive mayo in for you. And some extra hash browns too.”
With that, he taps the brim of his hat in a two-fingered salute, sends Eddie a wink and turns around to disappear into the kitchen.
Eddie is left sitting at the booth, trying and failing to process what just happened. He stares down at the uneaten omelette in front of him then promptly grabs his wallet, drops a twenty on the table and scarpers.
“How was work?” Stanley asks when Eddie opens the door and walks into their shared apartment. He speaks quietly, so Patty must still be sleeping, which makes sense since Eddie often goes to bed when Stan starts his job at the asscrack of dawn.
“Work was work,” Eddie says tiredly. His mind is still at an IHOP booth downtown.
“You want any breakfast?” Stan says. He opens the fridge door and pulls out a red packet. “I got you hash browns from the store, by the way.”
Eddie stops in the middle of the hallway and stares at Stan, holding up the food bag with information printed on it announcing that the contents inside can be cooked from frozen.
“N-no, I’m good, thanks,” Eddie manages. “I’m just going to head to bed.”
He waves quickly to Stan and slips into his bedroom, soundly shutting the door behind him and pressing his back against the wood.
The fact that he could have had hash browns at home all along should be making him way more annoyed than he is. In fact, that more he thinks about broad shoulders and a wide grin and tortoise shell glasses, he realises that he isn’t annoyed at all.
But he’s way too fucking tired to unpack that tonight.