Eddie runs out in the middle of the night, which makes it sound more illicit and secretive than he really means for the act to be, although the furtive nature of hour in question is compounded by a number of other things: the letter he leaves scotch-taped to the bedroom door so Myra sees, on top and bottom, just in case the whirr of the ceiling fan overhead manages to coax it free; the bank account he’d opened in his name only for this explicit purpose, so that Myra won’t be able to work out where he is from his statements; the fact that he’s off on weeks-long retreat at a horse ranch in the middle of nowhere, just because he decided to do it, without having mentioned it to his wife of fifteen years a single time.
But broadly—generally—it’s a normal thing that he’s doing, he’s pretty sure. Rubino from accounting goes off on weekend golf jaunts on a fairly frequent basis. Zhou from publicity had taken a three month sabbatical to hike the AT, or at least a little bit of it, two years ago. Boyd from marketing has a girlfriend and a timeshare in Florida that he jets off to all the time, or so everyone whispers about around the proverbial water cooler—the girlfriend part, not the timeshare part, that is.
It had taken Eddie six days of deliberation to come up with the note that he’s leaving for Myra to find.
I know you’re probably worried and I’m sorry if I’m scaring you with this I just had to go
I have to go. I know this probably is coming as a shock to you and I wish there was a way to do this better but it’ll only be for two weeks and I’m really sorry that
I have to go away for a few weeks. I didn’t want to do this this way and I don’t mean to scare you I just wasn’t sure if you’d let me but I’m going to take care of myself and I promise it’s going to be totally fine if you don’t hear from me it’s just that this retreat I’m going to doesn’t let you have your phone
I’m going to be going away to a retreat for a month. I won’t have access to my phone so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me. I know this is sudden and I’m sorry I couldn’t give you much notice but I think I really need some time to clear my head and get away from it all
And so on, and so forth, until he’d boiled what’s happening down to its facts: that he’s going, that he’s going to be fine, that she won’t be able to call him, that he’ll be back in a month, that he’d used his rollover vacation days, that he’s taking all his pills.
It’s not like he hadn’t told anyone—he’d made sure to leave himself with a tether before flinging himself out into the west. He’d told work, and he’d listed his assistant, Betty, as his emergency contact when he’d filled out his application for Rose Tree. It’s not because he had anything against Myra, his life partner, his wife, he’d just had to make a rational, clear-eyed choice, and he’d recognized that the whole function of an emergency contact would promptly unfunction if said emergency contact subscribed to an alternative philosophy relating to the definition, or the bounds, or really the whole concept of an emergency.
Betty, he knows, is good at dealing with Myra; it’s why he’d hired her, and it’s why he gives her nearly twice as much of a Christmas bonus as the company gives her, from his own pocket. She’s a little older than Eddie—in her fifties—and when Myra calls, she knows when to keep her on the line, and she also knows when to play stupid.
He’ll really owe her for fielding Myra’s calls throughout this whole thing. God, he doesn’t envy her. He wouldn’t be doing this at all—putting everyone through this level of inconvenience—if this hadn’t felt like an absolute imperative, and if he hadn’t thought that he would have to be institutionalized, possibly, if he hadn’t done it.
That’s a dramatic way of putting it, probably. He’s needed a break, that’s all, and when he’d read in the Times a blissful (sponsored) account of two weeks away at a ranch tucked away in the hills of Nevada, in more or less complete isolation, he—Eddie Kaspbrak, New Yorker, workaholic and corporate shill—couldn’t remember the last time that he’d wanted anything more.
But plenty of other aging yuppies had read that same profile and wanted that same thing, as it had turned out; it had been booked up entirely, so he’d done some more research and found one that he liked nearly as much.
Rose Tree—the Ranch at Rose Tree, in full—isn’t nearly as structured or as new age as the first one he’d looked at, which suits him a little bit better, even if their webpage didn’t have a subsection on gluten free dining options. Phones are turned in at the beginning of the stay and then returned to them two weeks later, barring any emergencies. The website had offered a largely individualized experience on a vast, sprawling campus; it hosts fifteen guests at once, split into groups of five each, plus one guide and one artist-in-residence, parceled out into sets of renovated rustic cabins dotted around the perimeter of the campus, large enough so that each group rarely, if ever, come into contact with each other. It had promised him that his experience would largely be up to him, and that he could fill his days however he chose, a concept so staggering that he could only give himself permission to wonder about it in detail after he’d sunk hundreds of dollars into a deposit.
Eddie’s never ridden a horse before. It’s a dangerous thing, now that he’s thinking about it, and as he sits on the plane, about an hour in, and several away from Rose Tree, he wonders, in a little bit of an inwardly accusative way, why he hadn’t considered this before he’d gotten on the plane. He could break a bone. He could break his neck. He could become a quadriplegic; it happened to Christopher Reeves, and he’d been Superman, not a forty-year-old risk assessor deep within the throes of—
—not a midlight crisis, maybe. But some kind of midlife trouble.
“Are you gonna eat those?”
The guy in the seat next to him, presently, is causing him plenty of midlife trouble, although he’d managed to tune him out when he’d slipped into his anxiety spiral. It takes a second for his words to make much sense. Eddie’s gaze slips to the packet of peanuts he has clutched in one sweaty hand.
“No,” Eddie says tersely. For the past hour, he’s hated his seatmate for the big arm that he’s slung over the armrest between them, like he doesn’t know the first thing about airplane seat etiquette, like he doesn’t know that the person in the middle seat, as a consolation prize, gets the bulk of the armrest real estate.
“Can I have ’em?” the guy has the audacity to ask, on top of that. Eddie wonders if he’d been raised by wolves.
He shuts his eyes. “I am going to eat them,” he says, just to be a jerk, like they wouldn’t make him swell up and choke to death. “I changed my mind.”
“Oh, okay.” He doesn’t sound too put out, and when he lapses into silence, Eddie thinks that that’s that, at least until he speaks up again. “Where are you headed, some kind of convention for Land’s End catalogues?”
It’s such an absurd statement that Eddie opens his eyes to look over at him, incredulous. “No,” he says. “Why would you ask that?”
“I dunno. What you’re wearing,” the guy explains, not meanly, out of retribution for the unoffered peanuts—just idly, half-amused.
Eddie draws his brows together, miffed. He’s dressed casually; sweater, khakis, loafers. It’s a little warm for his sweater, but he always wears layers when he flies. Like this guy can talk, anyway. The shirt that he’s wearing faintly reminds Eddie of what it had felt like, as a kid, to look at a 3D picture sans 3D glasses. “In that case, are you headed to some kind of convention for clowns?” he asks stiffly, regretting it as soon as he says it, because that’s mean, but the guy doesn’t appear to be offended. Instead, he smiles.
“Maybe,” he says. After a beat, he nods at the book lying flat on Eddie’s (sanitized) tray table. “By the way, I hate to break it to you, but the ending sucks.”
“What?” It’s the worst insult that Eddie’s suffered thus far from this man. “Uh, it doesn’t suck. I’ve read it before.”
“You’re reading it again?” the guy asks, raising his eyebrows. “Big Denbrough fan? He never really sticks the landing for me.”
“ You read it,” Eddie points out, defensively, and the guy shrugs.
“Under duress,” he says, vaguely, leaving an opening—here, Eddie’s meant to ask why. But Eddie doesn’t want to ask why. Eddie’s had enough of this conversation, actually, so instead, he takes the book and shuts the tray table with a clack.
“Great talk. Really,” Eddie says, voice a little strained as he bends to wrestle his bag out from underneath the seat in front of him so that he can stow the maligned text away. Once that’s handled, he sets the packet of peanuts down on his seatmate’s tray table with a little more vigor than he ought to. “Here,” he says. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to go to sleep now.”
The guy doesn’t appear to mind. Even better yet, he has to lift his arm to tear open the packet of peanuts, therefore freeing up a bounty of armrest real estate, and even if it’s petty, Eddie slides his arm over hastily, taking up all of it, and shuts his eyes. And then, he sleeps.
Eddie sleeps through the rest of the flight, poorly, but deeply. In fact, he sleeps through the landing entirely. He wakes to a neck cramp and a flight attendant gently shaking him awake—at which point the plane’s mostly empty.
Eddie collects his luggage and begins the work of wrestling his things down to the shuttle that’ll take Eddie plus his two enormous suitcases to Rose Tree. It’s a little bit of a hike through the airport, and then to the correct exit; the crowds have thinned by the time that Eddie makes it to the long stretch of pathway outside, so much that by the time he’s halfway to the white shuttle bus idling at the curb in the distance, he’s the only one walking.
Nearly, anyway. Behind him, he can hear the rattle of wheels trundling down the pavement behind him, and when he turns back to look, he grits his teeth.
“Why are you following me,” Eddie calls over his shoulder.
“I’m not following you,” the peanut thief calls back. Unfolded from his seat, Eddie can see that he’s tall, although he isn’t surprised by that—he could’ve guessed, by how he’d been hunched in his seat, legs tucked away as best as he could. He’s wearing some kind of horrible leather jacket with a shearling collar, distressed in a way that means that it had either been dirt cheap or profoundly expensive. Undeterred, he trails after Eddie, gaining ground without even really having to try.
“You’re definitely following me,” Eddie says tersely, quickening his pace, but longer legs take bigger steps, and Eddie’s easily outpaced by his former seatmate, even with the wide berth that he’s giving him.
“Now you’re following me,” the guy points out, not incorrectly, and Eddie’s just wondering if this is some sort of terrible, annoying omen about the journey to come when a man with curly hair standing outside the shuttle, about his age, gives them a wave.
“Rose Tree?” he calls, and before Eddie can answer, to his great horror, the peanut thief does it for him.
“Rose Tree,” he confirms, giving him a wave back, and Eddie slows to a defeated, resigned halt in front of the two of them.
He’s not sure what he’d have expected. He can’t remember the last time anything had been easy for him. Sometimes, privately, Eddie wonders if he’s the unluckiest man alive.
The peanut thief’s name is Richie, and the curly-haired man’s name is Stan, and that’s about as much as Eddie can pick up on before he has to shut his eyes and put his head between his knees so that he doesn’t vomit—because the white bus has a tendency to lurch when it accelerates, or lurch when it does anything at all, really. It’s something with the engine, Eddie thinks, to distract himself. The spark plugs are probably worn out. Or the fuel injectors could be dirty. He could fix it, probably, if he had the right parts, and if he tried.
In the background, he can hear Stan and Richie chatter. Stan is an accountant from Georgia; he’s married. He’s taken up photography. He wants to see the desert birds. Richie is a stand-up comedian, and he doesn’t know anything about desert birds, although he does a pretty good impression of the Roadrunner. He does it, and it isn’t very good, something that Stan points out, and Eddie’s not quite nauseous enough so that there isn’t a little room to feel vindicated on top of it.
The bus pulls off onto what feels like a dirt road, rattling what has to be every single one of Eddie’s teeth, bones, and organs, which isn’t a good feeling at all. He has no idea when they’d set off from the airport, but it feels like he’s been on this bus for an eternity, or two or three of them.
“How’s it going, champ,” Richie says, a little loudly, which means that he’s talking to Eddie, probably. Eddie unclenches his jaw to respond.
“Eddie,” he manages, addressing the floor. “My name is Eddie.”
“How’s it going, Eddie,” Richie corrects.
“Terrific.” His forehead is sticky with sweat, and so are his palms, where his hands clutch at his own forearms. As he often does, he feels like he’s going to die.
“You don’t sound so terrific,” Richie observes, not incorrectly. Eddie shuts his eyes.
“I get carsick,” he tells him, haltingly. “Sometimes. Forgot my sea-band at home. Didn’t take a Dramamine.”
“Can I try something? It might help.”
Eddie turns his head and opens one eye to squint at Richie, suspicious, but there’s nothing malicious in his face—just careful neutrality.
He shuts his eyes again, tucks his face against his knees like it had been before, and exhales, shakily. He already feels like dog shit; it’s not like he could get much worse. Richie owes him for the peanuts, anyway. “Alright,” he says, finally.
It feels like a brand against the back of his neck, and Eddie sucks in a breath, shocked and tense, until his brain manages to wrestle that load of sensory information into something he can figure out—an ice-cold bottle of water, nearly frozen. It’s an assault to his senses, and it’s horrible, and it’s alright, and it’s a good distraction, actually, from the way that his stomach is churning.
Richie holds it to the back of his neck carefully; the tips of his fingers bump up against his nape, already a little slick from the condensation as it melts underneath his hot hand, dripping down into the collar of his shirt. If he’d known that Richie was going to do this, he wouldn’t have let him—it’s an intimate thing, crowded up against everyone else as the van trundles down the road. But it’s helping, anyway, and Eddie’s reluctant to squirm away, so he stays.
“How’s that?” Richie asks. It takes Eddie a second to focus enough to answer.
“Good,” he says back, hoarsely, because it is.
“My parents used to take me and my sisters on these road trips,” Richie begins, keeping his hand steady in its position, holding the bottle flush to Eddie’s neck. “We had this decrepit Oldsmobile, all three of us crammed in the back. All of us puking, which—when you’re a kid, I feel like you puke more, generally, so at the time, it wasn’t, like, a distressing thing, just a part of the, uh...broadly fun experience of going on vacation. Sorry. I’ll stop talking about vo—you-know-what. Anyway, my dad was too cheap for Dramamine, so this was the budget version, I guess.”
Even if he’s talking about vomit, Eddie likes Richie’s voice better when he’s not doing impressions, he thinks, although he still thinks he’s profoundly annoying. Just a little bit less than he’d thought on the plane.
He sounds faintly familiar, and Eddie wonders where he’s heard it before, if he has. Logically, if he can afford a retreat like this on a comedian’s salary, it means that he’s successful, or he’s got family money—but there’s something familiar about a comedian named Richie, now that he thinks of, like he’s heard of him before, although he’s not sure why. Maybe at the office, around the proverbial water cooler, once they were through with theorizing about the existence of Boyd from marketing’s secret girlfriend. Or maybe Myra had complained about him, as she’s always complained about nearly every comedian. Most comedians, she’d decreed once, are not nice.
Either way, coupled with the bottle, it’s enough of a distraction to keep the contents of Eddie’s stomach from migrating upwards and outwards throughout the rest of the journey. Richie keeps the bottle of water on the back of his neck for the rest of the way, until it’s mostly melted, sandwiched between Richie’s hand and Eddie’s body. The water drips down Eddie’s shirt, and further still down his back, which he minds, a little, but not too much.
Eventually, the shuttle shudders to a halt, and the bottle is removed from his neck, and when Eddie straightens and sits up, it’s like he’s landed on another planet.
Staggered, he twists to get a better look out the window, going up on his knees. It’s not broad and flat and dusty like he might’ve imagined—well, maybe dusty, but the ground is thick with yellow-green brush, and though they’re at a flat spot, the ground slopes up into hills dotted with lush green trees. Mountains crack the horizon. It’s all glorious.
He’s the last off the bus, and he steps out into the road to find Richie mid-stretch, t-shirt riding up to reveal a sliver of his abdomen. Pale, so he won’t be the only one in urgent need of sunscreen, he thinks, looking away so that he can turn his attention tohis luggage. He put the sunscreen in the front pocket, so he could get at it when he needed it.
Eddie’s fiddling with said front pocket when he can hear the crackle of grit under someone’s shoes as said shoes approach the three of them, and he turns to find a woman there, tanned and steely-looking with a shock of cropped red hair about his age, in tight jeans and a tank top that reveals her freckled arms.
She probably needs sunscreen more than he does. Redheads, statistically, burn easiest. “Hi, guys,” she says. “You must be—Edward, Stanley, Richie?”
“Guess which one is which,” Richie says, just as Eddie and Stan inform the woman that it’s Eddie, actually, and Stan’s fine, both at the same time, to Richie’s mild dismay. “Aw,” he sighs. “No fun.”
“The fun’s just beginning,” the woman says dryly, which Richie appears to think is a good one, for some reason. “We get Netflix out here. I do, anyway, you don’t get TV.” Eddie frowns at the non-sequitur. “Anyway. My name’s Beverly—you can call me Bev—and I’m going to be your guide here at Rose Tree, although I’ll be as hands on as you want me to be. After I show you the basics, you can tell me to fuck off for the next two weeks, if you want. You create your own experience here. But before I do: phones.”
Bev holds her hands out, expectant. While Eddie hesitates—so soon —Stan passes his over, and Richie does too, after a moment to fire off what looks like a tweet. Inspired, Eddie pulls up his text chain with Myra, hastily.
Just got here okay. Will talk to you again in a month.
He hasn’t gotten any texts or calls thus far, which means that Myra is still sleeping—she sleeps in on weekends, which, today, is a blessing. Bev wriggles her fingers expectantly, and Eddie, with great reluctance, hands his phone over. It’s part of the experience; it’s crucial to the experience. But cutting his tether to Myra and work and the world at large in one go is a jarring thing, even if he’d known that it would be coming.
“You should probably power it down,” Eddie tells Bev as she stows the phones away in her bag. “It’s going to go off a lot.”
“Popular guy, huh?” Richie asks, looking at him sidelong, and Eddie flushes.
“No. I mean—it’s my wife. She worries.”
That’s an understatement. Richie’s eyes linger on him for a second, and then he looks away, turning his attention back to Bev as she begins to lead them up the dirt road leading up to the ranch, a handful of handsome-looking wooden structures, just like he’d seen on the website.
To his right he sees horses grazing in a wide, grassy paddock, stretching out further than he can see in the sun. Straight ahead, as they mount the hill, beyond the wooden hanging sign that reads THE RANCH AT ROSE TREE there are six or seven little cabins circling each other, at the base of a densely wooded hill.
“I’ve explained this to the other two of you who got here first, but quick rundown,” Bev continues, walking backwards as she talks, like a college tour guide. “Plenty to do around here—once we’ve got you up and going on the horses, we’ll get you going on some trail riding, first off. We’re an hour out by car from town, I go every other day. The kitchen’s fully stocked, but if there’s something you need me to pick up, let me know. If you want to go camping, or out to Red Rose, we ask that you take one of the burner phones with you.”
“I thought this was a no-phone experience,” Richie says, scratching at his chin. The cabins circle a patio bar, a firepit, and some chairs, along with a grill. Three men lean over the bar, deep in conversation, two tall, one short.
“It barely qualifies as a phone, honestly?” Bev says. “It’s a Nokia. Just for emergencies.”
“Can you play Snake on it?”
“Did you come all the way out here to play snake on a Nokia phone?” Stan asks, and Richie laughs.
The tallest man turns as the four of them make their approach—he’s dressed more like Bev is, not like he’s just stepped off of a plane, or (Eddie thinks, with a prickle of irritation) like he’s attending a convention for Lands’ End catalogues, although he looks like he could model for one, easily. He’s well-built, with the beginnings of a dark beard and a smile that dazzles Eddie, just a little bit, even if he’s aiming it at Bev.
“Howdy,” he says, a little dryly, turning his attention to the rest of them. “Nice to meet you. Mike Hanlon.”
“Mike’s the horse whisperer,” Bev explains. “The mean ones all like him. He’s been our artist in residence this and last session.”
Eddie remembers, vaguely, the artist in residence thing from the website; some sort of room-and-board grant program. “They aren’t mean. Don’t let her freak you out. They’ll like you, too, I bet,” Mike says, stretching out a hand for Eddie to shake, once he gets his name. He’s got big, warm hands—although maybe Eddie’s just got small ones, he thinks, as he watches Richie and Mike shake.
The tall guy behind Mike is pleasant-faced and unassuming in his tallness, with floppy hair like a prince’s. The shorter guy next to Mike is Bill Denbrough.
Eddie freezes, stock-still, like a deer in the headlights. Bill Denbrough! Here! The same face that’s tucked away in his bag, on the back of the book that Richie had slandered, and several others filed away on the bookcase at home, one of the few things of artistic merit that Myra and Eddie halfway agree upon, within the realm of entertainment, as long as Eddie doesn’t dare to compare Denbrough favorably to Paul Sheldon.
“I’m Bill,” Bill says, holding out a hand for Eddie to shake, which he does so vigorously.
“I know!” Eddie says, voice high and nervous. “I have one of your books in my bag! Wow, I mean—sorry. I really like your books. I’m Eddie!”
“Thanks,” Bill says awkwardly, eyes settling on his own hand still clutched in Eddie’s. As soon as Eddie realizes he’d left it too long, he snatches his hand back, embarrassed.
“Hiya,” Richie says, when Bill moves down the line to shake his. “Small world. No hard feelings.”
“None,” Bill says, mysteriously, although Eddie’s attention has been diverted by the other tall man; his name is Ben, and he has a good handshake, a little soft, maybe.
“There are two sets of adjoining cabins and one single,” Bev informs them. “Otherwise, they’re the same. You can lock the door in between if you’d like. People usually book in pairs, is the idea. We don’t usually book singles.”
“Are you calling us a bunch of losers?” Richie asks as Bev doles out their keys, each with a thick plastic placard with an impression of an animal on it. A lion for Bill, a bear for Ben, a rabbit for Eddie, and he doesn’t catch the rest.
“I’m calling you a bunch of individuals,” Bev corrects, with a grin. “That was me, once. It’s a good way to do it. But I think you can call yourself whatever you want here.”
Eddie’s only half paying attention to Bev; he’s looking at Richie, mostly, as he slings his keyring around his index finger with a jingle, in a way that concerns Eddie just to watch him do it—he’s dangerously close to whipping it off into the stratosphere.
Bev leaves them to get settled. Each of them split off towards their respective cabins, marked out by a placard affixed to the door bearing their respective animals; as they go, it becomes increasingly clear who’s got the single, and who’s been paired up with whom.
And he’s not with Bill Denbrough, like Eddie, privately, had hoped. Nor is he with his second choice, or his third.
“Together on the plane, together on the plains,” Richie announces in a god-awful country twang, stepping up to the door next to Eddie’s, the one with a rendering of a canid next to it, some sort of dog or wolf. “It’s fate."
“These aren’t plains,” Eddie says, not really sure of that, but in a combative mood. “I don’t have any more peanuts for you. I hope you know that.”
“You make me sound like some kind of circus elephant,” Richie says cheerfully, slotting his key into the lock. “Or a squirrel. Hey, does this remind you of summer camp, kind of? Is it just me?”
Eddie frowns. “I never went to summer camp as a kid,” Eddie says, which is true, and Richie’s eyebrows rocket up above his thick-framed glasses.
It’s an absurd question—as absurd as it is to imagine having any other sort of summer than the ones that he’d had, putting together model cars alone in the sticky heat of his room. Nothing so grand as any of this, certainly. His mom would never have let him, even if she’d had the money. “I have a lot of allergies. They were hard to manage back then,” he says, evasively.
“Huh,” Richie says, slow and thoughtful. “Well, just so you know how it goes, we’ll hate each other for like, three days—and then, just like that , it’s like you’ve never met someone you liked so much in your life. And then a month will pass by in about three seconds, and then we’ll cry a whole bunch on the last day. Just you wait.”
“If you say so,” Eddie says, skeptical.
“Then you’ll miss me for a week, and by week two, it’ll be like I never existed,” Richie continues with a dramatic sigh. “Probably. I mean. I guess it’s probably different for kids now. The age of social media, you know.” He grins. “You could connect with me on Linkedin. Or whatever you use.”
It’s the only social media that Eddie consistently maintains, actually, and a twinge of annoyance courses through him at being so thoroughly pegged, but Richie’s shouldering open his door, apparently finished with his routine for now, leaving Eddie standing alone in the little front porch that they share.
He squints back out to the landscape. Barely, he can see a trail leading into a thicket of trees, up into the mountains. He makes a mental note to ask Bev if any of them would be good for running before turning to head into his own cabin, luggage rattling behind him as he drags it in.
It’s a nice place, just like the pictures. A king bed that’ll probably dwarf him, firm mattress, like he prefers it—it’s what’s best for his back. A stone fireplace in the center of the room, and enormous bay windows out back, offering up a perfect view of the mountains. On top of the desk in the corner sits a worn-looking guestbook, and Eddie pauses to page through it, skimming through the gushing praise.
The door that connects his room to Richie’s is non-intrusive, in the corner by the fireplace. Hand still on the guestbook, Eddie pauses for a second, cocking his head, but he can’t hear anything; either Richie’s being very quiet (unlikely, given the evidence presented thus far) or the wall between them is thick enough so that it wouldn’t make a difference.
He ought to put his things away, but instead Eddie ambles back over to the bed and flops down on it, lacing his fingers together on top of his stomach as he peers up at the ceiling. It’s late afternoon, and he’d slept through the entire flight, but travel is exhausting —maybe just now that he’s old. Either way, he’s tired.
He wonders why they’re all here.
A bunch of losers. Bev had been right; it’s a little strange, that they’re all here alone. Maybe they’re all getting away from their wives, although he can’t remember who had a ring—Richie hadn’t, he’s pretty sure. Bill Denbrough’s married to an actress, he knows.
Or maybe they’re running away from something else entirely. There are plenty of things, he thinks, to run from. Responsibilities. Obligations. Bears.
Although...no, Eddie thinks, rubbing at his eyes. He’d looked this up before he’d left—and god, he hopes he’d really wiped everything from his history, he hopes the first thing that Myra stumbles across in pursuit of her missing husband isn’t a google search for do i run from bears.
The answer being no, at least at first, and at least if it’s a stationary bear. Bears, Eddie has learned, will chase you like a dog if you run, quicker than you’d think, until they catch you and they eat you. The thing to do is to hold your ground, and to speak to it, low and calm—which is a good thing to know, but a hard thing, Eddie knows, to put into practice, when confronted with a bear. He just has to hope that he won’t have the opportunity.
Eddie slips off into a nap, lying there like that, and it’s what he dreams about: talking to bears. At least, he thinks so. He can’t really remember much when he wakes with a start, sweaty and disoriented, to the sound of someone pounding on the door.
The way he’d fallen asleep has left him with a crick in his neck, and he winces, glancing out back through the window to find the sun slung low on the horizon—he’d been out for hours.
“Coming,” he calls, lurching up and off the bed; he’d slept on one of his legs funny, and it feels like it’s been injected with bees. He hisses at the sensation and hobbles to the door, pulling it open to reveal the tall guy with the floppy prince hair from earlier.
“We’re grilling some burgers,” he explains. Ben, his name is, he remembers. “I mean. I am, anyway. No one else really knows how. Do you want to join?”
“I don’t know how, either,” Eddie confesses, a little embarrassed. He knows that grilling is a manly thing. Myra cooks every night—they don’t grill, period. Behind him, he can see the rest of the group huddled around the firepit, and whatever Ben’s grilling, it smells pretty good.
“That’s okay,” Ben says, amicably. “I don’t mind. It’s easy, though! I bet you could learn.”
Eddie’s unsure—the number of variables involved with cooking raw meat leaves him a little dizzy with anxiety—but he shrugs halfheartedly like he might consider it. “Maybe,” he says, which is enough to earn him a smile from Ben and a pat on the back as they head over to join the circle.
The only spot that’s unoccupied is on the two-seater couch next to Richie, presently mid-conversation with Bill, and so Eddie has no choice but to take it.
“I didn’t pass on it because I knew it was going to be a bomb,” Richie explains, half-drunk beer clutched in his hand. He doesn’t even look at Eddie as he passes him one from the cooler, too, still cold. It’s refreshing, in the heat of the evening, and Eddie presses it between his palms. “I passed on it on principle. I don’t think you should be allowed to remake The Fly, like. Legally. Respectfully, I think you ought to get ten to fifteen for writing the screenplay, Bill.”
“I liked you for it!” Bill protests. “You turned it down and then they wanted to take it in a whole different direction after you did, that wasn’t on me—”
“You wrote the script!” Richie insists, gesturing vigorously at Bill with his beer; it sloshes over the rim, spilling onto his knuckles. “You wrote the script! You added in that, like, sexy girl version of the fly in the tail end of it, what’d you call it, the Ladybug—”
“What!” Eddie exclaims, boggling at Richie. “Wait. You’re—you’re an actor? You were going to be in The Fly? The one that came out last year? I liked The Fly! It was good!”
The looks Richie gives him is pitying. “Have you seen the original Fly?”
“Well, no,” Eddie says, reluctantly.
“It was an alternative take on it,” Bill mutters stiffly.
“You sanitized it and you sanctioned that CW actor they wound up putting in it. Which—in case none of you are familiar with what that means, I’ll descend from my Hollywoodian ivory tower to inform you that they’re interchangeably handsome B-listers who can’t really act. They’re all called, like. Chase, or Parker…”
“ I haven’t heard of you,” Stan interjects, over his coke.
“Oh, I’m totally a B-lister who can’t act, like, one hundred percent,” Richie says. “I’d never pretend like I was anything else. Where I diverge from Tanner, or whatever his name was, is that I get the weird looking friend parts and sometimes they’ll let me do funny insurance commercials. I took the road less handsome.”
Eddie squints, not sure if that’s a joke, or if one of them is meant to reassure Richie, here, of his handsomeness. He’s married, but he can evaluate, objectively, a good-looking man when he sees one, and Richie fits the profile. At least, he would guess that he does.
“I like the CW,” Ben offers from where he’s retreated to the grill, half focused on doling hamburgers out to buns. “There’s some good stuff on it.”
“You do?” Richie asks, leaning back in his seat in a sprawl. Now that he has some beer in him, he’s a little bit more relaxed; not at all like how he’d hunched in on himself in the little airplane seat. “I wouldn’t have guessed, looking at you, I mean—no offense. You’re a little tall for a tenth grader. And you’re a little youthful looking to be my mother, who owns not one but three seasons of Outlander on Blu-Ray.”
“Outlander is on Starz, actually,” Ben points out, as he switches off the grill. “Not the CW.”
Eddie realizes, finally, just how starving he is once he has his burger on a paper plate in front of him. For the first time he realizes that all he’s had to eat today is a bowl of unsweetened oatmeal, a banana, and no peanuts. Normally, the bun having touched the burger would be prohibitive, given his gluten issues, but right now, Eddie’s too hungry to care, and he just de-buns it himself, gingerly setting it aside like it’s a loaded gun.
“So what do you do, Eddie?” Bev asks. Eddie freezes with his fork plunged into the hamburger, glancing up at Bev across the fire. “What’s your story?”
“I’m a risk analyst,” Eddie says distractedly, half of his focus on cutting up his food. “I, uh. I like to play tennis. I like to go running. I like cars.”
“He’s married,” Richie says, leaning forward, which gives Eddie a chance to scarf down his burger—he doesn’t quite swallow it whole, he has manners, but hungry as he is, it has to be close to the best thing he’s ever tasted. “Sorry, Bev, in case you were hoping he’d whisk you away...”
“I’m pretty well-anchored here,” Bev says, diplomatically. “But I will refrain from throwing myself at you anyway, somehow. Although I’m sure she’s lucky to have you.”
“Oh,” Bill interjects, toying with the neck of his beer. “So, um, you and Mike…”
“No! No, we’re just—old friends, I guess,” Bev says, with a laugh. Eddie has to strain his ears to hear her, a little bit; she has a quiet voice, a coolness, a detachment about her, like she’s watching the rest of them through a pane of glass. “We’re from the same shitty town. I’d moved away, I was getting out of a shitty marriage, I ran off here, and a few seasons in, their artist-in-residence bailed on them last minute, and for some reason, I thought of Mike, and—when we last spoke, he was writing this book. And I thought he might need a change.”
“From what?” Bill asks, curious.
“Well,” Mike says, rolling his beer between his palms absently. “I grew up on a farm, but I’m a librarian, actually. By trade. Was , I mean. I liked it. But it felt like the right time to move on, I guess, and so...here I am.” He’s next to Bill on another two-seater, and he nudges him with an elbow, amicably. “They like your stuff, back where I’m from.
“Oh,” Bill says, rubbing at the back of his neck, awkward but visibly pleased to hear it, nonetheless. “Good! Thanks.”
Mike’s paused to take a swallow of beer—he hadn’t finished. “Mostly the old ladies,” he clarifies. “You and Iris Johansson. Very popular.”
“She’s eighty two,” Bill says, brow furrowing. Eddie is equally bewildered. He likes Bill Denbrough, and he’s not an old lady.
“A farmer-librarian-writer-horse whisperer?” Richie asks contemplatively, rubbing at his chin. “That’s like, a career girl Barbie range. I’m impressed, actually. How about you, Uris?
“I’m an accountant,” Stan says, tugging at one of his sleeves. He’s the only one who’s dressed, more or less, for the weather; he’s got a thick pullover now, and Eddie envies him, because it’s turned chilly shockingly fast.
“You’re here—you said you were here as a bird enthusiast,” Richie says. “They don’t have birds in...what was it, Georgia?”
“There are birds in Georgia,” Stan explains to Richie, neutrally, like he has a genuine belief that Richie might not be aware of that fact. “There are different birds here. The Gila woodpecker, the curve-billed thrasher…”
Richie narrows his eyes. “Are those made up names?” he asks. “Are you fucking with us?”
Stan shuts his eyes, like he’s trying to concentrate and remember, as he continues on. “The red-booted carnivorous flying shark...”
“I think I’m being had,” Richie says gravely, and Ben laughs, adjusting in his seat, tucking one ankle behind the other—drawing Bev’s attention to his choice in footwear.
“Nice boots,” Bev says, amused but not unkind, and Ben colors, ducking his head down to look at what couldn’t possibly be described as anything other than cowboy boots.
“I mean, uh. I just think they’re fun,” he says sheepishly. “Appropriate for the occasion, you know. Nice, uh—gun. Wow.”
He’s referring to Bev’s holstered pistol, or some sort of gun, belted at her waist—Eddie has no idea what kind. He hadn’t noticed it before.
“Just for varmints,” Bev explains, dryly. “We get coyotes out here, sometimes, and snakes. I barely use it, but it’s good to have it. You shoot?”
“I went to boy scout camp once,” Ben says. “I shot a bow and arrow a few times. That’s it.”
Eddie like Ben’s boots too, now that he looks at them, although he’s quite content in the knowledge that he doesn’t have the panache to pull them off, personally. Bev and Ben’s conversation continues, but his attention wanders as Richie nudges at him with a knee. “What’s wrong with your bun?”
Briefly, Eddie considers eating it out of spite, gluten be damned. “I’m not giving you my bun, too,” he informs Richie crossly, shielding it from his gaze with a cupped hand.
“Okay. Listen,” Richie protests. “I’m not an animal. I have some self-respect. I’m not going to, like, cram some bread in my mouth and eat it on its own. I mean, I would, but not in public. Jesus. I do that alone in my underwear in my kitchen at three AM, like all other civilized persons.”
Richie’s kept his knee where he’d left it, bumped up against Eddie’s own, his thigh flush to Eddie’s own, practically, and the heat from his body bleeds through his jeans. Suddenly, as Eddie takes another swallow of his beer, he thinks about Richie in his underwear, perhaps in his kitchen, at any hour, really. He’s tall, but he’s not gangly; he’s broad-shouldered, and he carries a little bit of weight in his thighs, that Eddie can see, flush up against him, like this.
“I’m allergic to gluten!” Eddie says, a little more loudly than he’d intended to, clutching at his beer in his hands like it’s an anchor. He’s a little drunk, already, maybe. That’s it. He’s been drinking on a mostly empty stomach. “And tree nuts, and ground nuts, and shellfish, and, uh. Some other stuff.”
“ Ground nuts!” Richie echoes, aghast, and for a moment, Eddie thinks he’s offended him, genuinely, until he puts two and two together. “Mr. I’m-totally-going-to-eat-these-peanuts! So you were leading me astray!”
Caught out, Eddie flushes. “I could say whatever I wanted about those peanuts,” he hisses, going on the offense as an impulse. “I could’ve done anything that I wanted with those peanuts. Those were my fucking peanuts.”
“Well, you chose to give them to me,” Richie says, a little teasingly. He’s slouching in his seat, a little; Eddie has the higher ground, and he has to cock his head a little to grin at him. “I guess I owe you.”
Eddie feels a flush creeping down into his chest. It’s the fire, he thinks. He’s much too close.
Suddenly desperate for something to do with his hands, Eddie drains much of his beer. Richie is quiet, watching him as he does it, and Eddie sets it down at his feet with a clink. “So you’re a comedian, huh,” he says, a little breathlessly.
“Yeah. You like comedy?”
“When it’s funny,” he clarifies, and Richie laughs.
“How am I doing?” Richie asks. In the background, Mike, Bill, and Stan have captured the attentions of a little desert lizard—Stan gently urges it away from the fire, and it skitters across Bill’s flat hand, sending him scrambling onto Mike’s side of the two-seater in alarm. “What’s the verdict?”
“I’ll let you know when I hear a joke,” Eddie tells him, crossing his legs, getting comfortable, his fingers laced together across his sternum. Maybe it’s the beer he’d just chugged, but he feels alright in a way that he hasn’t in a while—not carefree, that’s impossible, at forty, but relatively unburdened.
“Wow,” Richie gasps, like he’s hurt. “Maybe I’m off the clock, huh? I haven’t seen you do any risk analysing this evening. How about this: you think we’re gonna get eaten by the horses tomorrow?”
“Horses are herbivores,” Eddie informs him, although he pauses to think. “We could get kicked by the horses tomorrow. Or thrown off.” A little more burdened than he’d been a minute ago, now. Eddie frowns, uneasy, remembering again that he’s never ridden a horse before. “Or trampled.”
“You’re right,” Richie says, unbothered. “This could be our last night alive. Anything you want to get off your chest? Forgive me, Tozier, for I have sinned...”
He’d pitched his voice differently, for the last bit, and it takes Eddie a second to put two and two together: that it’s meant to be an impression of him. It isn’t a very good one, but it makes him color, anyway; he can feel it in his face. “Not really,” he says, to cover up the fact that it had thrown him off, although—“Tozier. It sounds familiar.”
It does, in the same way that he’d looked familiar. Tozier. Eddie doesn’t like comedy, much; he’s had to watch it furtively, on and off through the years, because Myra finds most stand-up comedy to be inappropriate, Eddie, (she’d say, not meanly, but with disappointment, the one or two times he’s tried to stumble his way through recounting a joke from one that he’d heard), and he’s come to the conclusion that it’s rarely worth the trouble.
But maybe someone’s mentioned Richie at work, before. Or something. “How about you?” Richie asks, dragging him from his thoughts.
Eddie had been draining the last dregs from his beer when Richie had spoken up; he has to swallow before he responds. “What?” he asks, wiping his mouth.
“Oh. Kaspbrak,” Eddie says, squinting into the neck of the bottle, to confirm that it’s well and truly empty. “K-A-S-P-B-R-A-K. It’s Polish.”
“Sounds familiar,” Richie says, so thoughtfully that Eddie has to tear his eyes away from the bottle, suspicious.
“No, it doesn’t,” Eddie contends. He tips the bottle towards Richie, accusatory. “You’re fucking with me.”
Richie grins. “You’re really easy to fuck with,” he says, and Eddie feels the tips of his ears go red at that, for some reason, like he’s just said something particularly lewd, something particularly not nice, as Myra would say. It isn’t just the profanity; Eddie curses like a sailor, but as Eddie’s mulling over what it might be, precisely, Richie continues on. ‘You shouldn’t hang around comedians, we have, like. A sixth sense for that shit.” It’s Richie’s turn to look away now, distracted by Mike and Ben; Mike’s trying on one of Ben’s cowboy boots, and Ben’s delighted. “No, I mean, it doesn’t sound familiar, really, I guess,” he adds, absently. “I think I’d have remembered if we’d met.”
“It’s not that weird of a last name,” Eddie says, ducking his head to look down at his beer again, to begin worrying at its paper label with a thumbnail.
“No. I mean, uh. You have a distinctive face, I guess,” Richie says, shortly. He gets to his feet with a wince, pausing to rub at the small of his back—lower lumbar issues are particularly common, at their age, Eddie thinks. It might be his posture. “You want another beer?” he calls, already midway to the cooler.
“Yeah,” Eddie calls back, and then, before he can help himself: “I know some jokes.”
Richie laughs already, like Eddie’s already told one. “Yeah?” he asks over his shoulder, as he sorts through the bottles, clinking over the crackling from the fire. “Let’s hear ‘em.”
Eddie’s a little lightheaded from one beer already—it’s the only reason he’d thought to offer, too tipsy to feel foolish for it. “How do lumberjacks know how many trees they cut down?” he asks, as Richie ambles back towards him, a beer in each hand.
“How,” Richie says gamely, passing Eddie’s over, cold and sweaty from the ice. He collapses again into the seat next to him, arm stretched out along the span of the back of the couch, this time behind Eddie.
“They keep a log,” Eddie informs him, and drinks as Richie bursts out laughing.
“Holy shit,” Richie groans. “That’s awful. Man—”
Emboldened, Eddie shuts his eyes. “Did you hear about the guy who lost his whole left side?” he asks. It’s quiet out here—not like New York. It means that every little bit of every little sound is amplified; the crackle from the fire, the murmured conversation from the rest of the group, the crickets, the whispering whistle of the night breeze, the hush of the trees shifting in the mountains.
“Lemme guess,” Richie says, with a long-suffering air. “He’s all right now.”
“ Hey,” Eddie gasps, betrayed. “I’m supposed to do it. You’re supposed to let me do it, you asshole—”
“Okay. Okay,” Richie laughs, and his arm drops to rest heavy around Eddie’s shoulders, with a thump that makes Eddie jump. He squeezes him, in something of a quick, conciliatory side-hug—and it’s brief, but it makes Eddie’s brain rattle around in his skull, to be touched like this, so suddenly, so warmly. Eddie goes stiff as a board. “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Tell me,” he encourages, withdrawing his arm finally, but keeping on close as he grins down at Eddie. "What about the guy who lost his whole left side.”
“He’s all, uh. He’s,” Eddie says haltingly, hoarsely. He looks away, up at the canopy of stars above, the brightest he’s ever seen. There are more of them here than there are in the city, he thinks, although logically, that can’t be true. He just can get a better look at them here. “He’s all right now.”
And they drink some more, well into the night—not nearly enough to get any of them drunk drunk, except for Bill, having fallen prey to the foolish impulse to challenge Mike the ex-librarian to a shot-for-shot Lonesome Dove trivia challenge, until it’s late, Eddie guesses. He can’t tell—his watch is back in his cabin, and for obvious reasons, he can’t check his phone. Everyone bids goodnight and farewell to each other; Mike hobbles off in one of Ben’s cowboy boots.
Eddie’s tipsy enough to feel good, but not quite tipsy enough to know he’ll feel sick tomorrow, which, he thinks, is the perfect sweet spot.
He beats Richie to their cabin, but Richie—whistling tunelessly, as he comes up behind him—hadn’t bothered to lock up his side, and Eddie has to fumble with his keys, so the two of them are caught together for a moment on the front porch, in a companionable silence.
“Hey,” Richie says suddenly, pausing with his hand on the door. “You want a nightcap? There’s a minibar in my room.”
Eddie, keys clutched in his hand, squints over at him, accusatory. “What the fuck,” he says, miffed. “I didn’t get a minibar.”
“My condolences,” Richie says, not sounding very sorry. He then disappears inside like he knows that Eddie will follow, which is all the more insulting because Eddie wants to do it.
And that’s unlike him, too, this late, however late it is. He ought to get his eight hours; it’s the sensible thing to do. But Eddie’s states away from anyone who knows that Eddie—by nature, at age forty—does the sensible thing, and so maybe, here, he doesn’t have to.
He’s going to run in the morning. He’s looking forward to running in the morning. Bev mentioned that she’d be up, and that she’ll show him the trail here that she likes.
But he’s also going to have a nightcap tonight, because he’s allowed to be whoever he wants here, a million miles away from anything that he knows, or that knows him, so he pockets his own key and follows Richie into his side of the cabin.
Eddie didn’t get a minibar, but Richie didn’t get a fireplace, he discovers, so they’re mostly even. The most egregious offense within is actually the lingering evidence of Richie’s unpacking stratagem, or lack thereof; clothes are flung every which way, a mysterious thing, given the fact that Richie hasn’t changed yet. Half of them are slung over a chair, and the rest are spilled on half of the bed, a few scattered pieces pooling down onto the floor.
“Did you do this on purpose, or were you subject to some kind of attack in here?” Eddie wonders as he inspects the rest of the room. A king bed, like his own. A door leading out to the balcony out back, and another door leading to the bathroom, presumably. On the bedside table sits some kind of clunky piece of machinery; Eddie sits on the bed to take a better look, and it takes him a second to realize that it’s a tape recorder. “Was this in the room?” he asks.
“No, that’s mine,” Richie calls without looking back, crouched at the offending minibar. “I use voice memos on my phone, usually, for the comedy shit, but obviously—can’t out here. We’re roughing it.”
“You can put my doctor joke on it,” Eddie allows, magnanimously, ghosting his fingers across the play and pause buttons and the rest; they feel well-worn. It’s either vintage or Richie’s had it for a long time, and Eddie wonders how long, if that’s true. It looks like it’s from the nineties, and suddenly, Eddie’s thinking about Richie in college.
The bed dips as Richie takes a seat next to him, a glass in each hand. “I liked the lumberjack one better,” he tells him, pressing one of the glasses into Eddie’s hands. “Here. Drink this.
Whatever’s in the glass is clear, and Eddie sniffs it, suspiciously. “What is it?”
“G&T,” Richie says, drinking from his own glass—a rum and coke, Eddie guesses from the looks of it, before doing this same. Eddie’s own drink is heavy on the tonic, light on the gin, which is for the best. If he’s going to get up early, he doesn’t want to get wasted here.
“They used to drink this to ward off malaria,” Eddie tells him once he’s done, ice clinking faintly in the glass as he settles it between his cupped hands in his lap.
Richie laughs. “Is that, like. A selling point for you?”
“Who wants malaria?” Eddie asks, which is an excellent point, and drinks some more. Richie does too, and an easy quiet stretches out.
“So why are you here?” Richie asks, finally. “Really. C’mon. Who fucks off alone to adult horse camp for rich assholes for no reason whatsoever? No one here is normal.”
“I’m normal,” Eddie says, with a touch of defensiveness. Because he is. Anyone could look at him and see. “I just needed, you know. A break.”
“If you say so,” says Richie, settling back on the bed, half sprawled, leaning heavy on his elbows. “Too much risk analysing, huh?
“No, uh. I mean, I guess,” Eddie says, awkwardly, although that’s not completely honest of him. Eddie doesn’t mind work, actually. In fact, generally speaking, Eddie’s worse when he can’t do work. He’d taken a week off to visit Myra’s sisters with her and within the span of that week he’d presented at the ER twice; first for heart palpitations, second for dizziness and general vertigo. Which, maybe, is the answer to Richie’s question. “It’s my wife, mostly,” he admits, faintly ashamed to malign her to someone he’s just met. “But we’ve been married fifteen years, it’s—it’s not weird to want two weeks away.”
He’d never had two weeks away from Myra. He’d never had two weeks away from his mother, either, until he’d gone off college—and he’s just now thinking of her too because he’d lived with her until he’d lived with Myra, practically, minus the break for college in between.
And he hadn’t gone to summer camp, although he’d often fantasized about it, canoes and color wars and how much he’d hate the disgusting tents. He hadn’t gone on vacations. Suddenly, he thinks of Richie as a boy—gangly at that age, maybe, not quite grown into himself—packed in with his sisters in the back seat of the family Oldsmobile, like he’d described.
“No, I mean. I get it,” Richie interrupts, idle as he talks, relaxed from the drink. “I fucked up my last relationship, pretty bad.”
Something dawns on Eddie. “Holy shit,” he says, slowly, resettling on the bed so that he can get a better look at Richie—one leg tucked underneath his thigh on the bed, half-twisted with his back to Richie’s pillow. A puzzle piece in his head slots into place. “That’s right. You were dating—she was in The Devil Wear Prada!”
That’s how he knows who Richie is, he’s sure of it. One of Myra’s People Magazines, or something; maybe he’d caught a glimpse of him lugging a bag of groceries, a cap jammed low on his brow, before Myra had said something disparaging about him and turned the page.
“ You saw The Devil Wears Prada?” Richie asks, amused. “I wasn’t dating her then, but correct.”
“Well, my wife liked it,” Eddie says, awkwardly, a little defensive. It’s not like it’s his kind of movie. Eddie likes movies with car chases and explosions, neither of which Myra tolerates, so he sees them occasionally on HBO when Myra’s gone to bed. “Sometimes she had it on.”
“Hey, no judgement,” Richie says reassuringly, and continues on before Eddie can do more than scowl. “Yeah, I mean. We kind of didn’t really know each other, I guess? Or like each other, maybe.” Richie pauses to drink, deliberately, like he’s processing that. “She thought I was too distant,” he concludes.
Just like that, Myra’s voice echoes through his head—sickly sweet, tearful, wounded. Eddie, sweetheart. Why aren’t you here with me? Look at me. You’re somewhere else. “Yeah!” Eddie hastens to say, a little more loudly than he ought to; Richie blinks. “Myra, she...she’s my wife, obviously, we’ve been together, what, fifteen years, every other year, it’s something else—she thinks I’m depressed, she thinks I’m cheating on her with my male boss, she thinks I hate her family, she thinks my mom hated her, and then she’s like, why are you distant? And she distanced me in the first place! With all this shit!” He gestures, a little violently, at shit , with the hand that’s clutching his glass; a little bit of it sloshes over onto his hand. “I mean—”
“ Were you fucking your boss?” Richie interrupts, slyly, and Eddie flushes with shock at the thought.
“What? No!” he says hastily, mortified at even the thought of it. “That’s so —that’s poor business practice. Don’t be gross.”
Richie had been mid-swallow, his face cracking into a grin as Eddie says gross , and he finishes before speaking up again, hoarsely, conspiratorial. “So if it wasn’t an HR violation, you’d fuck your boss.”
“No!” Eddie protests, clutching his glass, nearly through, in both hands. The ice hasn’t melted yet; the coldness burns at his palms. “That’s not what I’m...she just got it in her head that I’m gay, and I work a lot, so she latched onto the guy I spend the most time with. That’s all.”
That appears like it’s enough to satisfy that particular line of Richie questioning, although he goes quiet for a few long seconds after, like Eddie’s said something that he needs to take apart in his head, carefully, like an engine or a carburetor.
“Are you gay?” he asks, finally. It’s blunt and lewd somehow, although rationally, Eddie knows that it isn’t really—it’s a question, a characteristic that he does or doesn’t possess, like if Richie were to ask him that he was left-handed, although it’s not quite that simple.
He opens his mouth to answer, and then he thinks better of it, looking away as he drains the rest of his gin and tonic. Still not drunk—not yet—but a little dizzy now, although maybe that’s from the gin and tonic, maybe that’s from Richie’s question.
“I’m married,” he says, finally, helplessly. “Like, to a woman.”
“Elton John was married to a woman.”
“I’m not Elton John,” Eddie mutters sourly, defensive in a way that worries at him, exposed in a way that troubles him. He hasn’t answered Richie’s question. He knows that he hasn’t. He’s never had to answer it, really—he’d been a kid, and then he’d been with Myra, and now here he is, twenty years later. It’s not something he’s ever discussed, unless he counted his mother’s lurid illustration of New York as an AIDS-ridden dystopia. “Are you gay?” he asks, abruptly, playing at nonchalance like Richie is, like none of this matters.
“I’ve fucked men,” Richie says, one-upping him in three words, like he’d say that it’s sunny out, or that he’s going to the store.
Eddie thinks about Richie fucking men, and peers down at his glass, clutched between his hands. The tips of his fingers dig into the rim; they’ve gone white.
“But you date women,” he points out, slowly, like Richie might have forgotten. Richie shrugs.
“Easier that way,” he says, shortly. Out of the corner of his eyes, Eddie can pick up on Richie looking at him, although he can’t quite pick up on what sort of expression he has on—and when Eddie dares to look back up and over at him, Richie’s eyes flick away, like he’s a little embarrassed, like Eddie had caught him out. “Hollywood. I didn’t cheat on her, in case you’re wondering, or if you’re, like. Undercover TMZ. What a shitty long con that would be.”
Eddie breathes out a laugh at that, and that breaks the tension, a little bit. There’s a second or two before he speaks up again. “Did you ever want to?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Richie says, quietly.
It’s dark and quiet out here, miles and miles away from the hum of the traffic in the city, the shouting, the shriek of a thousand people laying on their horns. It feels, almost, like Eddie’s landed on another planet, quiet enough so that every little sound is loud; the creaking of the cabin in the summer wind, faintly, the clink of the ice as it melts from the heat from Eddie’s palm and slips down into the gin.
“I kissed a guy once,” Eddie admits suddenly, because that seems like the right thing to say. It wouldn’t if he hadn’t had this drink, he’s pretty sure, but he did. He pauses to take a sip before he continues. “Someone I worked with. He had an offer at another firm. We had a going away party at his place, it sort of just—it happened.”
“Your wife get pissed?” Richie asks neutrally, the bed creaking as he sits up.
Eddie flushes, peers up at the far wall, at the painting there—a field of sunflowers. “It wasn’t—I mean, it wasn’t cheating cheating it was, like. One kiss. If I’d told her, she would’ve made a big thing about it.”
“Right,” Richie says, amicably, gesturing with a hand as he talks. “If it’s just a kiss, it’s, like—I mean, French people kiss each other to say hello, and no one thinks that’s cheating. Totally understandable. It’s, like, a non-thing.”
Eddie eyes him, not quite sure if he’s being mocked—and if, accordingly, Richie ought to be told to go fuck himself—or if Richie’s saying it in earnest. “Yeah,” he settles on, willing, for now, to give him the benefit of the doubt.
They both drink some more. Richie’s draining the dregs—Eddie’s nearly finished, too. All that’s left is a mixture of the melted ice and the last traces of the liquor; it’s not great. Water with a faintly medicinal tang from the tonic water.
“What’d you think of it?” Richie asks, carefully. Eddie studies his empty glass.
“It wasn’t—it wasn’t like I thought it would be,” he begins, haltingly. He shuts his eyes, brow furrowing as he tries to piece together the bits he can remember, little by little. “We were on the bed, in the guest bedroom. He wanted to show me—he won a signed hockey puck in some kind of charity auction, I thought that was cool. He knew I’d watched hockey. He wanted to show me.”
It’s the tactile things that he can remember best, so many years later; the firmness of the mattress underneath him, the murmur of conversation in the other room between the other four or five people who had overstayed their welcome like Eddie had. He’d worn a new suit—it had been a formal occasion, unquestionably, as was the norm within his industry, just a bunch of a rich douchebags playing at being casual. It had itched, a little bit, at the collar, and he’d loosened his tie at some point throughout the evening to see if that would help
“And we were sitting on the bed,” Eddie continues, slowly. “He was looking down, and he made a joke about something, and he looked over at me, and we sort of, just…”
Eddie opens his eyes. Richie is watching him, quiet, and when Eddie meets his eyes, this time he doesn’t look away—instead, he waits for what’s next.
It’s not sudden or impassioned—not a grand, sweeping romantic gesture. If this were a movie, the strings wouldn’t swell. If this were a movie, Eddie thinks that there’d be barely any music at all; right here, with Richie, somewhere out here in the west, underneath that great velvet drape of stars and planets, in the quiet, it’s like they’re the only two people alive.
Richie’s sat up so that they’re next to each other on the bed now, more or less, and he keeps still as Eddie leans in, eyes open. He doesn’t know if Richie closes his eyes when he kisses him, because by then, Eddie’s already shut his.
It’s not a particularly exciting kiss, at least at its start. Closed-mouthed; chaste. What Eddie likes best about it is everything but the kiss, in fact; he likes the heat of Richie’s body up against his own, the faint scratch of his stubble, his scent—the smoke from the campfire on top of something more masculine, faintly sweaty, notes of the awful cologne he’d probably not quite washed off with his shower last night.
He realizes that Richie’s not reacting, coincidentally, just as his sense kicks in. Mortified, he jerks back, ready to apologize—he’s not that drunk. He’s not drunk at all, actually. He’d just thought—he’d just wondered—
But before he can get anything out beyond the beginnings of a horrified Richie, Richie’s hand comes up to cup the back of his neck, hot like a brand, inexplicably like the bottle he’d pressed to his skin that afternoon, just so. And now Eddie can’t talk because Richie’s kissing him, with that same hesitance at first, like he’s waiting to see if Eddie will pull back after all.
And Eddie doesn’t, so Richie kisses him more, and as he does, Eddie kisses him back. Clumsily, at first. When he opens his mouth, their teeth click. Eddie can taste the rum in Richie’s mouth, and he’s never liked it as much as he does now, tasting it this way, on Richie.
And Eddie hasn’t kissed like this in decades—because it’s not just kissing, it’s making out, like he had the few times he’d gotten lucky in college, like he never had with Myra. It’s clumsy and unpracticed; Eddie’s glass slips loose from his hand and lands with a thud on the carpet, rolling away, thankfully, without shattering, although the glass is the last thing on his mind, because with a hand free, he can slide one hand over to—
—to catch in Richie’s shirt and clutch at it, apparently, because he doesn’t know what else to do with it, and it’s paralyzing enough when one of his thumbs brushes up at the bare skin revealed by the bunching up of his shirt.
“Eddie,” Richie murmurs huskily, breaking away just barely to say it, still brushing noses with him, and when he kisses him again, one of his hands comes to slide to rest comfortably, confidently, boldly on Eddie’s thigh, splaying his fingers, like he wants to feel every bit of it that Eddie will let him.
It’s a good thing that he’d finished off the glass before he’d dropped it, he thinks distractedly, as Richie kisses him again, open-mouthed, hot. It’s a good thing Richie hadn’t mixed him up a rum and coke, like he’d had. Richie’s hand slides up, curving around the inside of his thigh, guiding them apart, a little bit, and Eddie breaks off to catch his breath, nosing at Richie’s neck as he does it, wondering, in a frenzied, disgusting way, what his sweat would taste like. Coca-cola would present a challenge, to get out of an old carpet like this. But the minibar has club soda, probably, and that would help. Eddie sucks in a gasp as the tips of Richie’s index and middle fingers nudge up against the swell in his jeans where he’s hard, an electric feeling, grinding shallowly up against that bare bit of contact, and he and Myra had agreed on ripping up the white carpeting in his office after she’d spilled a coke once, it had been a nightmare to clean—
Eddie leaps up like he really had been electrocuted. He’s startled to find that Richie looks just about as bewildered as he feels; he’s horrified that Richie looks good like this, shirt rumpled, hair in disarray, glasses askew, a little bit. Lips gone pinker where he’d been kissed. And if Eddie looks further down, and further—
“Well, it’s late!” Eddie declares, which is a good start, until he takes a step back and nearly trips over the glass on the floor—and though he rights himself, his facade slips from his fingers entirely. He’s made a mistake. A terrible mistake. An awful one. “Fuck,” he manages, clutching at his face with a hand. “I shouldn’t have—I have to—I have to go. I’m sorry.”
“Wait,” Richie says, rising up, but Eddie’s heading for the door, face hot. He can’t look at Richie anymore; he doesn’t know what he’ll see if he does.
“Goodnight,” Eddie calls, voice strangled, as he fumbles with the lock on the door partitioning off Eddie’s side of the cabin from Richie’s. The floorboards behind him creak, like Richie’s gotten up, but Eddie doesn’t dare look back—instead, he scrambles to get through the door and shuts it behind him with a heavy slam.
The stillness in his own cabin is offensive, like it knows what he’s done. Back up against the door, Eddie slides to crouch on his heels, heart thrumming. He listens, but behind him, in Richie’s cabin, he can’t hear a sound.
Everyone makes mistakes, Eddie thinks, as he takes a shower, ice-cold.
He’d been a little bit tipsy, even, so his judgement had been mildly impaired, he decides as he brushes his teeth.
It had just been a kiss, anyway, just like before, he reasons as he dresses for bed, tying the drawstring of his pajamas with shaking hands.
It’s not like Myra would know, as long as he doesn’t tell her, he reminds himself as he lies in bed and stares up at the ceiling.
He doesn’t think about much of anything when he falls asleep.
And he wakes when it’s still dark, disoriented and sweaty like he is when he takes long naps. It’s unusual for him—usually, he sleeps like the dead.
That’s probably the guilt, his brain points out to him, helpfully, and Eddie groans as he fumbles for his watch to check what time it is, swatting the thought away like a gnat. The glow makes his eyes water, a little bit, and he has to squint: three-thirty AM, on the dot.
He’s debating over getting up and sorting through his luggage for some Benadryl to help him sleep when—abruptly—light floods in through one of the windows by the door, in a fleeting way, and then splashes across Eddie’s face as it pours through the next, dazzling him. Startled, Eddie twists to face the window, shielding his eyes to see if he can get a good look at its source, but it’s already gone by the time that he does it, leaving him half propped up in his bed in the dark.
Car headlights. The guess comes to him belatedly, but it has to be that—someone with their brights on. Although that doesn’t clear much up in itself. A car in the middle of nowhere, at three AM, passing his cabin in a way that doesn’t make much sense; there’s no road for it to drive on. With the angle at which the light had passed through his windows, it would have to be driving over the firepit in the middle of the circle of cabins. It doesn’t make sense, Eddie thinks, until abruptly, all of his focus narrows in on another fact.
Someone is standing outside his door.
The wooden floorboards in the porch, faintly, are creaking, like someone is shifting their weight; he can hear it. He can’t hear anything else at all—the night crickets have gone silent. And when Eddie drops his eyes to the crack under the door, he can see something casting a shadow through it, silhouetted, presumably, by the porch light.
“Richie?” he calls, bleary, hesitant. The answer is an abrupt silence—like whoever it is has made a decision to keep still at the sound of his voice. Clutching at his quilt, Eddie sits up completely, uncertain. He doesn’t want it to be Richie, really—after what had happened—but he’s not sure that he wants it to be some other mysterious person. “Hello? Who’s there?”
And then, three taps at the door.
Not knocks; like someone has a hand pressed flat to the door, and is drumming up against it with their fingers, or at least one of them, heavy and slow and deliberate, tap, tap, tap. A pause, and then again, just a little bit louder. Tap. Tap. Tap.
The shadow is still cast under the door; Eddie can see it from where he is, frozen on the bed. If he wants to see who it is, he just has to get out of bed, and peer through the window—it would be easy, from that vantage point. But suddenly, mysteriously, on some sort of base, primal level, Eddie knows, at his core, that he shouldn’t, because there’s something wrong about whatever is behind that door.
The tapping continues. Eddie lies back, clutching at his quilt. If he wants to get Richie, he’ll have to get out of bed, but he can’t; he’s frozen. A little bit disoriented in his half-wakefulness, and his fear.
It’s a dream, maybe. Tap tap tap. If he closes his eyes, and turns his back to the door, he’ll dream about something else, if he wills himself to. Tap tap tap. He’s read about lucid dreaming before; as long as the dreamer knows he’s in a dream, he can control it, or that’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.
Tap tap tap.
And then, a long silence. Eyes shut, Eddie waits for more taps, but they don’t come.
If it is a dream, it’s a long one. Eddie lies there until it gets light again, in silence. He doesn’t notice falling asleep, but it happens nonetheless.