The eggs were good, Dan thought, taking another bite of his breakfast. Really good. Not like the toast, which was way too dry. Anne loved going to this diner for brunch though, and apparently, so did Eddie, based on how much he’d wolfed down so far.
“So yeah, it’s been an interesting few months, especially with these cases,” Anne concluded. “How about you, Eddie? What have you been up to?”
Eddie paused, mid-chew, giving Dan yet another opportunity to wonder how exactly his new alien-enhanced metabolism worked. Eddie had already eaten his way through an order of French toast, a short stack of pancakes with bacon and eggs, and was currently halfway through a truly staggering pile of hash browns, still going with gusto. “Mm,” Eddie said swallowing. He took a swig of coffee. “Still freelancing. Got a semi-regular column at the Globe—“
“Yeah, we saw!” Anne said.
“Your piece from last week, on the garbage patches in the ocean was really something,” Dan added. “I had no idea it had gotten that bad.”
“Well yeah, they don’t really want you to know, because then we would maybe think twice about buying so much crap we don’t need,“ Eddie said, and as he kept going, explaining in detail about what was contributing the most to the size of the waste-mass, a small black tendril extruded from just under his chest, wrapping itself around a piece of potato. “Knock it off,” Eddie said, batting at the tendril. The piece of potato dropped back on the plate and the black coiling strand whipped once angrily before retreating.
Dan forced his eyes back up to Eddie’s. It was hard not to stare whenever his alien—his symbiote—manifested, but Dan was trying hard to behave like a true friend and not a doctor who, if he was being honest with himself, would really love another chance to study them both. Not that he could ever share anything he’d learned. If word got out that he knew a man inhabited by an alien, Eddie would be disappeared within hours. The Life Foundation might not be a threat anymore, too afraid of losing what few tattered threads of credibility it had left after the scandal with Carlton Drake, but plenty of other groups wouldn’t think twice about dissecting Eddie; neither, Dan supposed, would the government.
“—but it’s better this way,” Eddie finished.
Dan smiled at him blankly having missed most of what he’d said.
“Right.” Anne nodded. “You’re your own boss, and don’t get censored the way you would on a staff position. Just like you always wanted.”
“Yeah.” Eddie smiled at her, and there was a quick flicker of regret in his eyes, just enough for Dan to catch.
“So, Anne tells me your birthday’s coming up,” Dan said. “Got anything planned?”
Eddie’s brow furrowed for a moment. “Not really.” His eyes flicked to the side, as they often did when he was listening to Venom’s thoughts. “Yes, we can get cake.” He smiled. “Of course it’ll be chocolate.”
The waitress came by to refill their coffee and Dan quickly put his hand over his cup before she got to him. He’d already had one cup too many.
“Excuse me,” Eddie asked the waitress,” can we get another order of hash browns please?”
“Eddie...” Anne laughed.
“To go,” Eddie added, giving Anne a wink. “And the check?”
“Here you are,” the waitress scribbled on her pad and handed the check to Eddie.
“I got it,” Dan said, grabbing for the check, but Eddie pulled his arm back and up, holding the check over his head, like that somehow put it out of reach. “Eddie, please—“
“No way. You two paid the last two times. It’s my turn.” Eddie pulled out some bills, hesitated and added another five, then flagged the waitress. “Plus, like I said, I’ve got a steady-ish gig now.”
“Hope it gets even steadier,” Anne said. “You’re doing great work lately, Eddie, really.”
“Thanks,” Eddie smiled at her, and there was that trace of sadness again, Dan couldn’t help but notice, there always was when Eddie focused on Anne. But it was lessening week by week. “Got another good one lined up about rent gouging, it’ll be out in a week, I think.” The waitress brought the to-go order of hash-browns and Eddie thanked her, backed his chair away and stood up. “Same time in two weeks?”
“Yeah, we’re around,” Dan said.
“Have a good birthday,” Anne said.
“Okay, have a good two weeks,” Eddie said, waving. From the hem of his sleeve, a small tendril of Venom slithered out, and gave them a wave; something about the slow curling movement looked almost hesitant, thoughtful.
The sound of his phone buzzing woke Dan from his sleep. He’d always been a light sleeper, and the buzzer was loud enough to wake him, but let Anne sleep. It was usually a work emergency, so he instinctively grabbed the phone and got up, heading out into the kitchen before reading the text.
The text was from Eddie: Dan
Eddie? Dan scratched his chin, wondering if he should even ask, before typing. Everything okay?
Eddie is sleeping. This is Venom.
Dan said, “Oh,” out loud, and typed: Hi, Venom. Everything okay?
I have checked thoroughly. Eddie is not giving birth.
Dan could feel his eyebrows creeping up an inch. No. Not to my knowledge.
Anne said his birth day was coming up.
“Oh.” She meant his birthday. The day he was born. The three dots indicated Venom was about to type a response, so quickly, Dan added. Next week, he will be 42 years old.
Why do you celebrate aging? Humans don’t have very long lifespans.
Despite himself, Dan chuckled. It feels plenty long to us.
Eddie will have many more birthdays now that we are joined.
“Oh?” How many more?
Hundreds more. Maybe a thousand, if we are not killed.
Resisting the intense urge to ask how that was possible, Dan instead typed back: Does he know that?
Dan was trying to think of a way to gently tell Venom he had to let Eddie know. Something like that was too important to—
We need chocolate cake. For the party.
Yes. You will help us throw a surprise party for Eddie.
A surprise party?
Yes. He has a memory of a surprise party. He thinks about it often. It made him very happy. We want to make him happy.
How are you going to surprise him?
You and Anne will help. Bring big chocolate cake. Maybe two. Then jump out and yell at him.
Okay. But if he sees these text messages he'll know what we’re planning.
We will eat the phone.
No! Don’t eat the phone.
But then he will know. Spoil the surprise.
Just delete the message when we’re done.
Swipe right. Or left. I don’t know how it’s set up on his phone. Dan ran his fingers through his hair and yawned, mildly anxious but also really ready to head back to bed. He watched the phone a few more seconds, decided Venom must have figured out how to delete the texts, and then headed back to the bedroom, contemplating how he’d explain this to Anne in the morning.
“Eddie hates surprises,” Anne said, and took another sip of her morning coffee.
“Venom seems to think he loves them.” Dan shrugged, and finished his coffee. “Said something about a good memory—one he thinks about a lot.”
“Oh. Oh that,” Anne’s cheeks flushed. “That was ages ago, back in New York, for his thirtieth birthday.”
“And?” Dan prodded gently, positive there was more to the story.
“And all of his friends were there. A lot of old college buddies and some from the paper.” She took another sip of her coffee.
“And it was the first night we kissed.”
“Ah.” Dan nodded to himself. He’d accepted that Eddie still loved Anne, but also knew he had no intentions of trying to woo her again, not to mention that Anne wasn’t interested. “That’d explain why it’s a favorite memory.”
“Do you think we should explain to Venom that kissing isn’t typical for a surprise birthday party?”
“Well, so far all Venom’s asked for is chocolate cake.”
“So they want us to come over with chocolate cake?”
Dan showed her the texts.
“They texted you? But Eddie—“
“Don’t worry, they deleted the texts. At least I think they did.”
Anne shook her head and stood. “Well Eddie’s birthday isn’t for three days. We’ve got until then to figure this out.” She set her coffee mug in the sink. “We can get cake from Ambrosia.”
“Good idea.” Dan brought his own mug to the sink and gave Anne a kiss. “Talk more tonight.”
“What do you mean you forgot the candles?” Anne said. “You had them in your hand when we were getting ready to go.”
Dan felt his cheeks flush with shame. “I didn’t want them to break in my coat pocket, so I was going to put them in the box with the cake, but then I...didn’t.” Arms still cradling one of the two cakes, he nodded at a deli just ahead. “I bet they’ve got some here.”
“Okay, I’ll bring these upstairs, and you go get the candles.” Anne turned towards him and carefully they stacked the cakes together. One regular chocolate cake, the other chocolate mousse.
Dan gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. “Sorry.”
She smiled at him. “Happens. I still can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“As far as I’m concerned, this is the least unbelievable Eddie-related thing we’ve done.”
“Good point.” Anne started to turn away, but paused. “You sure the door is open?”
“Venom left it unlocked for us,” Dan said, heading into the deli. “Text me if you can’t get in. I’ll be there in two minutes.”
The deli was a fairly standard grocery mart, with a frowning Chinese woman behind the counter. Dan gave her a smile, but her frown only deepened. He took a quick lap up and down the aisles, but couldn’t find birthday candles in any of the typical spots. So he headed for the counter, and sure enough, there were some hanging on the pegboard behind the shopkeeper. “Hi, could I please get a pack of—“
Her face lit up suddenly and she smiled. “Hi, Eddie.”
“Hey, Mrs. Chen,” said an all-too familiar voice. “This guy giving you trouble?”
“Eddie!” The tips of Dan’s ears burned with embarrassment. “Hey!” So much for the surprise. Well, Eddie still didn’t know why Dan was here, technically, he just had to make up an excuse. “I was on the way to work, and got the worst headache, so I thought I’d come in here and—“ he gestured to the pill packets hanging on the wall. “Could I get a pack of Advil please?”
“Oh that sucks man, I’ve been there,” Eddie said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Get the extra strength." Waving to Mrs. Chen, he put a five dollar bill on the counter and held up a packaged sandwich. She gave him a nod. "Bye, Mrs. Chen." Turning back to Dan, he added, "Got a gig to go to.”
“Should be,” Eddie smirked, eyes twinkling with secrecy.
“Can’t wait to read it.”
“See you around, Dan.” He gave a wave and a moment later a slender black tendril came out of Eddie’s back, forming a hand, and gave Dan a thumbs up.
“See you!” Dan mirrored the thumbs up, suppressing a nervous laugh. He could barely believe his luck—so narrowly had he escaped being found out. And with a quick glance out the window he confirmed Eddie was indeed heading away from his apartment, not towards it. “And a pack of birthday candles please.”
“It’s Eddie’s birthday today, right?” Mrs. Chen said, as she rang up the candles and Advil. “These for him?”
“Yeah, actually.” Dan handed her a ten. “But it’s a surprise.”
Her eyebrows crawled up. “You'd better be careful surprising him. He can really lash out.”
“Yeah,” Dan nodded. “Know what you mean.”
“You his friend?” Her face scrunched thoughtfully.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Good.” She dropped his purchases in a small brown paper bag and added three king-size Snickers bars. “These are his favorite.”
“Thanks,” Dan took the bag gratefully. “Have a good day.”
“You too. Good luck with your surprise.”
“That’s it, I think we’re good!” Anne said, hopping down from the chair. The Happy Birthday banner was definitely less lopsided than it had been, and it made the bare walls of Eddie’s studio apartment look slightly less dismal.
Dan scanned the room again, trying to see if there was anything else they could do to make it look more like a party. They decided to use the kitchen counter to set up the cake. It was the perfect spot to hide behind.
Plus, since Eddie kept the room so bare, the only other option was the weight bench, which really wasn’t ideal for cake. Dan cocked his head, noting the number of plates on the barbell, and did some quick math, concluding that the weight was both way too high for somebody Eddie’s size and, based on what Anne had told him, likely way too low for Venom. Maybe they’d figured out some intermediary routine. It’d be fascinating if Eddie’s body itself was starting to—
“Dan?” Anne snapped her fingers in front of Dan’s face. “You ready?”
Anne tugged on Dan’s wrist and pulled him behind the kitchen counter. “Venom said they’d be back at four, right?”
“I mean Eddie’s not exactly known for being punctual. So we’re probably gonna sit here for at least another half an hour—“
"He's been on time for brunch. Sort of. I mean twenty minutes late isn't terrible."
Anne gave him a look.
“Quiet!,” said a voice from just outside the door. Eddie’s voice.
Dan clapped his mouth shut and Anne got into a crouch, ready to jump up.
”Would you stop that?” Eddie said. “Because I’m telling you I heard voices. No, not yours!”
Dan turned around and got into a crouch too, ready to pop up along with Anne.
The door unlocked, and Dan and Anne jumped, hands up in celebration.
“Happy birth-“ Anne stumbled over the word and the last part came out far more muted. “Day?”
“Oh holy crap!” Dan stammered, because it wasn’t Eddie at the door, it was Venom, long tongue whipping back and forth like an angered snake. He had his fists raised and looked ready for a fight. Dan had heard Anne’s descriptions and read reports, but nothing compared to to the real thing.
Venom’s head peeled back, revealing Eddie’s face. He looked extremely confused and then relieved, and then, as he took in the banner and the cakes and presents on the counter, stupidly happy. “Oh, wow.”
Eddie wolfed down another bite of chocolate cake, eyes closed in pleasure. Dan, though he’d tried not to, was still trying to figure out how digestion and metabolism worked between Eddie and Venom, were they sharing a stomach? Did the presence of Venom add some kind of secondary stomach(s)?
“Ambrosia, right?” Eddie asked.
“Yup,” Anne smiled as she pointed with her fork at the second cake. “That one’s got mousse filling."
“Aw yeah,” Eddie said, wiping the corner of his mouth like he’d started drooling. He reached for the knife, while Venom thrust out a tendril, from Eddie’s forearm and grabbed one of the oversized Snicker’s bars from the counter.
Dan couldn’t help himself. He had to ask about the stomach thing: “So how do you—“
“Oh hey we love these,” Eddie said eyeing the candy bar Venom was busy unwrapping. “From Mrs. Chen’s?”
“Yes. They’re—they’re a gift,” Dan added.
“She didn’t charge you for them?” Eddie’s smile widened. “Wow. You must’ve made a good impression.”
“Or you did.”
Eddie huffed a laugh. “So, how'd you get in?”
“Uh…” Dan started.
“Venom,” Anne said.
“Yes,” Venom said, head extruding, atop a longer eel-like appendage attached to Eddie’s chest. They turned their head to look Eddie in the eyes. “This was all my idea.”
“Really?” Eddie cocked an eyebrow. “You didn’t even know what a birthday was. Or were you just faking?”
“My kind are not born, we are spawned. Once spawned, we are left to fend for ourselves. Why commemorate that?” Venom’s eyes narrowed.
“Well, it's a little different here,” Anne said. “We celebrate birthdays to mark the passing of time, how long we’ve been alive.”
“I have existed for eons.” Venom’s form shimmered as he spoke, a hypnotic rippling in the inky black as his large white eyes drooped shut. “The day I came to be is irrelevant.”
“You sound kinda sad about that.” Eddie put his hand under Venom’s chin, tilting it up until their eyes opened again. “But you know, we have a birthday. It’s today.” Eddie gestured at the counter. “We even have two cakes.”
Venom’s eyes opened again and he gave Eddie a toothy grin. “Then I get to blow out candles. And make my own wish. Just as you did.”
“Of course.” Eddie stood and grabbed the candles leftover from the first cake, moving them to the still untouched mousse cake. He turned to Dan, and asked, “Got a light?”
Dan dug in his pocket for the book of matches and handed them to Eddie. Venom reared away noticeably from the tiny flame, but once the candles were lit, their head solidified around Eddie’s and they hesitated just a moment before letting out a surprisingly gentle puff of air for such a large being.
“What’d you wish for?” Anne asked.
Venom peeled away again, and turned to Eddie with a widening grin, “That is our secret.”
"Happy Birthday to us," Eddie said, and pressed a soft kiss against Venom's forehead, then kissed his way down until their mouths were. Oh...
"We should..." Anne started, pulling Dan towards the door. "...go."
"Go. Yes, absolutely." Dan let Anne pull him out into the hallway, and added, "Happy Birthday!" before closing the door behind them.