“Truth or dare, Richie?” Sally Phillips croons obnoxiously over the circle at him, all crimped hair and bubblegum pink lip gloss, and smacks her gum.
Truth or dare.
They’re all a little too old for this, fifteen and mildly tipsy from sherry stolen from Sally’s parents’ liquor cabinet. There’s other things they could be doing, but it’s summer, and it’s a party, and he should just-
“Truth or dare, Richie?” She crows, again, as the people around her in the circle grin over at him, mouths warping and changing on the edge of his vision. It feels a little like a nightmare, but he’s seen nightmares, and they’re nothing like this.
He drops his shoulders, pretends the tension in them is just because of the crowd, and rolls his eyes. “Fuckin’ relax, Sally. The world’s not goddamn ending. Dare.”
He never chooses truth.
She dares him to kiss Katie Stroud, who is pretty and waspish and wearing bright red lipstick and he feels absolutely nothing from it.
His dad takes him out the back the next morning, smacks him around and calls him a fag when he sees the lipstick on his mouth that he forgot to wash off.
The Losers look at his black eye, and don’t ask about it.
He’s punch-drunk and sixteen, a little too stoned in the clubhouse, with Eddie. They’re very close, pressed together on the floor, watching the stars through the hatch, and Eddie’s stoned enough that his neuroticisms have flattened out, have made him looser, and a little pliable on the edges.
It’s a nice night out, summer, and everything worrying feels wonderfully far away.
“...do you think we’ll still be like this? Friends?” Eddie worries, because Eddie always worries, even when he’s stoned.
Well, that’s one way to ruin the mood. “When?”
“When we… come back. When He comes back.”
Twenty-seven years, from the time He went away. Richie will be forty. Disgusting. “Yeah, dude. Totally.”
“I don’t know what I’d be if I didn’t know you.”
Eddie laughs, coughs, and blows a cloud of smoke into his face. “That’s pretty gay, dude.”
“God, fuck you too,” Richie says, and waves his hand for the joint. “Pass.”
“Bitch.” Eddie says, but it’s not in anger, not really, and he hands what’s left of it over. “Got something you’re not telling me, Rich?”
“...would you have a problem if I did?”
Eddie holds on that for a moment, seemingly not sure how to answer. “...It’d probably be pretty shit if I did. Considering.”
And he doesn’t answer, but that’s not a no. It… can’t be. It sounds like- No. He’s just getting his hopes up, making up stories. He looks at the joint. It’s nearly smoked through, there’s probably only one hit left.
An idea begins to form in his head, a stupid idea, a dumb one, but he just- “Don’t freak out.” He says, trembling a little, and takes a long deep drag of the joint, filling his mouth up with smoke.
Eddie just watches him, fucked up and blissed out, eyes shuttering closed.
Before he can wimp out, he leans in, closer, too close, and presses their lips together, exhaling the smoke through his teeth and down Eddie’s throat.
It’s not a kiss, not quite, but he pulls back after a few seconds, just to be sure that Eddie’s not going to punch him in the face or anything.
Eddie just looks confused, pupils blown wide, but he’s not angry. Just… contemplative.
“Bad?” Richie asks, hardly breathing in the heavy air. He doesn’t know what he’s just done, hopes he hasn’t just fucked everything up.
“Uh.” Eddie blinks, licks his lips, and blinks again, “What was that for?”
“Didn’t want to waste it.” He says, but it’s a lie, and it echoes wrong in the wooden room.
“Liar.” Eddie says, thickly, and a little darkly, and cups his head, pulling him down for a proper kiss.
They make out for a while, lazy and warm in the summer night, and it’s just- it’s like a romance movie, really. Like one of those shitty ones with Meg Ryan or Molly Ringwald, where everything is alright in the end, and nothing really ever hurts.
Once the weed wears off, they don’t ever really talk about it.
Richie’s eighteen and Derry, Maine is a long way away, stuck in a fog of smoke and memory. He doesn’t think about it much now, except when he can’t breathe in the bathtub, and when he cuts away at his legs to just feel something again.
The other man is skinny, edges sharper than a piece of paper, and brunet. His leather jacket gives him faux-confident, a faux strength, but he’s probably barely a year older than him.
“What’s your name, baby?” He sighs, all-too wet and willing, and drops bruising kisses down Richie’s neck, rucking up his shirt at the bottom.
It’s anxiety that comes on this time, and something more. It feels a little like staring death in the face and he would fuckin’ know.
“R-r-richie-” He stammers, and it feels wrong because he was never the one who stammered, it was… Bill - it was Bill, how’d he forget Bill- and he just breaks - “I haven’t done this before.”
“Don’t worry.” The stranger says, alien, and foreign, and right and wrong all at the same time , “I’ll take care of you.”
His 25th comes and goes at a stale industry party, full of C-listers and execs and he’s happy about it, really, because no-one else gets to be famous, gets to make their money off telling people jokes about his girlfriend - he’s never had a girlfriend - but it all feels wrong.
He can’t do… anonymous things, anymore. There’s too much risk. If he was caught now - his whole life would go up in smoke.
He just drinks a little too much whisky, feels the jeans he’s wearing chafe away at the cuts on his thighs, and ignores it.
“What’s the secret to your success?” A reporter, with too-bright lipgloss and a mocking note in her voice, asks.
“Being born in a small town.” He replies, easily, and confidently, and it’s a lie, it’s all a lie.
His girlfriend has sex with him on his 29th birthday, together in the dark, and he fumbles and it’s… fine. Maybe he cries afterward, but she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and it’s not like it matters.
He’s six years old and they’ve gone on a trip to the big city. There’s a parade on, for something big and shiny and exciting and he abandons his family for a moment, crowds up against the big barrier, points up at the floats. Someone throws confetti, and it flutters down, gets stuck in his hair and on his face and his clothes, and his dad will mind, his dad always minds, but he doesn’t-
“You look pretty.” A boy next to him, probably his age but only just, points at the glitter in his hair and smiles brightly.
And it doesn’t feel bad when he says it, he says it like it’s a compliment, like it’s something he should want to be. Pretty.
But then his dad comes and pulls him away from the barrier, away from the boy and musses the glitter from his hair. “Do you want to look like a fag? Move.”
Saturday Night Live comes calling when he’s thirty-four, and he hosts alongside Justin Bieber - of all people - who is kind of a ratbag but he’s a literal child so he’s sure he’ll grow out of it.
There’s a sketch, something silly and not that funny - where the main punchline of the thing is that it’s a fake porn scene and he kisses a man. Richie briefly wonders what the point is, where the joke is, but he can’t exactly complain because he’s not written his own material in years.
He… doesn’t want to do it.
Not because he’s afraid, exactly - everyone knows that whatever happens on SNL stays on SNL, but because of what he’ll do.
His cast mate’s a brunet - why, why are they always brunet - with no beard and brilliant blue eyes, a cocky twink who’s on the edge of turning 30. He jokes and laughs, as though he’s done it all before - which he has, he’s the first out SNL cast member and they all love him very much.
Richie doesn’t want to do it.
But his agent, see, his fuckin’ agent says this’ll do wonders for his career. It’ll squish any rumours, it’ll do something to help him.
And he needs the help.
“Well, doctor, do you have anything to treat this problem?” His cast mate drawls, too happy under the bright lights and in front of the audience.
Richie’s sweating. “...I have your medicine right here.”
The cast mate’s smile is broad enough, shining brightly under the lights, and he leans in and kisses him.
It’s the first time he’s ever been kissed by a man - technically - even when he’d done other things, it had been nothing like this. It feels right, like nothing he’s ever felt before. He pulls him close, relishes in the sharp edges of his skin, and even so - it’s over too quickly.
There’s a polite round of applause, the runner calls, “ad break-” and shoves the pair of them out of the way, and the show goes on.
Afterwards, his castmate asks, with a gleam in his eye, “I have a bottle of whisky back in my dressing room. Join me?”
He doesn’t even seem shocked by the cuts on Richie’s thighs.
Eddie is scared of everything. The pollen, the flu, dust, grass stains - he’s a neurotic hypochondriac and Richie fucking loves him.
He’s thirty-eight and his manager catches him tearing the scabs off his thighs in the bathroom, only partially clothed in the shower, about an hour before his show opens.
He’d seen someone he recognises, someone he’s not seen in eighteen years, but he knows him implicitly and violently and it hurts-
And he remembers Derry, all at once and fleetingly.
Truth or dare.
Truth or dare.
Truth. Truth. Truth. Truth. Truth.
“Clean yourself up.” His manager says, all business and no compassion, and hands him a glass of whiskey and some plasters. “Don’t be another Robin Williams. I can’t deal with losing out on you too-” which makes him feel like shit, but it doesn’t matter, because he remembers Derry, and that summer, and the kisses, and the clown for a moment-
And it makes him sick.
When he leaves the bathroom, he’s forgotten all about it.
The clubhouse is dirty, and altogether kind of terrible, but it’s a place and it’s theirs, even though everyone (except Bill) knows Ben really only made it for Beverly.
But they have the place, and they have the hammock, and the shower caps, and it’s fine. Richie wishes there was an arcade machine - one powered by trees and leaves - that he could play just down there, so he wouldn’t ever need to go back to the arcade again.
He could play Eddie. He’d win, obviously, because Eddie’s awful at gaming, but they could still play.
A dime for a moment.
“Wanna play truth or dare?” Beverly asks, because she loves that kind of thing, pretending that they’re girls, sometimes.
They go along with it, reluctantly, hesitantly, because they’re all holding things back. The clown wasn’t the only secret Derry had been hiding.
“Richie, truth or dare?” Bev asks, and he kind of hates her for it.
“Truth.” He says, because he’s kind of comfortable, and a little sleepy, sitting down there in the sand, and doing a dare is just effort.
“Do you… like anyone?”
And that question gets a bunch of whoops and hollers from the others - because everyone knows who Bev and Ben and Bill like - but he’s… a little more quite about these things. He says it before he even has the chance to think, the chance to understand what his answer means, “...Yeah.”
That’s the problem. He can’t think of a single girl to mention in reply, and it makes him nauseous.
And Eddie’s looking at him, too. Like he knows. Like he understands. But he couldn’t. “Well, Eddie’s mom and I are going to have a pretty fuckin’ hot date tonight-”
“Shut the fuck up about my mom, dude-” And Eddie throws a handful of dirt at him, showering them all in dust clods, and the tension is gone.
Richie’s forty goddamn years old and he’s back in fucking Derry.
And that’s the problem, that’s the thing - he remembers it all. He remembers the clubhouse, and the Paul Bunyon statue, and the repression and - Eddie.
He remembers Eddie.
How did he forget Eddie?
And they’re laughing with each other over the restaurant table, and it’s like they’ve never even been apart. He’s married, because of course he is, to a woman who looks far too much like his mom. He’s a risk analyst, something boring. He’s a little thinner on top, more well dressed, but-
He’s just the same.
The playground’s just for the bigger kids, but he plays there anyway because he ain’t a pussy. They shove him, sometimes, and push him onto the grass, but he likes it, because it makes him feel like he belongs. They’re not ever mean about it.
There’s another boy there, too, about his age, who’s sitting with his mom - who is at least three hundred pounds, and looks it - who keeps on feeding him pills and healthy snacks out of a neatly wrapped parcel. He looks like he wants to get away, he looks like someone who needs a friend.
Richie wanders a little closer.
The other boy’s eyes widen, pleadingly, in a way that makes him look a little bit desperate.
“Hi.” Richie says, politely, because his dad raised him to listen to adults, even if those adults aren’t very nice. He lies, “I go to school with your son - can we play together?”
The giant woman’s eyes narrow. “Eddie, do you know this boy?”
And that’s weird, Richie gave up on calling his mom ‘mommy’ a long time ago, but he doesn’t say anything, just keeps on smiling carefully and kindly and not weird at all. “We’ll just go onto the swings, ma’am.”
“Well… Okay.” The boy’s mother says, “Stay where I can see you, and take some of this sanitizer and clean it before you swing, okay?”
“Yes, mommy.” Eddie says, and does as he’s told. He even cleans the seat of the swing off before he sits down, which Richie thinks is real strange, because it rained like not even two hours ago and he doesn’t think anything bad or evil could have infected the swings in that time, but what does he know?
“I’m Eddie.” Eddie says, and sits down gingerly on the swing next to him. “Thanks for saving me.”
“No prob, dude, you looked like you needed to get outta there.”
“Even so.” Eddie says, and smiles, just a little bit. “What’s your name?”
He’s eleven years old, and by the end of the afternoon, he likes the new boy more than anyone else he’s ever met.
He’s twelve years old and he’s carving names into the kissing bridge, hoping no-one will see.
He’s thirteen years old and he’s turning Eddie’s head towards him so he doesn’t see when the clown kills them both.
He’s fifteen and he’s saying dare because the opposite is so much worse.
He’s sixteen and sleepily making out on the floor of the clubhouse.
He’s seventeen and he’s leaving Derry, hugging Eddie tightly one more time before his goes, wishing and wanting and regretting.
He’s eighteen, he’s 25, he’s 34, he’s 38 -
He’s forty and he’s making small talk with Eddie’s wife at Eddie’s funeral, hating that he’s alive and Eddie isn’t.
“Were you two close?” The wife says, and dabs away a tear with the smallest of handkerchiefs.
He doesn’t know what to say.