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make this cold world beautiful (with every seed you sow)

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“Holy shit,” Richie says. “It’s, like, hot here.”

“Don’t you fucking live in California?” Eddie asks, frowning. His eyes are twinkling and Richie grins at him, opening up his mouth again.

Exasperation wells up, tight and sudden, in Stan’s chest, but he shoves it back. It’s not their fault that it’s been so— that Stan is so— and it’s— 

Anyway. It’s not their fault. 

That doesn’t stop Stan from snapping, “of course it’s fucking hot, Richie, it’s Georgia.”

He kicks at the dirt path to keep himself from swinging at Richie. Over them, the oak trees stretch their long arms into the sky, waving comfortably in the hot wind. It’s warm, almost oppressively muggy, and it feels like home. Stan takes deep breaths and feels the heat settle on his shoulders, feels his hair coil into tighter curls now that they’re all out of their cars. 

They’ve been driving for a long time, all of them crammed together into a huge rental van, and it felt just like being kids again. Richie stealing Stan’s licorice even though he insists that licorice is a fucking horrible candy, man, and Eddie and him ganging up to bully Richie into five fucking minutes of silence, and then Bill stirring the pot and goading Richie into speaking again, Ben and Mike laughing while Bev hollered at them from the front seat. All of them took turns picking songs from their phones, took turns driving. 

And now they’re here, and now Stan is almost home. All Stan wants is to go home.

But none of them fucking understand that. 

Eddie snorts and Bill frowns, furrowing his brow at Stan. Mike nudges his arm against Bill’s and Bill's frown disappears, there and gone quick as lightning, defenseless against Mike Hanlon's sunshine smile. Stan rolls his eyes. When Ben claps a hand on his shoulder, he jumps, and Bev looks at him closely.

“We could put it off,” she offers. She bites her lip, her eyes big and cautious like they almost never are. She’s nervous for him, he realizes. “Or you could just call, instead of showing up out of the blue.”

Eddie’s head whips around and suddenly all the Losers are staring at him, identical cautious looks on their faces. It’s sweet, even while it makes anxiety and impatience squeeze around Stan’s lungs. 

“Yeah, Stan,” Eddie says, stepping forward then back, all pent up energy. “Yeah, you don’t have to go back, you know? I mean, not if you don’t want to. Of course we’re not going to stop you if you do. It’s just…”

Eddie and Bev trade looks, pain-filled and defiant and so, so them that Stan feels his mouth twitch even while his hands flex. 

“We’re here for you, Staniel,” Richie nods, and Bill jumps in right after, saying, “yuh-yeah, St-Stan, we’ve got y-you,” his eyes big and empathetic. Mike gazes at him, as warm as he’s always been, and Stan loves them so much. He really does.

But he also kind of hates them right now.

“Why the fuck would I not want to go back to my wife who currently thinks I’m dead because of some fucking magic shit—” 

Bill and Richie throw their hands up like chill out, man, and Ben and Mike furrow their brows in apology. Bev just frowns at him. 

“We’re just offering,” she argues. “I mean, we don’t exactly… the seven of us don’t exactly have good track records, you know? As far as marriages go. We just thought you’d like the out.”

“Yeah, man, this is a judgement-free zone,” Richie adds. “I mean, why settle for three divorced Losers when we can have four?”

“I am not getting a divorce,” Stan spits, even while fear grabs and holds him.

He doesn’t want a fucking divorce, but what if Patty— what if he— 

Stan’s messed up a lot in his life. He has. He failed out of OChem in college, because OChem was hell, and he fucked up his taxes when he was twenty-five and then had IRS knocking on his door, and he spilled orange soda on Patty’s dress when he was nineteen and taking her out for only the second time. He killed his roommate’s goldfish freshman year accidentally, and he’s had bad days and shouted at his employees before, because sometimes he gets wound up so tight he can’t help but snap. He’s messed up a lot. He has.

He’s just never messed up like this. 

He just fucking— he’d blanked out. He hadn’t been thinking, he hadn’t, because if he was he wouldn’t have ever— he’d left her. He’d left all of them, his parents and the Losers and everyone, but Patty was the one he’d promised the rest of his life to. Patty was the one he’d been with for… shit, twenty-two years. He’s been with her twenty-two years. He’d been with her for more than half his life, and he’d left her. He’d just left. He hadn’t been thinking. 

Patty was the one who found him.

Now that he’s thinking again, it’s all he can think about. He hadn’t… he’d already been gone, by then, or at least close to it, because he can’t remember her finding him. He can’t remember anything beyond waking up beneath the green quarry water, hands pulling him to the surface, and then being surrounded by the other Losers while he and Eddie coughed up all the water in their lungs. And it was… it was so good to see them, so good to be alive, all the fear fallen off his shoulders like Atlas finally setting down the sky. He felt lighter than air, giddy to see them, and they’d stayed up all night together, the seven of them, Lucky Seven, laughing and chasing each other around the hotel like they were all just kids again. Him borrowing Richie's clothes, because his were wet and dirty, just like when they were twelve.

One day had turned into two had turned into three, none of them wanting to break the little bubble they were in. The seven of them were magic together. They all felt it. 

Ben was the one to gently nudge them back to reality. Except none of them… none of them had wanted to leave. And Stan hadn’t said anything, either. He couldn’t. Every time he thought about leaving fear took him over, paralyzed him. Well, not fear. It felt so similar to fear it was hard to differentiate it, but it wasn’t fear. It was guilt. Horrible, overwhelming, overpowering guilt. It was so strong he couldn’t even pick up the phone. Couldn’t call and talk to anyone, not his parents, not his work, not even Patty.

And alright, he’d dragged his feet coming back, the same as Eddie and Bev and Bill. And, fine, he can kind of get why they think his marriage is… like theirs. Unhappy at least, abusive at worst. He gets it. He’d probably think it too. 

But it’s not. It’s not, it’s not, Patty is— Patty is his sunshine, his every good day, the best decision he’s ever made. It’s a miracle she loves him, barux hashem, she loves him just as much as he loves her. He’s forty years old and with her he feels nineteen again, feels giddy and steady and held all at once. Patty, his babylove, has never once been… whatever the Losers think she is. 

He just can’t find the fucking words to tell them that. Every time he tries the guilt chokes him. And so it’s been like this the whole drive: his friends trying to find him ways out, Bev and Eddie pulling him away from the others and saying, listen, Stan, it’s alright to be afraid— I was afraid for a long time, too. But if I can leave, you can. We can do it together, alright?

And Stan, cowardly as he’s always fucking been, couldn’t do anything other than hug them, and tell them he was so proud of them, that they’re so brave and always have been, but really, guys, he’s fine. He’s happy. 

It’s no wonder none of them fucking believe him. 

“How about we grab breakfast first?” Mike says, his hand resting on the back of Bill’s neck. Bill stretches into it like a cat. “It’ll give everyone some time to freshen up.”

Now that Stan is in Georgia, back in the heat and under the big old trees, all he wants is to go home for real. To climb up his front steps and step over the creaky part of the porch he keeps promising Patty he’ll fix and collapse in his own bed, his nose in Patty’s hair.

“Guh-great idea, Mikey,” Bill says, firm and confident and embarrassingly fond. Stan’s heart squeezes looking at them. 

Richie and Eddie grab at each other, arguing about where they’ll eat, completely ignoring the rest of them, just shoving into each others’ space and staying there. Richie bends down, his shoulders hunching up, and Eddie stands up straight, like looking at Richie makes him feel strong, bigger than he is. 

“What’s near here, Stan?” Ben asks. Bev quirks a brow at him, leaning into Ben’s side. Ben’s face lights, his eyes twinkling merrily, joyfully surprised. Glancing up, Bev grins, wide and mischievous, before wiping the expression off her face until she’s all cool flirtation again, just like when they were kids.

Stan sighs, deep and long, and shakes his head ruefully. He runs his hand through his hair and, for a split second, is shocked not to find a yarmulke. He takes one breath, then another, and firmly packs away his guilt and fear into a box and sets it aside. 

“We’re in the fucking middle of town, just pick somewhere.”

“What do you like, though? Is there somewhere you like to go?” Ben pries, gentle, his eyes measuring. Bev glances at Eddie and then back at Stan. 

Stan sighs for so long he thinks he’ll deflate like a balloon. “There’s a cafe up here,” he says, defeated. “Has great breakfast.”

Ben grins, sunny and bright, and for a split second Stan can see the boy he was. 

“Hey,” Bev calls, sharp. Eddie and Richie freeze while Mike and Bill calmly look over. “Stan says there’s a good cafe up ahead.”

“Well, lay on, Macduff,” Richie says, eyebrows raised. 

“When the fuck did you read Shakespeare?” Eddie asks.

Stan rolls his eyes.

He's braced for an argument to start, except one never comes. On the short walk to the cafe, everyone is quiet. They’re looking around, wide-eyed, at the place Stan has called home for twenty years, and a strange pride and excitement comes over him. He feels like he’s a kid again, and bringing his friends up to his room, pulling down toys and books and posters, explaining where he got them and where he keeps them. It’s a weird feeling. He can’t keep his mouth from moving, though. 

“Oh, there’s a little boutique over here— it just opened up a couple months ago, Bev I think you’d love it— Ben and Bill too, actually— it’s all sorts of craft stuff, art supplies, you know. Shit, and here’s the best bookstore within thirty miles. Patty says it’s not but I know it is because when I asked them to order the new Art of Ornithology edition they didn’t even blink.”

“That’s great, Stan,” Bev says, blinking quickly. Her eyes look a little wet. 

Richie is gazing at him, his eyes soft, and Stan doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to this older, significantly more mellow version of Richie. He’s just… more gentle. A little softer. Him and Eddie both are. Stan doesn’t know if that’s because of IT or if it’s just age. It’s nice to see, though.

“You sound like you’re happy here,” Mike says. 

“Oh,” Stan says, a little taken aback. “Yeah.”

And he does like Georgia, mostly. Well, he likes the town he lives in. He likes the kids, likes the way his neighbors know him and know Patty, likes how shul is always busy because the town they live in has a statistically above average Jewish population. It’s just… it’s home. He doesn’t think about it, usually. 

“Yeah,” Stan says again. “I’m really happy here.” And he smiles, too. 

Mike lets go of Bill to toss an arm over Stan’s shoulders and says, “I’m glad, Stan-the-Man.”

They walk into the cafe, a little place that opened up ten years ago that serves great pancakes and good coffee and mediocre eggs. Patty gets the eggs every week on their breakfast dates anyway, because she insists that one week they’ll be good. She lives in hope, his babylove does.

He misses Patty. He misses her. All he wants is to be home. 

Mike gives him a little shake and Stan blinks himself back to his body. The Losers are gazing at him, concerned, and Eddie blurts, “we can go somewhere else,” like he thinks the cafe upset him. 

“What?” Stan asks. “No, it’s fine, I just—”

There’s a gasp, then a cut-off shriek, and then the sound of shattering glass. 

All the Losers jump, grabbing at each other, catching fistfulls of shirts and curling inward like they’re at a haunted house. They spin around like they’re one person, or a flock of birds flying in unison. 

And it’s just—

“Mister Uris?”

—Emily Peterson. Just little Emily Peterson, who Stan should really stop thinking of as little, because she’s sixteen now, nevermind the fact that Emily took Patty’s weekend art classes for almost ten years and is near an honorary Uris.

Patty started the lessons forever ago, teaches them on Sunday afternoons out of their home. She’s got the basement all set up, two long tables covered in disposable cloths, kids’ drawings hanging everywhere. Stan teases her about it sometimes, says, don’t you get sick of it, teaching them five days a week and then doing this?  

She says the same thing every time, always laughs and says, yes, the same way I get sick of seeing you every damn day, Stanley Uris. 

She never means it. She doesn’t get sick of the kids, and she doesn’t get sick of Stan, not ever. Not in twenty years. 

Stan always ended up down there, too, handing out wet wipes and cleaning up faces and ooh-ing and aah-ing over colored pencil drawings of dragons and rainbows and mommies and daddies. 

Emily’s eyes are big and watering. Her hands are clapped over her mouth, dishes laying shattered at her feet, and as he watches, tears slip out of her eyes and over her freckled cheeks. She looks just like she did at six years old, when she thought her parents forgot her at the school and Stan and Patty sat with her for half an hour before her mom showed up, harried and apologetic and frantic all at once. They have Annabelle, Emily’s mom, over for dinner at least once a month.

It hits Stan all over again, what he did. All the people he must have hurt, everything falling over like dominos, and it’s all Stan’s fault. He feels like he can’t breathe. The guilt comes on so strongly it almost tips him over— maybe it would have, if Mike wasn’t still clutching his shirt, if Bev didn’t still have her arm locked around his. 

Richie’s voice drifts across his brain, fierce and loving: nobody blames you, Stan-the-Man. We love you so much. Nobody blames you, alright?

Which is fine. Stan blames himself enough for everyone. 

“Emily,” Stan blurts, shaking off Mike and Bev and stepping forward, stopping her from trying to pick up the shattered glasses with shaking hands. She’s crying, big, rolling, silent tears slipping down her cheeks. She looks like she’s in shock. 

“Mister Uris?” She says again, even though Stan told her she could call him by his name when she turned fourteen. 

“Come on and sit down, Emily, no, leave that, come on,” Stan says, guiding her onto a chair. The rest of the cafe is near silent, people craning their heads and staring, a couple people gasping in recognition.

Stan’s town isn’t crazy small, or anything, but it’s small enough. He’s sure news of his miraculous recovery will be everywhere before dinner. He doesn’t turn to look at the Losers. He can’t, not when Emily is sobbing. She falls forward into his chest and Stan rubs down her back gently, blinking back his own tears. 

“St-uh-Stan?” Bill says, hesitant. 

Stan doesn’t look back, just shakes his head. Emily shakes and shakes. 

“What the hell is going on out here?” Someone says, banging out of the kitchen, and Stan knows that voice, too. It’s David, who comes to shul every friday and talks Stan’s ear off about the high school football games every damn week. 

Stan sighs and leans back as far as he can. Emily’s got him in a death-grip. 

“Stanley?” David blurts, shocked. He goes sheet pale and fumbles for a chair. He clutches the back of it, white-knuckled. 

“Hey, Dave,” Stan sighs. Emily hiccups. 

For a long time, nobody moves. The other Losers are silent, but Stan feels them behind him, six steady and bolstering presences. The diner is quiet enough Stan bets he could hear a pin drop. 

“Your funeral is tomorrow,” David says, blinking. He says it the way he would say fucking rain, huh? in May. 

“Oh,” Stan says. 

“How did you— holy shit— baruch Hashem— Stanley Uris, does your wife know where you’ve been? Fuck, I sound like my bubbie—” 

“Maybe we should sit down,” Eddie says, pulling up a table. 

Richie and Ben corral David into the chair. He collapses with his elbows on his knees, staring at Stan unblinkingly.

“Fuck,” David says, with feeling. 

“Fuck,” Stan agrees. Emily rubs her nose on his shirt the same way she did when she was eight and skinned her knee running to tell Patty about her new kitten. 

Emily lifts her head off his chest and stares up at him. Stan ducks his head, ashamed, and shudders out a heavy breath. Behind him, he senses Bev creep up and set a hand on his shoulder, gently steering him back from Emily. She settles in the chair next to Emily while Stan wipes his eyes on his shoulder, trying not to look like he’s doing it.

“Stan?” Richie says, quietly. 

Eddie creeps up and rests one hand on the center of Stan’s back and the other on Richie’s. Bill takes a step closer and suddenly, it’s the four of them huddling together the same way they did at eight years old. His oldest friends surrounding him. 

Slowly, Ben and Mike creep around them, pushing them into chairs before pulling up their own. Gently, the cafe’s handful of customers start talking again, their voices rising in a crescendo until everything is back to normal. Everything except Stan. 

Stan feels like he can’t breathe. His hands are shaking, shaking so much a silly, childish part of his brain thinks maybe they’ll fall off. They don’t, of course. 

“How…?” David croaks. 

Stan laughs, a harsh bark of a thing. The Losers all flinch. “It was a fucking… a fucking hospital mixup, Dave. Fucking paperwork,” Stan says slowly, telling his cover-story for the first time. “I went in and I was, uh, in rough shape. Unconscious for a long time. That same night, the same time, some other bastard came in with the same fucking… problem as me. Same, you know,” he can’t find the words. He brings his arms up and gestures to his wrists instead.

David nods, slow, his eyes dark and sad. He looks years older than he did five minutes before. 

“But, uh, he died. And I didn’t. It was hell to sort out when I woke up,” Stan finishes, the lie feeling awkward and heavy on his tongue.

Emily makes another wet choking noise. Bev cautiously reaches out and grabs her shoulder. 

“Good thing you showed up when you did,” David says, trying desperately to smile and not quite managing it. “Would’ve been out a hell of a lot of money, let me tell you that. Funerals are fucking expensive.” 

Emily makes a gasping noise and Stan looks at her, wanting desperately to make her feel better, except it turns out she’s laughing. She’s rounded a corner, from shocked, to grieved, to finally euphorically relieved. 

“I can’t believe Mrs. Patty let you out of her sight,” Emily gasps, swiping under her eyes. Her makeup is running, and she has mascara and glitter eyeshadow down her cheeks. 

Stan’s heart leaps in his chest, because he wants Patty with him so badly it feels like wanting air. It feels like floating under the quarry, lungs aching, and not knowing up from down. Stan takes a big breath, licks his lips, and staunchly avoids the Losers’ eyes on him. 

“I can’t believe you call her Mrs. Patty but refuse to call me anything other than Mr. Uris,” Stan grumbles, voice hoarse. 

“You’re just more— official! I can’t call you Mr. Stanley,” Emily protests, like it’s absurd. “It’s a sign of respect!”

“It is not,” Stan says, mouth twitching. “You like to annoy me.”

Emily giggles and across the table Richie gives a loud, honking laugh. 

For the first time, David seems to realize who’s sitting in his restaurant. He looks between Richie, and Bev, and Bill, and finally Ben, and his mouth drops open.

 “Holy shit,” David blurts. “You’re Richie Tozier— and— fuck, the werewolf book guy, I’m sorry, I can’t quite—”

Stan snorts so hard snot almost comes out of his nose. “They’re shitty books, anyway,” Stan tells David, peacefully.

“I know you like them,” Emily says, rolling her eyes.

“Yes, but Mrs. Patty doesn’t, and she’s got better taste than me,” Stan grins. 

Eddie glances at Bill and starts chuckling. Bill’s got a pinched look on his face, and Mike grins when he sees it, too. Ben finally relaxes and Bev grins, easily, when Richie says, “this is more like it, here we go, loosen up, folks, we’re here for some breakfast—”

Everything moves in double-time, after that. Emily leaps up and takes their orders, hustling to the back and toward the kitchen where a couple of her friends, two girls Stan vaguely recognizes and who Patty would probably know by name, stick their heads out to grin at him widely. David stays sitting with them, completely taken in by Richie, and then by Richie and Eddie’s fighting, and then by Bill’s excited speech about contemporary horror. 

After their plates are cleared, and Emily is shooed back to work by repeated reassurances from Stan, David leans back in his chair and gazes at Stan with steady, dark eyes. Stan’s heart drops in his chest. 

“Emily's right, though, Stanley,” David says. "I can't believe Patty let you out of her sight." He taps his pointer finger against the table three times, then raises a brow. His hair is more gray than brown, and it glows in the morning light from the windows. 

David knows. He knows David knows. David knows Stan knows he knows. 

Stan’s heart is beating so fast it feels like it will burst out of his chest, a living thing with a mind of its own. He feels so, so guilty. Stan licks his lips but can’t open his mouth. He feels thirteen again, feels like he’s staring at his father from across their kitchen after his bar mitzvah and trying to explain himself. 

Richie runs his mouth before Stan can say anything. 

“We just got back in town, actually, you know— from the hospital. Came with Stan! We made him stop for breakfast, tummies were a-grumbling, you know how it is,” Richie blurts, arms waving and frenetic. His eyes are careful, though. Richie’s always been so smart. 

“You haven’t seen her yet,” David breathes. And then his brow furrows, his eyes flashing, and there it is, there it is— anger. Finally, finally, someone is angry with him. Stan is almost relieved. “Stanley Uris, you’ve never been the type of man that—”

Beside Stan, Ben tenses, but David cuts himself off before Ben can interject. “No, Stanley, I’m sorry. I’m sure you’ve had a hell of a week.”

Bill snorts, sudden and abrupt. “O-one hell of a wuh-week, ye-eah.” The other Losers’ mouths twitch in agreement, and Eddie laughs. 

But David ignores them. He keeps gazing at Stan, his eyes dark and searching, and Stan doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to say— he wants to defend himself, but there’s really no defending this, is there? He’s let Patty think he’s dead for… too long. Days. She'd been making funeral arrangements and— and for what? Fucking nothing. For nothing. What has Stan been doing? Having fucking sleepovers like he’s in middle school, like he’s not forty with a job and a wife and people who miss him. 

The seven of them are selfish, when they get together. He’s always known that in the back of his head. But it never seemed to matter: what did they care about the rest of the world? The whole world could fuck off: jobs and bills and adult responsibilities could fucking walk off a cliff, for all they cared. 

They’re all such fucking assholes. 

Well, alright. Maybe they get a pass: fighting a demon clown and dealing with magical amnesia and being brought back from the dead should maybe get a pass. 

So maybe it’s just Stan who’s the asshole.

Stan’s just the asshole who couldn’t find the fucking— the fucking chutzpah to pick up the phone and call. It’s the worst thing he’s ever done. Because he knows what David was going to say, knows it like he knows the back of his own hand, or knows how Bev’s hair looks in the sun, or knows the patterns of Bill’s stutter, or the way Richie’s glasses fog up in the cold. Knows it like he knows Eddie’s frantic movements, knows Mike’s warm smell, knows Ben’s gentle smile. 

He knows it like he knows Patty: how she crinkles her nose in the morning, how she takes her coffee, how she’s afraid of the ocean, how she never checks the expiration labels on the food in their fridge. He knows how she cries, knows she doesn’t like to be touched when she’s puking, knows she’ll drink wine until she drops but refuses to touch a beer. He knows what her face looks like when she fights with her mom, knows how she yells when she’s angry, knows what she looks like when she comes. He knows her inside and out and she knows him the same. 

He knows all this: Stan’s made a habit of knowing things. He’s done it his whole life. 

And so he knows what David was going to say.

You’ve never been the type of man that treats his wife like this.

“I don’t know what to tell her,” Stan says, his head hanging low. He wants to ask David what he should do, because David’s a handful of years older than Stan and still happily married. He thinks David is maybe the only one at this table who could tell him something useful. Come on, Stan thinks, give me something. Tell me how to fix this, because I’ve been trying for days and coming up with jack fucking shit. I’m coming up fucking blank, man. 

“Telling her you’re alive would be a good start,” David says, frowning. “Have you even called her?”

“It’s been a big week,” Mike says, frowning at David. “If he needed time, we were gonna give him time.” Around the table, a ripple of nods and glares come from the Losers— Bev and Eddie look particularly fierce.

David looks thoroughly unimpressed. “And these assholes have been letting you put this off? That’s fucking enabling, do you know that?” David glares at them.

And Stan’s starting to get a headache, because everyone is coming at this from completely separate angles. Richie, Ben, and Mike never really moved past Derry— never even really tried. Mike, at least, gets a pass: it’d be impossible to move past Derry while still literally inside it. Mike is a good man, a brave man, and more courageous than any of them. But he doesn’t get it. Ben and Richie sure as shit don’t, either; it’s damn near impossible for them to imagine a happy, fulfilling life outside of their childhood friendships. Like, if it’s not the Losers, what’s the point?

God, Derry fucked them all up so fucking much. 

And Bev and Eddie and Bill… well, the less said about Bev and Eddie’s marriages the fucking better. It probably says something, that they both started divorce proceedings within days of re-gaining a safety net of people who loved them. It says a lot— none of it good. 

For a while, Stan hoped Bill would get it, because Bill was married, and called his wife a handful of times, even if they mostly seemed to argue. All that went out the window when Stan, freshly undead and tucked in bed next to Richie and Eddie, had swiped Ben’s phone and googled a picture of Audra. And all Stan’s hope had vanished like magic: poof

And then, of course, the mating dances had started— all of them colorful, and unique, and so fucking awkard it was like birdwatching all over again. Richie and Eddie, Ben and Bev, Mike and Bill. Stan is so, so happy for them; he is. 

But… no. No, none of them get it. 

But David fucking thinks they do. David thinks they’re all normal, well-adjusted people, and doesn’t understand how they don’t understand allowing your friend to procrastinate calling his wife of twenty years and telling her that, whoops, honey, the doctors actually screwed up the paperwork, and I’m fine and alive, is not something that should be done. Not ever. 

And David knows Patty, too, knows Patty and Stan together. David knows Patty because Patty was his daughter’s third grade teacher, knows Patty because her and Stan have come to this cafe every weekend for ten years. They all go to shul together. David knows Patty is… is everything to him, knows Stan took to marriage like a duck to water, knows that him and Patty were college sweethearts who annoy everyone around them because, after twenty years, they have graduated from finishing each others’ sentences to not needing to speak at all. 

“You’re better than that, Stanley,” David finally says. “What were you thinking? What the hell were you thinking?”

“There wasn’t much thinking,” Stan says, rueful and desperate and sorrowful. What’s the point in lying about it? He wasn’t thinking. “I wasn’t thinking, it was all… all just feeling. I was embarrassed, I guess. And guilty. So embarrassed and guilty I just couldn’t, uh, couldn’t pick up the phone. Fuck, that sounds so stupid, now that I say it out loud.” 

“Embarrassed about…” David trails off and then raises his hands, gesturing to his wrists.

Stan lets out a honking laugh, goose-like and loud. “Yeah, about the—” He copies David’s gesture.

“Well that’s stupid,” David spits. “And you’re not a stupid man. You’re a man who needs some therapy, sure, but you’re not stupid. But not calling Patty? Not telling her you’re alive? That’s stupid in ways I’ve never seen before, Uris.” 

Stan ducks his head, nodding, and tugs on his curls anxiously. 

David’s voice goes gentle. “Nobody’s mad at you for…” He waves his wrists again. “And Patty won’t be, either. Nobody could be. We love you too much for that. But, holy shit, Stanley, is Patty going to be furious at you for not calling.”

“It’s just not really something you can communicate over the phone,” Stan defends weakly, because he knows it's no excuse. It's nothing. 

David huffs. “It is a bitch of a situation you’ve found yourself in,” he allows. 

The Losers have been quiet for a suspicious amount of time. Stan chances a glance at them: Eddie and Bev are frowning, looking thoughtful, and Richie looks ready to dig his heels in and defend Stan until the cows come home. Bill looks like he’d help. But Mike and Ben, thank fuck, Hashem yevarech, Mike and Ben look contrite, look rueful. Stan always knew Mike and Ben were the most well adjusted of them.

“Do you know where…” Stan starts, then stops. Of course David doesn’t, why the fuck would David know? They’re friends but they’re not close, and David is certainly not someone Patty would grieve with, certainly not someone Patty would lean on too heavily in the event of her husband’s suicide, fuck. Dying must have turned him into Richie, Stan’s never been this emotionally inconsiderate in his life.

“No, Uris, I don’t know where your wife is,” David says, twitching his eyebrow. “I’d try your house first.”

“Of course, you’re right, Dave, sorry. Of course you’re right,” Stan sighs. His mouth twitches. “Thanks anyway.”

“You bastard,” David snorts. “Get outta here. Go, go, or I’m calling Patty for you.”

David means it, too. Stan can tell. His heart drops in his chest and he stands up so fast his chair almost falls over. Fumbling, he catches the back of it before it can crash to the ground. The Losers all glance at each other before standing, too, and tossing a fucking millionaire-amount of cash onto the table. None of them seem to care that they’re giving away more money than they need to. David doesn’t look like he’s going to tell them, either, and despite himself, Stan laughs. 

“Dave, I just— thank you, for—” He starts, but David cuts him off with a crushing hug. 

Stan grabs him back just as tight, suddenly realizing that he’ll have a lot more of this in his future. People seeing him, back from the dead, and crying and laughing and scolding him and hugging him close. Coworkers, cousins, people from shul, Patty’s weekend art-class kids. His in-laws and parents and two little nephews from Patty’s side of the family. All of these people. 

“Get the fuck out of here, Uris,” David says, letting him go with a little shake. “Give Patty a kiss for me. No, actually, scratch that— put a fuckin’ smile back on her face for me, alright?”

Stan laughs but it feels more like crying. It hurts so much to think of Patty, vibrant and energetic and joyful Patty, as anything other than happy. She’s always been his sunshine, his outgoing other half. His better half, really. He’s always been a bit too sarcastic, a little too… he doesn’t know what to call it. Defensive, maybe. Distant. Derry left its scars, after all, even if they weren’t always visible. Even if he couldn’t remember them. 

Patty’s always been… Patty is always so cheerful, so effortlessly bubbly, even when she isn’t. Stan’s always been swept away by it. She puts the stars in his eyes, Patty does. His babylove. 

He wants to be home. He wants to go home. 

Stan starts toward the door before remembering he didn’t say goodbye to David properly. When he glances back, David just waves him forward, rolling his eyes, and Stan starts walking again. He doesn’t look back. 

The Losers scramble behind him, streaming out the door as Stan power-walks back to the van. 

“Stan?” Eddie asks, cautiously.

Stan doesn’t look back. 

“H-ey, St-St-Stan,” Bill says, a little nervous. 

“Come on, man, just hold on a second,” Richie says. “Can you talk to us? You’re freaking out.”

“No, Richie, I will not just hold on a second!” Stan snaps, whirling around. “I want to go home! I want to see my wife! Were you even fucking listening in there?”

“Just… just take a breath, man,” Richie coaxes. “Come on, it’s— cards on the table, alright? We’re concerned about you going back home. Because, uh, precedent shows that it’s something that, uh… deserves a second thought. Okay?”

Stan stands there, completely silent and fuming. He can’t find his fucking words, he’s so mad. Everything is red, suddenly, and he hazily thinks that someone’s going to have to hold him back; this is the bad part of feeling like a kid when he’s with them. All his fucking adult problem solving goes straight out the window.

He lunges, Richie throwing his arms up, and Bev scoffs, saying, “come on, guys, Jesus, are we really doing this here?” 

Ben catches him around the waist, Mike grabbing his shoulder, and Bill comes up to hold Richie, just in case Richie is mad, too. What the fuck Richie would have to be mad about, Stan doesn’t fucking know. 

“Okay, can we cool it?” Ben huffs, and Mike grunts in agreement. 

Stan kicks his legs out, childishly trying to hit Richie, before giving it up as a lost cause and shoving Mike and Ben away. He straightens out his shirt and re-cuffs his sleeves while everyone stares at him. 

“Can we all fucking use our big boy words?” Eddie spits, glaring at Stan, his palm against Richie’s chest. “Jesus fucking Christ, dude.”

“One hundred percent honesty?” Bev asks, digging in her purse for a cigarette. Her hand shakes when she pulls one out. “Here, I’ll use little fucking words: Stan, we are concerned about your safety. Me and Eddie were in… bad marriages for a long time. You haven’t talked much about your marriage. We want to be sure you’re not going back to a situation you shouldn’t. Okay? Can you fucking act like an adult, maybe?”

Stan snaps. Something in him just— just fucking snaps, like a rubber-band pulled too tight. He feels just like he did at his bar mitzvah, when he wrenched the microphone away from his dad and started cussing the whole synagogue out. 

“No, you guys fucking be adults, holy shit— why don’t you understand that people don’t do this, okay? People don’t just— just not call their wives for days after they’ve been assumed dead, okay, they don’t fucking run off and leave their jobs and their responsibilities and— and I didn’t fix the fucking porch, okay, and I said I would but I didn’t, and I’ve got to go and fix it— and I missed Sunday art class— and my fucking puzzle wasn’t finished, and Patty’s been making funeral arrangements—”

All of that was close to incoherent but Stan can’t fucking breathe. The more he talks the more worked up he gets, until all the Losers are crowding close to him, their hands on his back and shoulders, holding him up.

And then, finally, the crux of it, the fucking source of his anger and guilt comes bleeding out of him, oozing, weeping:

“I left her,” he finally chokes out. “I left her alone, I love her so much and I left her alone, how could I do that? I love her, why would I do that? I didn’t mean to do that, I wasn’t thinking— I left her alone.”

He’s crying, now, full-blown sobs, his shoulders shaking and his voice cracking when he speaks. He squeaks a handful of times, like he’s years and years younger, and he can feel the Losers trembling around him, too. 

“It’s okay, Stan, it’s okay—” Eddie says, frantic, his voice shaking. 

“Stan, it’s going to be alright—” Richie says fearfully. 

Bill sets his forehead against Stan’s shoulder and holds him tighter. Bev crowds in, too, and Ben comes in behind her. Mike swallows the six of them up in his strong arms, just as strong as they were when he was a farm boy instead of a librarian. 

Stan cries himself dry, cries like he maybe should’ve when he woke up in the quarry. They all do; big, shoulder-shaking sobs come bursting out of their chests in the middle of the street. Hands grasp at him, white-knuckling closer until they’re all breathing each others’ air. Eddie is squished into the center alongside Stan, the both of them being pawed at like the other Losers are making sure they’re still alive. Still there and breathing. Stan lowers his head onto Eddie’s shoulder and cries harder.

After a while, a long time, probably, they begin to untangle themselves. Richie lifts his glasses up and scrubs his cheek on his shoulder. Eddie frowns and grabs Richie’s glasses from him then cleans them on his shirt. He places them gently back onto Richie’s nose, and Richie grabs his hand, kissing his fingers in thanks. 

Knuckling under his eyes, Stan takes a couple deep, trembling breaths. Bill kisses his shoulder and then pulls away, walking to Mike and then near collapsing on top of him. Mike takes his weight easily, as steady and dependable as he always is. 

Bev reaches for Ben’s hand and Ben catches it, twining their fingers together carefully, and so gently it almost hurts to watch. Stan shuts his eyes and blows out another breath, long and settling. 

“Alright,” Stan says. “I could have handled that better.” 

Richie laughs, loud and sudden, and shakes his head. “It’s fine,” Richie tells him. “If it wasn’t you, it would’ve been someone else. We were due for a fight, I think.”

“And a group breakdown,” Eddie adds wryly. 

Bev grins and soon they’re all giggling, Bill snorting and Ben chuckling, Mike laughing a deep rumbling laugh that Stan’s never heard before. Eddie and Richie are leaning on each other, holding each other up. 

“Can we talk now?” Ben grins.

“Can I use my big boy words now, you mean?” Stan sighs, smiling ruefully. 

“Wuh-well, you s-suh-said it,” Bill tells him, still half laughing.

“Eddie said it first, actually,” Stan grins, and then presses his hands over his eyes. 

The Losers quiet down and go still. Stan knows they’re all looking at him, knows they’re waiting on him. None of them are going to interrupt, this time. 

“I love my wife,” Stan says, because it’s a good place to start, and sometimes it’s the only thing he can think about. He loves Patty, he loves her, loves her, loves her. Loves her so much that it scares him, sometimes— he doesn’t know what he’d do without her.

“We know, Stan,” Eddie soothes, hands out in front of him, but Stan shakes his head.

“No, not like— I love her, alright?” Stan fists his hands in his hair and tugs a little, frustrated with himself. “I love her so much. Did you know I met her at a frat party?” 

“What?” Richie blinks. “Really?”

Bill and Mike blink at him, confused, and Bev and Eddie are still watching him closely, but a slow smile is creeping over Ben’s face. 

“Yes, really, Richie, I went to parties in college,” Stan says tartly. “No, that’s not the point— I met her at that party, and by the end of it I knew I wanted to marry her. Patty is… there’s never been anyone else. Alright? Patty’s my whole fucking— Patty is my every good day.” Stan takes his hands out from his hair and twists them together nervously in front of his chest. If he could just make them understand...  

“There’s never been anyone else, not in my whole life,” he repeats.

“Oh,” Richie breathes. He blinks fast. Next to him, Eddie looks similarly pole-axed. 

“Why di-i-idn’t you juh-ust say t-that, then, St-Stuh-Stan?” Bill asks, frowning. 

“We would’ve— we would’ve understood,” Ben says, his eyes hang-dog and soulful.

“Believe me, we really fucking would’ve,” Richie grouses. 

Stan laughs and swipes under his eyes again. “It was just… I don’t know. I felt like I didn’t… I felt like I couldn’t. Like I didn’t have the right to— to talk about loving her. You know?”

Bev frowns and reaches out to touch Stan’s arm. “What do you mean?”

“I left her,” Stan says, simply.

“But you came back,” Bev responds.

Stan shakes his head. “But I meant it to be forever.”

The Losers, as one, give a full-body flinch. Bev sighs, deep and long. “What do we have to do to convince you we forgive you? Stan, it’s not something… it’s not something you have to apologize for. But if you need to hear it, we’ll tell you we forgive you for the next twenty-seven years.” Her eyes are big and green and sad. 

Stan’s eyes sting. He licks his lips. “I don’t…”

“We’re not who you need to hear it from,” Mike realizes, his voice soft.

“No,” Stan says. He tugs on his hair again. “I don’t want to be forgiven. I want someone— I want someone to be fucking angry.”

“Why would we be angry?” Ben asks, the same moment Richie says, “well, shit, Staniel, I can be angry if you want.”

“Richie,” Eddie and Mike hiss. 

“No, you know what? If it’s honesty hour, I’m gonna be honest!” Richie says, his eyes sparking. “I’m fucking pissed at you, man! I’m fucking pissed at you for— for—”

“I know,” Stan says, hanging his head. 

“No, you don’t, asshole, because I’m not mad at you for— for being whatever you think you were. A coward, or whatever. No, I’m mad because I fucking love you, okay? I’m mad because I’m scared, and I don’t want to be without you, because we’re friends and I fucking love you!”  

Stan doesn’t know what to say. He blinks very fast. His eyes are stinging again, welling up with tears. Suddenly, he realizes he’s shaking, his whole body trembling like a leaf in the fall. 

“We love you, you fucking asshole,” Richie says, and he’s crying, too. They’re all crying again. 

“Okay,” Stan sniffs. 

“Okay?” Richie says, stepping up to him and grabbing him by the back of his neck, all fierce anger and love. 

“Okay,” Stan says, then throws his arms around Richie. 

And then they’re all hugging again, except this time it’s… cleaner, somehow. Like all of the horrible hurting inside them is a lanced boil, like all the horrible uncertainty and desperation is oozing out of them. Bill is under his left arm, Richie on his right, Eddie squeezed in against his front. Bev is at his back, her arms around his waist, and Ben and Mike are surrounding them with their strong arms. 

They hold each other and breathe, their chests rising and falling in unison. That magic feeling, that lucky feeling, sweeps over Stan, the same way it always does when they’re all together. He thinks that, if he had some way of measuring it, he would discover all their heartbeats synced up. 

Stan wraps his hands around Bev’s, then tilts forward to kiss Eddie’s forehead, then Richie’s, then Bill’s. Ben and Mike crowd in so he can kiss their cheeks, and he feels Bev peck his back, between his shoulder blades. 

“Alright, Uris,” Richie says. “Let’s get you to your wife, huh?” 

“You can take the van,” Eddie tells him. “We’ll hang out in town until you’re ready to get us.”

“What?” Richie sputters. “What? No, after all this— I want to see Stan get some tongue action, Eds, I wanna see the—” 

“Beep beep, Rich,” Bev says, the same time Bill says, “buh-buh-eep—” but doesn’t quite get the rest out in time.  

“Give them some privacy,” Ben frowns.

Richie shifts nervously. “I mean, are we—”

“Richie,” Eddie says, very firmly. 

“Come on, man,” Mike agrees.

Richie licks his lips and sighs. Stan peers at him, craning his neck a little because all of them are still standing in their huddle. 

“I’m just not… not sure I’m ready to, uh, watch our Stanley… leave the nest.” Richie’s mouth twitches. “Fly the coop.”

“I’m going to be fine, Rich,” Stan says, and as soon as he says it, he realizes it’s true.

This time, Stan is the one to start untangling the seven of them, and he feels steadier on his feet than he has in days. Even when everyone is separated again, he feels held. Safe, and loved, and like he wants to go home to Patty. 

Fuck, does he want to see Patty. He wants it so bad it feels like holding his breath, like he’ll only breathe easy once he’s with her again. 

“Get out of here, man,” Richie finally says. He huffs and then puts on a Voice. “Gowon, git, Ah said git.”

Stan flips him off, turns on his heel, and flat-out runs to the van, undignified but excited. Let Richie make fun of him. He’s going home. 

And then he turns again, because, fuck, he needs the keys. 

Mike tosses them to him, laughing, as soon as he turns around, and then Stan is moving again, darting toward the van as quick as he’s ever moved— he’s almost running as fast as Eddie, Stan thinks wryly. A smile bursts across his face, and suddenly he’s grinning like a maniac, grinning like he’s nineteen again and sneaking out of Patty’s dorm room on the girls-only floor, grinning like the time her RA caught him leaving and he had to sprint off before they got reprimanded. He’s smiling like he smiled when she proposed to him; when she accidentally blurted the question out at three in the morning while they stared at each other across a McDonalds table, drunk on wine and exhaustion. 

He hops in the van and turns the key. 

The drive passes in a blink: his only measure of time is the thump, thump, thumping of his heart, and his anxiously jittering left knee. Pressing his lips together, he looks out at the road: summer-heavy oaks bend toward the concrete, sheltering houses from the burning sun and Georgia heat. Every crack in the street is familiar, every winding driveway, every kid’s tipped-over bicycle. This is his neighborhood— there’s Sam Calloway’s house, just the same as Stan last saw it, with the peeling paint and brand-new shutters. And there’s the house that was just bought— he hasn’t met the folks who moved in, not yet, but Patty has and she says they’re lovely; a young couple with a baby on the way, very sweet, very Jewish, keep an eye out for them at shul, Stanley, I think they could use a little guidance, I can just feel it—

He misses Patty like he would miss his own heart beating. 

When he pulls into his driveway, he almost hits his own mailbox, and he parks badly— stops the van right in the middle of the pavement, blocking the garage. 

For a second, he breathes, staring at his house. It's still blue, still two stories, still just the barest bit crooked in a way that's sure to drive Ben up the fucking wall. It hasn’t changed. Of course it hasn’t changed, he’s been gone less than a week. Why would it have changed? Stan takes another breath. Look, there the flowerbeds are, wilting in the heat and past their prime, but there are still a handful of hearty, brightly-colored blooms. Tulips and daisies. Purple lavender and sage plants.

Stan had dug those flowerbeds eight years ago as a surprise for Patty; he’d bribed his mother-in-law to whisk Patty away for a weekend, and when she returned, he had them ready. She had cried. There are more in the back: entire rows of them lining their house, taking up space in their yard. More practical plants are there: tomatoes and cabbages and a slow-growing peach tree.

Early in the morning, Patty will creep out of bed and kneel in the dirt before school; she says it helps her get into the proper mindset for the day, says that her class of third graders can be too much to handle if she’s not centered and at peace with herself.

And then she always laughs, because she just likes to say bullshit sometimes, and he’ll go to sit on the steps next to the bird feeder with his cup of coffee and watch his birds; and watch his babylove; and offer to help and maybe try to actually help and then get shooed away when he accidentally steps on something important. 

Twisting the keys, he shuts the van off and climbs out, his hard-soled shoes smacking the pavement. Stan heads toward the porch, stumbling, his vision narrow and focused. Up the three creaking steps that he needs to fix, hand on the doorknob— he doesn’t have his house keys, why the fuck doesn’t he have his housekeys? Oh, right— but it’s unlocked, and the thought leaves his head as soon as it came. He heads inside, into the narrow hallway that Patty and him keep trying to brighten up; they’ve tried bright paint, fun pictures in frames, a long and narrow bench. Nothing works. The hallway is doomed to be a little gloomy forever. 

Stan damn near sprints through it. 

Every footstep, every beat of his heart, says Patty, Patty, Patty. Where is Patty? He bursts into the joint kitchen-living-room area, but it’s empty, his puzzle sitting lonely on the coffee table. There is a bowl of oranges on the counter, untouched and slightly mushy, which strikes Stan as odd: he’d bought them the day before Mike called and Patty, if given the chance, eats oranges like they’re candy. Patty eats oranges the way Eddie takes his pills, or Bev smokes her cigarettes— with great relief and a kind of soul-deep comfort.

But there the oranges are. Still in their bowl.

“Pats?” He calls, suddenly uneasy. 

No response. All the dishes are silent in the sink. The yellow morning sunshine drifts in through their windows and across their bookshelves. Flecks of dust drift through the air. Behind him, the refrigerator hums soothingly, and the microwave clock flicks from 10:41 to 10:42. 

“Patty?” Stan tries again.

Cautiously, he creeps to the stairs, up to their room. The warm, worn wooden stairs creek welcomingly as he walks. One hand on the railing, he heads up and up and up, passing photos of his parents and parents-in-law and himself and Patty, and himself and Patty, and himself and Patty. On vacation, in college, makeup-stained and frizzy-haired after their wedding reception in a Perkins parking lot, Patty’s head on his shoulder while they watch the sun rise. 

Stan tries one more time. “Babylove,” he pleads, his hands near trembling. 

Their bedroom door is open, like it always is. They don’t close doors in their house, not really, why would they bother? He has no secrets to keep from Patty. They have no secrets to keep from each other. 

Well, they didn’t. Im yirtzeh Hashem, they won’t again. Stan is ready to spill his guts, ready to cut himself open all over again if it’s what Patty wants. 

Dimly, he registers that as a bad thought, a self-destructive thought. 

Probably he should go back to therapy. 

Their bedroom is empty: nothing in it but the bright white walls, the colorful pillows and blankets and pictures; turquoise and orange and yellow and coral pink. Sunshine colors. Patty colors. 

Stan’s knees feel fuzzy. He collapses onto the bed and puts his head in his hands. 

Outside, the morning light drifts lazy and content. It paints the walls with yellow patches, and Patty’s dangling jewelry casts rainbow shadows on the floor and walls. Stan shuts his eyes. He breathes. Running his hands over the soft, worn quilt on their bed, Stan tries his best to not think of anything at all. Just focuses on the stitches beneath his fingers, row after careful row of them, a wedding gift that Patty refuses to let either of them actually sleep with. 

Behind him, their analog alarm clock tick-tick-ticks away, counting the seconds anxiously. 

Abruptly, Stan stands and walks out of their bedroom, gaining speed with every step. He clatters down the stairs, one hand on the railing, almost knocking a picture from its nail as he goes. Thumping, thumping— his feet and his heart, both going faster than they should. 

It’s been… well, alright, it’s been less than a week since he was afraid like this. Since he felt this creeping, vine-like fear, the kind of fear that crawls up his throat and chokes him, chokes him, chokes him. He hasn’t felt like this since he was a kid; vulnerable, helpless, dependent. Like nothing he does will ever make a difference. 

The bathtub flashes through his head again, except this time he’s not the one beneath the water. It’s Patty instead, Patty and her dark eyes and rusty brown hair face-down and floating, her lips cold and blue. 

Stan stops in the middle of the stairs and whirls around, pounds back up them and down the hall to the bathroom, his breath coming panicked and too fast. 

“Fuck, Pats, come on,” he says, one hand on the wall like maybe he’s going to fall over. 

But— no, when he reaches the end of the hall the bathroom door is open, there’s nothing. No Patty floating— you’ll float too— no Patty beneath the water, like a mocking version of his and Eddie’s rebirth in the quarry. There’s not even any mess. There’s nothing, nothing, nothing: nothing on the counters, nothing cluttering the sink, no towels thrown over the side of the tub, no candles sitting behind the toilet. Everything is suspiciously clean, like it’s been bleached and wiped down nine times over. 

And then— 

“Oh,” Stan says, when it clicks. “Fuck me.” 

Of course there’s not anything fucking in here, fuck him for not thinking about this— blood, there must have been blood, and he thinks maybe he left the water running. There must have been a mess— it must have been a fucking crime scene in here. 

Fuck, he hopes Patty let someone else clean all that up. Anyone else. He wants someone else to have cleaned up his mess with a fervor he didn’t even know he was capable of. It feels like teeth closing around his heart, and he should know: he’s felt those phantom teeth closing around his face for three nights. 

This time, when Stan climbs down the stairs, it’s in a haze. 

How are they going to come back from this? How are they going to come back from this?

Patty had to clean up that bathroom. He knows it like he knows his own name.

How are they going to come back from this?

When he hits the bottom of the steps, he just stares out at his empty living room for a while. Everything comes to him in pieces, like a puzzle he has to put together: couch pillows, wood floor, crooked picture frame, ugly vase. Home. It’s just… it’s just home.

Outside, the treetops rustle in the heat. Dimly, he hears the chirp-chirp-chirp of a brown thrasher, and for a second he sees it so clearly in his mind: the little brown and white speckled wings, the tiny black eyes, the fragile and scaly feet. Before he knows it, he’s crossed the room, gone through the kitchen, and flung open the back porch door. 

The sky is big and blue and endless, like it is at the Barrens, and the air is heavy and hot. And there— there is his bird, the one that’s singing. It’s tucked up in Patty’s peach tree, the one that he has to stake in the ground every fucking spring, because the thunder storms almost knock it to the ground every fucking year— who fucking knew trees were so fragile—

“Stanley?” 

Stan whirls around so fast he almost tips over.  

And— and there she is: his babylove, kneeling in the dirt in her garden, just like he knew, in the back of his head, she would be. Patty is up to her elbows in mud, her forehead streaked with it, her hair pulled back and tangled, greasy like she hasn’t washed it in days. She’s red-faced and sweating in the heat, cheeks blotchy and burned. She’s wearing one of his old college tees.

Patty opens her mouth then shuts it again. Stan would say something, except he can’t find his tongue, or any words, or any thoughts in his head. He thinks maybe he’s died a second time; looking at Patty feels like looking at something holy. 

“What the fuck,” Patty breathes.

Ah. 

He really fucking should’ve called.

Stan needs to say something. He knows he does. He knows it. That doesn’t mean he can, though. Shit, he can’t feel his fucking tongue. All he can do is stare at her, and stare at her, and stare at her. She’s just as beautiful as she’s always been, fuck, she’s more beautiful than ever. Rubber gardening gloves on, pitch-dark circles under her eyes, lank hair, sweat stained shirt. He’s never seen anything better, not in his whole fucking life. 

Fuck, Uris, you spend a few days with Richie and Bill and suddenly all your damn braincells disappear, what the fuck is wrong with you? Pull it together. Say something. Say actually fucking anything.

“Uh,” he finally manages. And then: “Patty.” And then: “Babylove.” 

She just stares at him, her hazel eyes gold in the sun. 

“Alright, I could have said something better.” Stan sighs, wry. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “I don’t do well with improv, I should’ve planned something.” Fretting, he twists his fingers in his shirt— a sensible button-down Ben had given him.

Patty makes a choking noise, her eyes wider than the moon and shining just as bright. Brighter than anything, brighter than the fucking— the fucking Deadlights. 

“Pats?” Stan says, his voice cracking. “Baby, babylove, I—” 

But he can’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t know what to say. If he had his way, he’d call her pet names until the sun set and came up again. He’d break out them all: babylove, sweetheart, darling, angel, h’aim sheli. Fuck, he loves her. Fuck, he loves her so much.

Her mouth, the one he’s kissed a thousand, a million, a hundred-million times before, trembles. Her rubber-gloved hands fist in the dirt. She’s got a leaf in her greasy hair. As he watches, she blinks, and fat tears roll down her cheeks. 

“Pats?” Stan’s voice warbles. Above them, the little brown thrasher chirps. Slowly, a turtle creeps through the garden, walking across Patty’s shoelace before munching on a big lettuce leaf.

And then Patty springs up, pulls her gloves off in a blur of motion, and runs at him so quick he barely gets his arms open in time. When she leaps, he catches her, swinging her up and around, and around, and around. Her arms come up around him, one hand fisting tightly in his hair, the other clutching at his shoulders. Her thighs clamp around his waist and she buries her face in his neck. Big, shaking sobs come bursting out of her throat, like she just can’t help it.

Stan isn’t doing much better. He’s got one hand tangled in her sweaty shirt and the other holding her bare thigh, gripping tight enough to leave bruises. He smashes his face into her chest, near the hollow of her throat. His shoulders are heaving, his whole body trembling, tears falling from his eyes so fast he feels like a faucet. They’re as close as they can get without sharing skin.

He wants to— he wants— he doesn’t know what he wants. To climb inside her, maybe. To have her climb inside him. When his knees give out, they tumble to the ground together, the grass cradling them. They don’t let go, though. They just cling tighter, her thigh wrapped around his, his knee in between hers, his hand crawling up her shorts to clutch at bare skin, her fingers pulling, pulling, pulling at his hair. 

Patty pulls her face out of his shoulder and starts kissing him, over and over: his eyelids, his eyebrows, his forehead, every circular scar ringing his face. Every single one: all seventeen of them. And then she does it again. And again. Stan pulls her in tighter, sobbing and sobbing, and Patty’s own tears fall and mingle with his. 

Clutching, Stan’s fingers scrape over Patty’s bare skin beneath her shorts, grabbing at the upper part of her leg where her thigh meets her ass. His other hand is holding tight to the back of her neck, keeping her face near his, even though he doesn’t need to. Patty is wrapped around him strongly enough it would be damn near impossible to pull her off. 

Stan never, ever wants to let go of her again. 

“Pats, Pats—” He’s gasping, crying so hard it’s hard to talk, but he can’t stop, now. The words are coming out of him uncontrollably. “Patty, babylove, baby, baby, I love you— fuck, I love you—” 

She sobs in response, trembling against him, her hands turning into fists, clutching him. 

“Stanley?” Patty croaks, her lips moving against his forehead. “Sweetheart? Stanley— are you— Stanley—

And hearing her say his name— both syllables careful, both the syllables still there, even in the middle of her sobbing, because she never calls him Stan— cuts loose what was left of his composure. Burying his face in her neck again, he shakes and shakes, the both of them moving like they’re caught in an earthquake. 

She smells like sweat, and sunscreen, and like dirt and the tart vegetables she was pulling from the ground. It’s a strong smell, and not exactly a good one, but it’s real. Strong enough, familiar enough, he can almost touch it. Holding Patty always feels like holding the earth, like he’s holding the whole world. Holding his whole world.

Above them, the old trees sway. Patty's delicate peach tree drops petals on them, and that brown thrasher kuh-coos, kuh-coos. They cry and stop and start again. Stan wants to climb inside her, wants Patty to climb inside him. He wants... he doesn't know what he wants. So he cries again. 

Maybe they would’ve stayed like that forever, sobbing and sobbing in the grass, holding each other tight enough to bruise and not caring one bit, if it weren’t for the turtle. 

The turtle, the same one that was crawling through Patty’s garden and getting into the lettuce, appears next to Stan’s calf and bites him. Very sternly. Stan jumps, jolting against Patty, who lifts her face away from his and looks around. 

“Ouch,” Stan hisses, a little shocked. When he looks, the turtle is wandering slowly away. 

“Oh, Stanley,” Patty says, sitting up straight and scrubbing her face with her shoulder, over and over again, like she’s trying to put herself back together. 

“Pats—” Stan starts, but she’s already pulling away, bit by bit; her knee slips from between his, and her hands are suddenly gone from his hair and neck, and she shifts like she’s going to stand. 

“You’re bleeding,” she says, practical like she always is. Her voice sounds… he doesn’t know what to call it. It doesn’t sound right, though. She doesn’t sound like herself. “We should disinfect that— turtles are still wild animals.”

Stan licks his lips, feeling unsteady even though he’s still laying on the ground. “Right.”

“Yes,” Patty says, blinking rapidly. She wraps her arms around her stomach like she’s cold, but that doesn’t make any sense, because the Georgia heat is pressing down on Stan so strongly it feels like he can’t move. 

Stan isn’t— he’s not sure what— he wants her to smile. Suddenly, that’s all he wants; all he can think about. David’s voice echoes through his head, put a fuckin’ smile back on her face, and he glimpses that fucking turtle out of the corner of his eye, back in Patty’s garden and munching on lettuce like nothing is wrong in the entire damn world. 

Patty is staring down at him, the bags under her eyes dark, so much darker than he’s ever seen them. She’s got new lines on her forehead, like she’s aged five years since he’s been gone. But her eyes are just as soft as they’ve always been.

Stan surges up and kisses her. 

Immediately, her hands are back in his hair, pulling him in closer. Their noses mash together, and his hands come up to hold her cheeks. He kisses her. And he kisses her. And she kisses him back: slips her tongue between his lips, climbs back into his lap, presses their chests together. Their chins and noses rub against each other, a little uncomfortable. Stan doesn’t care. He tries his best to swallow Patty whole. 

One of his hands slips under her thigh again, holding her to him a little tighter. She throws her arms over his shoulders in response, and their faces press together so hard it almost hurts. Stan doesn't fucking care. 

Patty sucks his bottom lip into her mouth, running over it with her tongue. Stan kisses her back as good as he can, clutching at her over and over, his hands moving frenetically. She scratches down his back, worms her fingers beneath his shirt. Her palms are startlingly warm against his skin. 

It feels like coming alive all over again, his body waking up. His heart starting in his chest, thumping strong and steady and alive, alive, alive.

When he opens his mouth wide, she meets him, and suddenly they’re kissing like they’re nineteen years old again, kissing like they don’t know what they’re doing— just trying to get as close as possible. Everything is wet and muggy: the air, the skin on his lower back, Patty’s mouth against his. And Stan doesn’t fucking care.

“I love you,” he bursts, because he just can’t keep the words back. He says them against her mouth, still kissing her; “I love you,” she bites his lip, “I love you,” she flicks her tongue, “I love you,” her lips close around his again, and he stops talking and starts kissing. 

He flops back onto the grass, pulling her with him, and his elbow slips in the mud and makes a squelching sound. Patty giggles. He can feel it roll through him, high pitched and familiar, and tears sting the corners of his eyes. When her fingers card through his hair, exploring in a way she hasn't been in a long time, his lungs clench in his chest.

Slowly, Patty brushes her lips against his again, again, then pulls back slightly. Stan opens his eyes. 

She’s staring down at him, her face too pale and too red all at once, bags sinking into her cheeks. But her eyes are shining, and a smile, just the tiniest start to one, is creeping across her face. Her hand comes up to cradle his cheek and Stan kisses the palm of it, over and over and over. Seven times— lucky seven. His chest twinges. 

“I love you,” she tells him, very firm, like it’s a fact. 

And it is. It’s been a fact for over twenty years.

But, holy shit, is it good to hear.

“I love you,” he says, so quick his tongue trips over itself. “I love you, fuck, I love you.” 

She slams her lips back onto his, so fast and hard their teeth cut their lips. He thinks maybe she’s crying again, but that’s alright, because she’s also laughing, just a little. And, besides, he’s crying too. 

Their kissing, if possible, gets even messier. 

Her tongue slides against his, silky smooth and wet, and Stan groans. Everything feels alive, alive, alive. Above him, the brown thrasher sings, and the hot wind blows, and below his back the grass shifts and cradles him. Alive, alive, alive— everything is alive. Even him.

Especially him. 

Patty slows down their kisses, devolving them into lingering pecks, like she can’t bring herself to pull away completely. Stan tries to tempt her into kissing more, slides his tongue across her bottom lip, almost begging, not ready to let her go. But she’s smarter than him, always has been, and she pulls away anyway. 

“Okay,” she gasps, soothing her tongue across his upper lip. “Okay. Come on, we’ve got to put disinfectant on that turtle bite.” 

Something about that sentence is indescribably funny to Stan. He doesn’t know why. It feels like a metaphor, except he doesn’t know what for. The corner of his mouth twitches. 

“Is something funny, Stanley?” Patty asks archly, her eyes twinkling. She’s never been one for deadpan humor, not really, but she tries every so often. Just for him. 

“I’m sorry,” he croaks, grinning outright. “Sorry, I’m just… I’m just happy.”

A smile finally, finally bursts across her face: brilliant and beaming and dimpled. She’s so, so beautiful. He wants to put different words to it, wants to say something… poetic, maybe. But he can’t think of anything. Every thought has flown out of his head the way Maine’s birds head down to the gulf during winter. All he can think is wow. 

Before Patty can climb off him, Stan grabs her under the knees, shifts a little, and then stands. Patty shrieks, half laughing, and clutches him around his neck. Burying her nose at the base of his throat, she presses tiny, sucking kisses to his skin. Stan stumbles a little when she bites him. 

“Don’t do that, Pats, I don’t want to drop you,” Stan half whines, half laughs. “You do this every time.”

She bites him again in response and Stan shudders. Her laugh, when it comes, sounds like birdsong. Sounds like every good thing in the world. 

Carefully, he climbs up the back steps, tilting Patty through the door sideways. He clutches her tight, tighter than he needs to, just in case. One of her hands wanders back into his hair, twirling his curls around her fingers. It feels… he feels… 

“Pats,” he says, strained. “Babylove, I’m trying to walk.” 

“Hm,” she says, and this time when she bites him she pulls his hair, too.

Stan swings her around, just a little, until her face comes up from his neck and he can kiss her on the mouth. Fuck, but he’s needy today, he’s— but she doesn’t mind. She never minds. 

“I love you,” Patty tells him again, stroking her fingers across his cheeks, tapping over his circle scars like they’re piano keys. 

And then he kisses her again, because it’s the only thing he can do. 

When they’re in the kitchen, Patty wriggles from his arms and goes straight to the cabinet where they keep their first aid kit, shoving Stan into a kitchen chair.

And suddenly, it's like Patty just... pauses. Her hands linger on the cabinet door for a second, the one they keep the first aid kit in, like opening the door is something she has to brace herself for. Slowly, she pulls it open, and when she grabs the kit, her fingers trail over the side.

For a moment, he squeezes his eyes shut, guilt swallowing him whole. When he opens them, the still-full bowl of oranges catches his eye. Inside his chest, his heart flips and squeezes. 

“Doctor Uris,” he starts, fighting to keep his tone light and teasing. “When you’re done patching me up, I think we should make lunch. Let me… let me cook you something, Pats.”

She’s facing away from him, the cupboard door still open, the first aid kit flat on the counter. As he watches, her hands grip the counter’s edge, knuckles going white. And then she lets go, breathing out hard, grabbing the kit and turning toward him. 

“I’m not hungry,” she tells him, and this time, her smile is a shadow of itself, thin and forced on her face. 

Crouching down before him, her bare knees on the white linoleum tile, she rolls up the leg of his pants. They’re ruined— the turtle bit straight through them, and the blood is an obvious and dark stain against the pale brown slacks. Patty will tear them up for sewing scraps later, he knows.

“Babylove,” Stan says, his chest too small, his heart in his throat. He doesn’t quite know what he wants to say, though. Maybe, please eat something. Maybe, I’m sorry I hurt you, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean it. Maybe, let me peel an orange and feed you by hand. Let me wipe the juice from your chin. Maybe, please smile again. 

“Stanley,” Patty sighs. She shuts her eyes and then bends to kiss his knee, her hands wrapped around his ankle. “This might sting a little.”

And then, before he can respond, she dabs the Neosporin on the turtle bite. 

Stan barely feels it. Well, alright, that’s not quite true— it stings, fuck it stings, but it’s not what he’s focusing on. He’s focusing on Patty’s fingers on his skin, and how her forearms are covered in dirt, and how the roots of her hair are damp with sweat. All his muscles feel tight, his stomach clenched. He’s nervous but he doesn’t know why— he’s so, so horribly afraid, in a way he’s never been with her. Not ever. But something is wrong. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses those fucking oranges, their peels too shiny, rotting in the light. Distractedly, he counts them, traces over them with his eyes: one, two, five, seven. Seven oranges.

For the first time, the number doesn’t seem lucky. For the first time, the number seems wrong, but he doesn’t fucking know why.  

And then it’s over, and the wound is clean, and Patty kisses his knee again before standing. Before she can move away, Stan’s hands dart out and clutch at her waist. She comes easily when he tugs at her, moving without thinking. He buries his face in her stomach and she sets her hands in his hair, her long fingers untangling his curls.

She pulls away too soon. Stan’s first instinct is to tighten his arms, to keep her near him, but then he lets her go. Patty walks calmly to the cabinet, places the neosporin back in the kit, and the kit back in its spot, then gently shuts the door. 

Slowly, Stan stands, and goes to her. He rests a hand on her upper back, near the base of her neck. For a second, Patty leans into it, the tip of her ponytail falling over the back of Stan’s hand, and then she steps away. She stares at him, her eyes scanning across his, and she brings the tips of her fingers to his cheek. Helpless, Stan kisses her palm. 

She smiles, but something’s not right with it. Stan furrows his brow and searches her face, trying to find… he’s not sure what. Her eyes are sad and closed off, like a house in winter with the curtains drawn. 

“I’m going to shower,” Patty tells him, her voice soft. Quiet. Not like it usually is: she’s been boisterous for as long as he’s known her, shouting and laughing and running, her hands constantly covered in dirt or paint.

“Want me to come?” Stan asks, fighting for normalcy. 

Another not-right smile. Another long look, her hazel eyes glimmering in the sun. “No, you should make lunch,” she tells him, stroking his cheek again. “You’re hungry, aren’t you?”

He’s not. He had a late breakfast: the Losers— and David— picked at him until he caved and swallowed a mug of coffee, then an entire waffle, then a handful of strawberries. She’s the one that looks like she hasn’t had a solid meal in a week. 

Stan wants to feed her, then climb into the shower with her, and look for any more changes hiding under his old college t-shirt. He wants to pick and wheedle and smirk and complain until he’s found all of her new, sad and tired marks, and then he wants to scrub them away. 

“Not too hungry,” he says, forcedly bright. “We could both use showers, probably, actually. Hot out here today, Pats.” 

He sounds like a fucking idiot. He doesn’t know what to do. 

“I want to— I want to be…” Patty can’t finish the sentence. She bites her lip hard, so hard it turns white, and presses her hand harder to his face. “I don’t want to be alone.” The words come out on a gasp, and tears suddenly slip down her cheeks. 

“You don’t have to be,” Stan blurts, a little desperate. His head is blank with panic. 

“I missed you,” she says, still crying. 

“I missed—”

But she interrupts him. Her thumb rests on his bottom lip, stroking over it softly and cutting him off, sending shivers up his spine. 

“I missed you so much,” she tells him, firmly. “But I’m… I need to sort myself out. I need— I need half an hour. And when I come back we’ll have sandwiches, and you’ll tell me… tell me… Stanley, what the hell is—” This time, she cuts herself off. “I’m going to shower. And then we’re going to… we’re going to talk. Alright?”

Stan takes a deep breath, his mind blank, his ears ringing with panic. And then he leans down and presses his forehead against hers, so hard it almost hurts, and she presses back just as roughly. “Alright,” he breathes. 

Patty gazes at him, her eyes big and watering, and for a moment her face is unguarded and vulnerable, like a kid’s. Like she’s eighteen again, a college freshman, and grinning at him across the campus lawn. She furrows her brows together and visibly makes a decision. Stan’s breath catches in his throat, his heart missing a nervous beat. 

And then she kisses him. 

Stan melts. He kisses her back, desperate and shaking. 

When she pulls away, their lips make a wet sucking noise, and she strokes her fingers down the bridge of his nose before dropping her hands. Every part of him feels cold and hot, all at once. Flashes of feeling running over his skin, making him shiver.  

“You’re alive,” Patty says, like it’s a revelation. Like she’s just realized it, or maybe has realized it all over again. “You’re alive, and it’s… we’re going to be okay. Okay?”

“We’re going to be okay,” Stan says, so confidently forceful that Patty grins at him, her smile there and gone again like lightning. Wild and beautiful and over in a blink. 

“There you are,” she sighs. Her eyes are soft and gazing.

“What?” Stan asks, confused.

“Nothing,” Patty says, and smiles again. Again, she’s smiling again, baruch Hashem. She’s smiling more and more. 

“Go shower,” Stan says, pressing his lips to her sweaty forehead, her tear-streaked cheeks, her sunburned and freckled nose. “I’ll make lunch.”

Patty kisses him one more time before turning and leaving, her footsteps softly skipping every second stair. A smile twitches over Stan’s lips. He stands there for long moments, just breathing, watching the dust drift through the living room, dancing in the shifting light. 

And then he dives for his phone.

“Richie,” he hisses, as soon as Richie picks up. “Code fucking purple.” 

Code fucking purple: Richie would hiss those words over the phone somewhere around once a month when they all were in high school. Code fucking purple meant Richie had genuinely, no-jokes-at-all, sincerely fucked up with Eddie somehow. Took a mom joke too far, scribbled permanent graffiti on Eddie’s wall, almost tried to kiss him. 

Stan had never invoked it. Not until now, anyway. 

“Oh, holy shit,” Richie says, sounding like he doesn’t know what to do or how to respond. “Oh, holy shit— okay, I’ve got everyone with me, can I like— can I put you on speaker?” 

“Yes, please, give me someone with problem solving skills—”

“Okay, you called me, ” Richie argues, still sounding distracted and worried.

“Stan?” Bev asks. “Honey, what’s happening?” 

“Whatever you need, man, we’ve got you,” Mike tells him, the same time Ben says, “we’re here for you, Stan.”

“Stuh-Stan, we c-can be there in t-tuh-two seconds,” Bill tells him, voice low and reassuring. A wave of calm sweeps over Stan, the same way it always has when Bill speaks. 

“Don’t even stress, man, we can be there in, like, literally no time at all,” Eddie blurts.

“I juh-just literally s-s-said that, E-Eddie,” Bill bites. 

“Stan.” Bev says firmly. 

“Right, okay, so, I think she’s— she’s being weird?” Stan stutters, wringing his hands and then tugging his hair. 

There is a long, long silence. Unusually long; normally, the seven of them resort to bribery to get a moment’s peace. The quiet drags.

“Guys?” Stan says, hesitant. 

“That’s fucking it?” Richie near howls. “That’s it? You called with a code fucking purple because your wife is being weird about you coming back from the dead?” 

Distantly, he hears Eddie mumble shut the fuck up, Rich, the same moment Bev says, “we’re gonna need a little more context, Stan.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Richie exclaims. 

Stan tugs his own hair again, then again. He fiddles with his sleeves and stares at his pale, scarless wrists. “She hasn’t been eating,” Stan finally blurts. “And she’s got these— deep bags under her eyes, and she’s— she’s been distant. I mean, she was… we had a big damn reunion, and then she got… I don’t know.”

Now that he’s saying it out loud, it sounds stupid. But Stan knows, down to his toes, that something is off. Something is wrong. He just can’t put words to the feeling. “She didn’t want me to shower with her,” he says, after a while.

“Do you… usually shower together?” Richie asks, sounding strained. 

“Not always,” Stan answers slowly. “But… if one of us asks we never say no. I don’t think… I don’t think she’s turned me down in the twenty years we’ve been married. Not ever.”

“Oh,” Eddie says, quietly. So cautiously and gently. “Then that is weird. Yeah.”

“She just might need a little time, Stan,” Bev says, her voice hesitant. “I mean, it’s… she thought you were dead for days. I mean, she saw—” She cuts herself off.

“Yeah,” Stan sighs. “She saw.”

Everyone is quiet again. 

“Well, hey,” Mike says, cajoling, “at least she didn’t run away when she saw you.”

“O-o-or kick y-yo-ou out,” Bill offers. 

A kind of late, useless anxiety sweeps over Stan at their words. Patty doing either of those things hadn’t even occurred to him, but now that he’s thinking about it, it’s all he can think about. What if Patty does leave? What if she needs more time to herself— days of time, weeks maybe? What would Stan do?

They haven’t been apart for more than a weekend in twenty years. He doesn’t know if he could take it. 

Stan purses his lips and sags against the counter. He forces himself to stop beating around the bush. “It’s just… it feels like she’s still mourning me.” 

Someone on the other end of the phone breathes out, hard and shaking. Someone else grabs them comfortingly; Stan can hear the rustle of clothing, the shifting-shuffling sounds of the Losers surrounding each other. 

Richie clears his throat. When he speaks, his voice cracks. “It’s a hard thing to get over.”

In the background, Eddie gives a soft, hey, and Stan hears them shuffle off to the side. 

“Richie’s right, Stan,” Ben says gently. “I’d be more concerned if she snapped out of it right away.” 

“I just don’t know what to do,” Stan whispers, his eyes stinging. “She hasn’t eaten the oranges.” 

“The oranges?” Mike prompts kindly. 

“They’re her favorite,” Stan explains, tracing his nails over the kitchen counter. “She eats them like Eddie takes his fucking meds— just, uh, compulsive, you know? She’d ask for oranges on death row.” Stan hesitates, his chest squeezing tight with panic for Patty, squeezing tight with love for her. “When I… left… we had a bowl of them. And they’re still here. Every last one of them.”

Silence on the other end.

“I don’t think she’s been eating,” Stan says, tears slipping down his face. He’s getting tired of crying, he’s been crying or on the verge of it all morning, but he can’t figure out how to stop. “And I don’t think she’s been sleeping, either.”

Stan breathes out a wet, gasping noise, because he’s crying in sincerity now, love and concern for Patty sweeping him away. He just wants things to be alright again. He wants Patty to be alright again. 

“I don’t know how to fix it,” he says, then scrubs his hand over his face. 

“You can’t fix it, Stan the man.” Richie is back, and sounding older and more serious than Stan has ever heard him. He sounds like a fucking grown-up. “I don’t know Patty, not yet— and you’re not getting out of introducing us, either, you asshole— but I think… Buddy, it’s not something that she’ll ever forget. Or, uh, bounce back from completely. All this has… I mean, all this has to have changed her. And that’s not— that’s not your fault. It’s not even necessarily bad. It’s just— it’s gonna be different for a while. And maybe things will be harder, for a little bit.”

Stan sets his phone on the counter and buries his head in his hands. “That’s not what I wanted to hear, Rich,” he croaks out, tears slipping from between his fingers.

“I know,” Richie says quietly. “I’m sorry, man.”

“Give me the phone, Rich,” Eddie says.

“It’s on speaker, dumbass,” Richie tells him lovingly. 

“Give me the fucking phone,” Eddie hisses, and Richie gives a strained, half-choked laugh in response. Despite himself, Stan’s lips twitch, almost a smile.

“You want a game plan?” Eddie asks, and the straining, tight thing in Stan’s chest relaxes.

Him and Eddie have always been similar: afraid of every damn thing, and too angry because of it. A little too biting, a little too combative. Twinned souls, almost. In a weird way, it’s fitting that they’re the ones that died and came back. That they took that journey together.

“Please,” Stan says.

“Make her lunch,” Eddie says. “Make her lunch, and make her drink a glass of water, and explain yourself as best you can. And keep explaining. And let her yell at you. And make sure she knows you love her.” A pause. “And then make her dinner.”

“And then?” Stan asks, a little desperate, because that all sounds fine but he wants something more substantial, something that will fix this. 

“And then you go to bed and hold her all night. And you wake up in the morning and you just… remind her you’re there. Until she remembers by herself.”

“It might take a while, though, Stan,” Richie says, almost guiltily. “But that won’t… that won’t be your fault.”

“I wish you guys were here,” Stan blurts. “All of you.”

“We can be there in five fucking minutes,” Bev promises fiercely. “You say the fucking word.”

“I know,” Stan says, then hesitates.

“But we can’t fix this for you,” Ben says gently.

Stan sighs. He scrubs the tears from his face and starts opening the kitchen cupboards, pulling down bread. Forcefully, he reminds himself that he’s over forty years old. He’s not thirteen anymore, and he needs to act like it. He takes a deep, soothing breath. “I know. Thanks, guys.”

“Maybe we can swing by tomorrow morning,” Mike offers. “Introduce ourselves to your girl.” 

“She’s my wife, Mikey,” Stan says, the ghost of a smile on his face. 

“Right,” Mike laughs. “God, sometimes I think about it and— you’ve been married a long time, huh?”

“More than twenty years,” Stan says, and abruptly a wave of love, sweeping and overpowering, comes over him. He’s so, so grateful for Mike. All he wants is for Mike to know it. “We’ve been married a long time. And we’ve been… we’ve been so fucking happy, Mike. I’ve been so fucking happy.”

Mike breathes out hard as Stan opens the bread bag. 

“Promise?” Mike asks, suddenly vulnerable. 

“I promise,” Stan says thickly. “Thank you. For giving that to me.” 

Mike makes a wet noise, half a laugh and half something else. He hears a muffled, oh, shit, Mike— from Bev, and a half-bleated, startled M-Muh-Mikey, n-no, don’t— from Bill. 

“Uh, I think we’re gonna have to call you back, man,” Richie blurts, taking Stan off speaker. 

“I’m getting emotional fucking whiplash,” Eddie says, muffled, and then the line clicks off.

Despite himself, Stan huffs a laugh. He presses his hands to his face hard, scrubbing the tears off his cheeks and rubbing his eyes. Tugging on his hair, he breathes deep, in and out. For a moment, he imagines Patty with him, and then laughs at himself. She's not gone, just upstairs, and the morning is new and bright around him. Stan's never really been an optimist, but he thinks... he doesn't know.

Maybe it's time to admit he doesn't know everything.

Huffing out half a breath, Stan squeezes his eyes shut, counts to seven and then, when that doesn't feel right, he counts to eight.

And then spins on his heel and starts making lunch.