When Stan went over to Richie’s house after dinner to tutor him for their math test tomorrow he thought he knew exactly what he was signing up for. He gripped his books tight to his chest like a dead man clutching a lifeline and rang the doorbell. It was Mrs. Tozier who opened the door, smiling, and sent him on his way upstairs.
Richie’s bedroom was a disaster zone, but at least it was reliable in its disorderliness. A constant. It made sense. Stan surveyed the posters hanging off every inch of the walls and the desk full of knickknacks and the magazines scattered all over the floor and Richie himself, sprawled on his bed in the middle of it all like a king, and had to hand it to him, really, for living up to no less than exactly what was expected of him.
“Move over,” said Stan, and Richie looked up at him, breaking into a shit-eating grin.
“Stan the Man!” Richie boomed. “Here to save me from the woes of algebra, guv’nor?”
A newly fourteen-year-old Richie, armed with gangly limbs and his ever-running motormouth, seemed less bearable than he’d ever been. Everything he said had an edge to it. Like he was reaching the end of his rope. But the trick with defusing him, Stan knew, wasn't to ignore him, because then he’d just go on and on forever trying to see what the breaking point would be. You had to shut him down hard and fast. In the end he was all bark, and no bite, and it was the bark Stan knew how to deal with.
Stan shot him a cool look. “No,” he said, “just from yourself.”
“Aw, Stan,” Richie said, “you’re no fun.” But he was rolling over on the bed, clearing room for Stan. Math was Stan’s area, after all, and even if they were in Richie’s kingdom right now, he still had to shut up and listen to him.
After a while Stan fell into an easy sort of rhythm. Explaining a concept. Running through example problems with Richie. Pointing out the mistakes, and going through it all over again. All he had to do was bridge the gaps in Richie’s understanding; if he could just fill them in, then he’d see the bigger picture.
The only obstacle was, of course, Richie himself, who was back to rolling around on the bed, butting his head into Stan’s shoulder and tugging at his shirt. Like a burr stuck in Stan’s side that he couldn’t help but scratch. “C’mon, Stan,” Richie said. Whining something terrible. “We’ve been doing this forever, that’s gotta be enough, man.”
“Stop that,” Stan said absentmindedly, absorbed in the problem he was working out. That was a mistake, because the next thing Richie did was tug harder, and then Stan’s shirt came untucked and Richie was shoving his cold hand up to tickle Stan’s back. Stan’s pencil went flying.
“Hey, ” Stan yelped, twisting away as Richie clutched his sides in a fit of laughter like it was the funniest thing in the world, and that was when Stan blinked, realized two things: one, it was somehow nighttime and way past when he was supposed to have gone home, and two, there was a shadowed figure tapping on the glass of Richie’s window from outside.
“Richie,” Stan said, slowly. “Why is Beverly Marsh at your window?”
Richie’s face brightened, and this was where Stan thought—oh, no. No. This was not what he had signed up for. Not at all.
“Bev!” Richie said, and then he was over in a flash, sending papers scattering everywhere as he unlatched the window. Beverly swung in with a practiced grace that made Stan realize this wasn’t the first time she had done it, and when she straightened up, shaking out her hair, her gaze fell on Stan sitting on the bed, staring back at the black bruise of her eye.
“Stan,” Bev said. His surprise mirrored on her face. “I didn’t know you were going to be here.”
“I didn’t know you were going to be here,” Stan echoed. He didn’t look away from her black eye fast enough, and she shrugged, something about it a little defiant. Daring him to ask.
“Just thought that if I didn’t come to check up on Richie over here every once in a while, there’d be no one to keep him from running into trouble,” Bev said. “Guess I was wrong, wasn’t I?”
“The more, the merrier,” Richie said, and then adopted what he must have thought was a convincing swagger, puffing out his chest. “We’ll have an adventure, that’s what. We’ll go someplace far, far away from here. We’ll drive off into the sunset, and we won’t come back.”
They all fell silent for a moment to let the reality that they were fourteen sink in: too young to do it, and too old to pretend. Though that didn’t seem to stop Richie from trying.
“Thanks, Richie,” Bev said anyway, and settled down to sit cross-legged on the bed next to Stan, who still hadn’t moved. “What’re you two doing?”
To tell the truth it had been a while since Stan had seen Beverly Marsh. They’d been close when they were kids, ran in the same group of friends, but that age of childhood was now hazy at best. She hadn’t so much drifted away as she had sank under everything else over the years. Now that he was faced with the fact of her existence all over again in such sudden clarity, he wondered how he could ever have forgotten. The shock of her red hair. The freckles on her nose. She’d reemerged straight from the recesses of Stan’s memory with a couple extra inches and a lower timbre to her voice, and it was like she’d never left. The relief of it hit Stan all at once.
“Math,” he said, intelligently.
“That’s what we were doing,” Richie corrected. “We’re done.”
“Right,” Stan said, snapping out of it. “I have to get home. Um—it was good seeing you again, Bev.”
“What?” Richie squinted at him like he’d grown an extra head. “It’s way too late, Stan, you may as well stay the night. You think I’m gonna make you walk all the way home at this hour? What kind of host do you take me for?”
Stan hesitated, peering at the blackness outside the window. It would be an awful idea. And it wasn’t what he had signed up for. But there was some part of him that still remembered to be scared of the dark. “I guess,” he said.
“Great,” Richie said, clapping his hands together with a wicked look on his face that made Stan regret himself immediately. “Let the fun begin!” And with that, he dove under his bed. Emerged with a flourish—and with a bottle of booze.
“No, Richie, you didn’t,” Bev said at the same time as Stan’s “No.” But she sounded more thrilled than horrified.
“Nicked it from the store a while ago,” Richie said, looking mighty pleased with himself. “Was just waiting for the perfect occasion—and looks like it’s rolled upon us now, lads! And lady!”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Stan said. Staring from Richie to Bev back to Richie again. There were too many things to say, too many things wrong with this picture, but for some reason the first thing that blurted out of Stan’s mouth was, “We’ve got that math test tomorrow!”
They looked at him. He looked at them.
“Stan,” said Richie. Hair wild, sticking up in all directions. The lamplight glinting off his glasses. “Come on, Stan, I gotta repay you for your math help and all. Gotta show you a good time, Stan the Man.”
There it was. The push. Shut him down, Stan remembered, hard and fast. But he had to wonder—what would happen, exactly, if you ever pushed back. If you gave him exactly what he wanted.
“Come on, Stan,” Bev repeated, breaking into a smile for the first time since she’d come, brilliant, and for some reason that was what did it.
It burned so bad—until it didn’t. Just turned his brain all fuzzy and light. Time skipped out on him, and when Stan came back to himself he was sitting on Richie’s disgusting floor, watching him try to twirl Bev around and around in the dimness of the room. Bev couldn’t stop giggling, and Richie kept exaggeratedly hushing her, “don’t go waking up my folks, Bev,” but she didn’t trip once. Just kept going until the flare of her skirt spinning made Stan dizzy.
“C’mon, Stan,” Bev said, “come up here,” and they were reeling him in, too. Stan couldn’t dance—wouldn’t—but he moved with them if just not to get left behind in the rhythm. Richie was bad, but drunk Richie was hell—hands everywhere, draping over Stan’s shoulders and mussing his hair. Rumpling the collar of his shirt. And Bev kept knocking into them both, laughing, gripping their hands tight, nails digging into skin. This close, Stan could tell she smelled faintly of sweat. They were still both taller than him, and with all the stumbling they were doing, they had to be making a racket. Any minute now and Richie’s parents would burst in, catch them in the act of—what? Of what? But the thought escaped him, and they never did, anyhow. Just kept dreaming in their beds as Stan spun between Richie and Bev like stars. His hands burned where they were holding onto him. His throat ached, empty. Mouth dry.
“More,” Stan said, reaching for the bottle. But they had run out some time ago. A whole bottle spent between the three of them and the splashes on the floor. That couldn’t be right. That couldn’t be good. But Stan’s mind was somewhere else, floating on the ceiling looking down at them, and knew this couldn’t be wrong. Stan and Richie and Bev together made three out of seven. And it had been so, so long since Stan had been part of seven.
“Oops,” Richie slurred, holding the bottle upside down and watching as nothing came out, “looks like we’re all out!” Stan squinted at him through the feverish haze of his mind, at the shimmer of glass in his hands, and was struck by the strangest thought that he was going to cut himself on it. No—that wasn’t right. That he already had.
“Shit, Richie,” Bev said, “what’re you gonna do with the bottle,” and all Stan could do was watch as the flash of inspiration struck Richie’s face like lightning.
“We’ll use it,” Richie said, and he sat down on the floor, leaving the other two to blink down at him. “Come one, come all, folks—it’s time for the main attraction of the night. We’ve got a bottle to spin.”
“Oh, gross,” Bev said, “if you think I’m kissing either of you,” but she was sitting down next to him, something catching alight in her eyes. The runaway fire of a bad idea. God, Stan thought, they were both so awful, and so lovely.
“Very funny,” Stan said. The only one left standing, and trying very hard not to sway on his feet. “Ha, ha, Richie. The joke’s over.”
“Who said I was joking?” Richie said, sounding offended. “You know me, Stan—I never joke. Scout’s honour.” He placed a palm to his chest and struck an exaggerated salute.
“Stan,” Bev said, eyes wide, the curve of her mouth sharp, her voice earnestly hushed like a secret—“you’ve had your first kiss before, right?”
Stan turned red. The truth was he had—back in sixth grade, there’d been a girl in his class who had held his hand on the playground at lunch, and then pecked his lips. The kiss had tasted like peanut butter, and for weeks afterward he couldn’t even look at the jar in his kitchen pantry without blushing. But now he couldn’t even remember the girl’s name. Moira or Megan or something. She’d moved away, or maybe switched schools. The whole story seemed even more embarrassing than it not ever having happened at all. “Of course I have,” he said.
“Oh,” Bev said, drawing the word out like a pucker of her lips.
“Stan the Man’s got game!” Richie crowed, pumping his fists in the air. Bev fell upon him in an instant, finger pressed up against his lips, and he froze, going comically silent.
“Then what are you so scared about, Stan,” Bev said, finger still on Richie’s mouth, and Stan sat down, hard. Closed the circle.
“There’s a good man,” Richie said through lips pressed shut by Bev’s finger, and then he darted out his tongue, licked it. Bev tore her hand away and smacked him on the shoulder, but they were both giggling. “Then why don’t you go first, Stan? Go on, Stan—have a spin.” He waggled his eyebrows. “You never know—you might end up lucky.”
Stan sat there, stuck between the two of them, paralyzed. Staring down the bottle lying on the floor like an arrow aiming true. Either way, he was done for.
But it didn’t seem fair—Bev and Richie having the time of their lives across from him, tears in their eyes from drunken laughter, perfectly at ease. As though in on the same joke. Stan took a breath. Grabbed the bottle, and spun.
It seemed to go on forever, Stan and Bev and Richie all watching, transfixed, as it splayed refracted colours onto the walls, through the light. Then after a while Stan realized the other two were now watching him instead—because the bottle had stopped spinning, and had landed on Richie.
Oh, Stan thought, with an odd, distant sort of clarity. Like the hollow echo of tapping on glass. That’s it, then. This ends here—just another bit of good fun, and all.
Except it didn’t. Except Richie was silent for the first time all night, and leaning in closer with a determined dare in his eyes.
Shut it down, Stan remembered, the thought flashing across his mind like a fire alarm, but then he also remembered: push back. He couldn’t remember which one was the right way about it, anymore. So when Richie ground to a halt a couple of inches away, his breath warm on Stan’s face, Stan thought with mild irritation—all bark, no bite—and leaned in to close the distance.
For all the edge to his words, Richie’s mouth was soft. Warm. There was a stunned look upon Richie’s face, like Stan’d reared back and slugged him in the gut, and looking at it felt wrong, but somewhere under that, immensely satisfying that Stan had been the one to do it to him. To shut him up. Stan felt Richie’s breath stutter, and he started to draw back—but this was Richie, who when given an inch would take a mile. Who sensed the retreat and surged forward, teeth knocking against Stan’s lips, coaxing them open. He tasted like alcohol, and under that, faintly of salt. Then the frame of Richie’s glasses dug into his face, and Stan jerked back, away.
“Oh,” said Bev. Looking just as shocked as the rest of them. But there was a delighted curl to her mouth, and that was what made Stan realize what, exactly, he’d done. Like having a witness made it real. His heart was pounding, and he licked his lips, tore his gaze away from her, to Richie.
Richie, slumped back against the wall, mouth pinking under the light, cheeks flushed. Looking like he’d won the lottery. “Stan the Man,” he repeated, “you’ve got game,” and that should have ruined it. But for some reason it didn’t.
“No,” Stan said, “I played your game.” But it was more than that. All of them knew it, like an unspoken secret in the air, over their heads. They had shared the bottle, and sat down in this circle, and now they were bound to something greater: each other. A pact.
“Well, I can’t let you two have all the fun,” Bev said, a determined glint in her eye. “It’s my turn, now.” She gave the bottle a vicious whirl, and it spun wildly before landing, once again, as though drawn by a magnet, on Richie.
“Well!” said Richie brightly. “Gee whiz! Looks like it’s my lucky day, folks! Don’t you all go lining up, now—there’s plenty enough to go around for everybody!”
He was back to talking a mile a minute. It meant he was nervous, even as he shifted over to Bev, puckered his lips.
Bev hesitated. Then she put her hand on Richie’s cheek, cupping his chin. The gesture was so tender Richie went still and silent all at once, like she’d pressed a switch. Stan shivered at the sight of it. Of them, Bev’s hair spilling over her face, Richie’s head tilting back, mouth opening up to receive.
The lamplight fell over them at an angle, so Stan could only see parts of it. Their noses bumping against each other. Richie’s mouth bitten red. Bev’s eyes, one bruised, one not, fluttering shut. Stan felt like birds had taken flight in his stomach. This was Richie, stupid disgusting Richie who had mold growing in his desk drawer, stupid Richie whom he’d kissed. And Bev, startlingly real in her star-patterned socks and saddle shoes, like some vision in the sweet honeyed light, childhood ghost brought larger than life. What was it about being fourteen? The most uncomfortable age, caught in between. All of Stan’s blood wanted to thrum right out of his body, but he stayed rooted to the spot, powerless to do anything but watch. In a way, it was even worse than before.
“Not bad for a trashmouth,” Bev said when they broke apart, lips shiny and gleaming, and Richie grinned, pleased.
“Well,” Richie drawled, “looks like there’s only one thing left to do.” Both of them looked at Stan, who startled at suddenly having his gaze returned. “We’ve got to close the circle now, c’mon, Stan. You and Bev.”
Stan’s throat went dry. He turned to meet Bev’s stare, the weight of it an electric pulse between them. She cocked her head, waiting. The smile on her face, big and broad and just for him. He swallowed. Felt the sink of it, straight to the pit of his stomach, like the pull of gravity drawing him down, down, down.
She let him kiss her, sweet. Then she opened her mouth and drew him in deep, tongue sweeping over his. Stan’s mind went blank, save for what he could see in front of him. The freckles on her nose. The sickly shape of her bruise. The bottle glass blue of her eyes, clearer than any sky he’d ever seen.
Bev pulled back, and a small, hurt sound fell from Stan’s mouth before he could stop it.
Richie’s eyes were big and awed behind the lenses of his glasses. His mouth a round o.
“Stan,” Bev said, a little breathless. The joy fever-bright on her face. Was she thinking the same thing as Stan? That he had missed her? That he hadn’t even known he had been longing to see her again? And the game was over, but Bev was swooping in again, hand coming around to find the back of Stan’s neck, fingers curling in his hair. Pulling him forward. Stan, dazed, closed his eyes and pressed against her, fists clenched at his sides, helpless against the swell of the rising tide.
And then there was a second warmth, at his side.
Stan’s eyes flew back open just in time to catch out Richie, who had scooted closer to them at some point. His gaze was dark with intent, and he was bringing a hand to join Bev’s on the back of Stan’s neck, their fingers tangling together, raising goosebumps on Stan’s skin. Stan shuddered, and let his forehead fall against Bev’s. She huffed out a breath of laughter, flush on his face. His chest ached at the sound of it, and he stayed there, hardly daring to do more than breathe, as Richie’s hand dragged up through his hair, and then tugged, hard.
“Damn it, Richie,” Stan said, and Bev laughed harder at that, her body trembling before him. But Stan let himself be pulled, a pendulum between them. Let Richie catch his mouth in his again, as Bev leaned across him and swept Richie’s unruly hair behind his ear, and pressed a kiss to the skin there.
This was Richie, Stan reminded himself, Richie’s hand on his shoulder, trailing down to his waist, his hip. This was Bev, Bev’s bare leg in his lap, skirt ridden up, her crooked teeth tugging at his lip. He’d known them since they were nothing more than kids. And now he was returning to them. They were a mess of moving parts: angles in soft places, bony elbows and knees knocking into stomachs, chins and noses colliding, mouths finding mouths. They were graceless teenagers fumbling in the dark on the floor of Richie’s room. But there was something unexpectedly tender about it. Their hands were gentle, like they knew to care for each other. Richie’s eyes almost reverent every time he came up for breath. Bev’s hair falling everywhere like brush fire. Birds, Stan thought, all of a sudden. The flutter of Richie’s hands. Bev’s eyelashes. Where were his binoculars?
“Oh man, Stan,” said Richie, “you’re hilarious when you’re drunk. I wish you could see it.”
But I can, Stan thought. I can see it all. In his drowsy, drunk haze he realized—this was it. This night of magic making sense. Here in the chaos of Richie’s cramped bedroom, coming together. He couldn’t forget this, not this too. Don’t let them forget. Don’t let me forget. Not this, too.
“Shh, Stan,” Bev said. Her eyes sleepy-lidded and sliding shut. “Shh. Go on—go to bed.”
Stan looked down at his palms. Could’ve sworn he saw the faint line of a scar. But it didn’t hurt, so it couldn’t have been there.
They fell asleep like that, curled up together on the floor. Safe.
Stan was dreaming about something he’d always known, but hadn’t remembered in years. A darkness hovering at the corner of his eye, waiting for him. Everywhere he turned, he could sense it, but he couldn’t escape it, couldn't see it. Not yet.
He woke up with a throbbing headache and a mouth dry as the desert. He blinked the spots from his vision.
“Good morning, sunshine!” a voice boomed from somewhere next to him. Stan instinctively panicked, sitting bolt upright, head whipping back and forth to find the danger.
But it was only Richie, his hair rumpled from sleep, grinning at him. Beside him, Bev was yawning, her black eye stark in the stillness of early morning. They were sitting leant against the wall, watching him. Waiting for him to wake up.
Stan’s gaze traveled down. There was a bruise bitten into the skin of Richie’s collarbone, peeking out from the wide neck of his T-shirt. Bev’s mouth was still swollen red. They looked obscene. They looked incredibly pleased with themselves.
It was real, it had happened. They hadn’t forgotten. The relief was heavy in Stan’s chest. Not this.
“Hey, Stan,” Richie said, waggling his eyebrows. “How about that math test today?”
“Your breath stinks,” Stan said.
Bev burst into helpless laughter. “God—you’re both so stupid.”
Richie’s hand found Stan’s. Stan held it, and then took Bev’s with his other hand. Squeezed.
The sun hadn’t risen yet, though a crack of it was coming up over the horizon. There was still time. They sat there together on the floor, and waited for the future to reach them.