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Authors: Stephen King

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BOOK: Christine
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"He's screwing you. He's screwing you for the simple pleasure of it. If he took that car to Darnell's, he couldn't get fifty dollars for parts. It's a piece of shit."

"No. No, it isn't." Without the bad complexion, my friend Arnie would have looked completely ordinary. But God gives everyone at least one good feature, I think, and with Arnie it was his eyes. Behind the glasses that usually obscured them they were a fine and intelligent gray, the color of clouds on an overcast autumn day. They could be almost uncomfortably sharp and probing when something was going on that he was interested in, but now they were distant and dreaming. "It's not a piece of shit at all."

That was when I really began to understand it was more than just Arnie suddenly deciding he wanted a car. He had never even expressed an interest in owning one before; he was content to ride with me and chip in for gas or to pedal his three-speed. And it wasn't as if he needed a car so he could step out; to the best of my knowledge Arnie had never had a date in his life. This was something different. It was love, or something like it.

I said, "At least get him to start it for you, Arnie. And get the hood up. There's a puddle of oil underneath. I think the block might be cracked. I really think—"

"Can you loan me the nine?" His eyes were fixed on mine. I gave up. I took out my wallet and gave him the nine dollars.

"Thanks, Dennis," he said.

"Your funeral, man."

He took no notice. He put my nine with his sixteen and went back to where LeBay stood by the car. He handed the money over and LeBay counted it carefully, wetting his thumb.

"I'll only hold it for twenty-four hours, you understand," LeBay said.

"Yessir, that'll be fine," Arnie said.

"I'll just go in the house and write you out a receipt," he said. "What did you say your name was, soldier?"

Arnie smiled a little. "Cunningham. Arnold Cunningham."

LeBay grunted and walked across his unhealthy lawn to his back door. The outer door was one of those funky aluminum combination doors with a scrolled letter in the center—a big L in this case.

The door slammed behind him.

"The guy's weird, Arnie. The guy is really fucking w—"

But Arnie wasn't there. He was sitting behind the wheel of the car. That same sappy expression was on his face.

I went around to the front and found the hood release. I pulled it, and the hood went up with a rusty scream that made me think of the sound effects you hear on some of those haunted-house records. Flecks of metal sifted down. The battery was an old Allstate, and the terminals were so glooped up with green corrosion that you couldn't tell which was positive and which was negative. I pulled the air cleaner and looked glumly into a four-barrel carb as black as a mineshaft.

I lowered the hood and went back to where Arnie was sitting, running his hand along the edge of the dashboard over the speedometer, which was calibrated up to an utterly absurd 120 miles per hour. Had cars ever really gone that fast?

"Arnie, I think the engine block's cracked. I really do. This car is lunch, my friend. It's just total lunch. If you want wheels, we can find you something a lot better than this for two-fifty. I mean it. A
lot
better."

"It's twenty years old," he said. "Do you realize a car is officially an antique when it's twenty years old?"

"Yeah," I said. "The junkyard behind Darnell's is full of official antiques, you know what I mean?"

"Dennis—"

The door banged. LeBay was coming back. it was just as well; further discussion would have been meaningless, I may not be the world's most sensitive human being, but when the signals are strong enough, I can pick them up. This was something Arnie felt he had to have, and I wasn't going to talk him out of it. I didn't think anyone was going to talk him out of it.

LeBay handed him the receipt with a flourish. Written on a plain sheet of notepaper in an old man's spidery and slightly trembling script was:
Received from Arnold Cunningham, $25.00 as a 24-hr deposit on 1958 Plymouth, Christine.
And below that he had signed his name.

"What's this Christine?" I asked, thinking I might have misread it or he might have misspelled it.

His lips tightened and his shoulders went up a little, as if he expected to be laughed at or as if he were daring me to laugh at him. "Christine," he said, "is what I always called her."

"Christine," Arnie said. "I like it. Don't you, Dennis?"

Now he was talking about naming the damned thing. It was all getting to be a bit much.

"What do you think, Dennis, do you like it?"

"No, I said. "If you've got to name it, Arnie, why don't you name it Trouble?"

He looked hurt at that, but I was beyond caring. I went back to my car to wait for him, wishing I had taken a different route home.

2 THE FIRST ARGUMENT

Just tell your hoodlum friends outside,

You ain't got time to take a ride!

(yakety-yak!)

Don't talk back!

— The Coasters

I drove Arnie to his house and went in with him to have a piece of cake and a glass of milk before going home. It was a decision I repented very quickly.

Arnie lived on Laurel Street, which is in a quiet residential neighborhood on the west side of Libertyville. As far as that goes, most of Libertyville is quiet and residential. It isn't ritzy, like the neighboring suburb of Fox Chapel (where most of the homes are estates like the ones you used to see every week on
Columbo),
but it isn't like Monroeville, either, with its miles of malls, discount tire warehouses, and dirty book emporiums. There isn't any heavy industry—I it's mostly a bedroom community for the nearby university. Not ritzy, but sort of
brainy,
at least.

Arnie had been quiet and contemplative all the way home; I tried to draw him out, but he wouldn't be drawn, I asked him what he was going to do with the car. "Fix it up," he said absently, and lapsed back into silence.

Well, he had the ability; I wasn't questioning that. He was good with tools, he could listen, he could isolate. His hands were sensitive and quick with machinery; it was only when he was around other people, particularly girls, that they got clumsy and restless, wanting to crack knuckles or jam themselves in his pockets, or, worst of all, wander up to his face and run over the scorched-earth landscape of his cheeks and chin and forehead, drawing attention to it.

He could fix the car up, but the money he had earned that summer was earmarked for college. He had never owned a car before, and I didn't think he had any idea of the sinister way that old cars can suck money. They suck it the way a vampire is supposed to suck blood. He could avoid labor costs in most cases by doing the work himself, but the parts alone would half-buck him to death before he was through.

I said some of these things to him, but they just rolled off. His eyes were still distant, dreaming. I could not have told you what he was thinking.

Both Michael and Regina Cunningham were at home she was working one of an endless series of goofy jigsaw puzzles (this one was about six thousand different cogs and gears on a plain white background; it would have driven me out of my skull in about fifteen minutes), and he was playing his recorder in the living room.

It didn't take long for me to start wishing I had skipped the cake and milk. Arnie told them what he had done, showed them the receipt, and they both promptly went through the roof.

You have to understand that Michael and Regina were University people to the core. They were into doing good, and to them that meant being into protest. They had protested in favor of integration in the early '60s, had moved on to Vietnam, and when that gave out there was Nixon, questions of racial balance in the schools (they could quote you chapter and verse on the Ralph Bakke case until you fell asleep), police brutality, and parental brutality. Then there was the talk—all the talk. They were almost as much into talking as they were into protesting. They were ready to take part in an all-night bull-session on the space program or a teach-in on the ERA or a seminar on possible alternatives to fossil fuels at the drop of an opinion. They had done time on God alone knew how many "hotlines"—rape hotlines, drug hotlines, hotlines where runaway kids could talk to a friend, and good old DIAL HELP, where people thinking about suicide could call up and listen to a sympathetic voice say don't do it, buddy, you have a social commitment to Spaceship Earth. Twenty or thirty years of university teaching and you're prepared to run your gums the way Pavlov's dogs were prepared to salivate when the bell rang. I guess you can even get to like it.

Regina (they insisted I call them by their first names) was forty-five and handsome in a rather cold, semi-aristocratic way—that is, she managed to look aristocratic even when she was wearing bluejeans, which was most of the time. Her field was English, but of course when you teach at the college level, that's never enough; it's like saying "America" when someone asks you where you're from. She had it refined and calibrated like a blip on a radar screen. She specialized in the earlier English poets and had done her thesis on Robert Herrick.

Michael was in the history biz. He looked as mournful and melancholy as the music he played on his recorder, although mournful and melancholy was not ordinarily a part of his makeup. Sometimes he made me think of what Ringo Starr was supposed to have said when the Beatles first came to America and some reporter at a press conference asked him if he was really as sad as he looked. "No," Ringo replied, "it's just me face." Michael was like that. Also, his thin face and the thick glasses he wore combined to make him look a little like a caricature professor in an unfriendly editorial cartoon. His hair was receding and he wore a small, fuzzy goatee.

"Hi, Arnie," Regina said as we came in. "Hello, Dennis." It was just about the last cheerful thing she said to either of us that afternoon.

We said hi and got our cake and milk. We sat in the breakfast nook. Dinner was cooking in the oven, and I'm sorry to say so, but the aroma was fairly rank. Regina and Michael had been flirting with vegetarianism for some time, and tonight it smelled as if Regina had a good old kelp quiche or something on the way. I hoped they wouldn't invite me to stay.

The recorder music stopped, and Michael wandered out into the kitchen. He was wearing bluejean cutoffs and looking as if his best friend had just died.

"You're late, boys," he said. "Anything going down?" He opened the refrigerator door and began to root around in it. Maybe the kelp quiche didn't smell so wonderful to him either.

"I bought a car," Arnie said, cutting himself another piece of cake.

"You did what?" his mother cried at once from the other room. She got up too quickly and there was a thud as her thighs connected solidly with the edge of the card-table she did her jigsaws on. The thud was followed by the rapid patter of pieces falling to the floor. That was when I started to wish I had just gone home.

Michael Cunningham had turned from the refrigerator to stare at his son, holding a Granny Smith apple in one hand and a carton of plain yogurt in the other.

"You're kidding," he said, and for some absurd reason I noticed for the first time that his goatee—which he had worn since 1970 or so—was showing quite a bit of gray. "Arnie, you're kidding, right? Say you're kidding."

Regina came in, looking tall and semi-aristocratic and pretty damn mad. She took one close look at Arnie's face and
knew
he wasn't kidding. "You can't buy a car," she said. "What in the world are you talking about? You're only seventeen years old.

Arnie looked slowly from his father by the fridge to his mother in the doorway leading to the living room. There was a stubborn, hard expression on his face that I couldn't remember ever having seen there before. If he looked that way more often around school, I thought, the machine-shop kids wouldn't be so apt to push him around.

"Actually, you're wrong," he said. "I can buy it with no trouble at all. I couldn't finance it, but buying it for cash presents no problems. Of course,
registering
a car at seventeen is something else entirely. For that I need your permission."

They were looking at him with surprise, uneasiness, and—I saw this last and felt a sinking sensation in my belly—rising anger. For all their liberal thinking and their commitment to the farm workers and abused wives and unwed mothers and all the rest, they pretty much managed Arnie. And Arnie let himself be managed.

"I don't think there's any call to talk to your mother that way," Michael said. He put back the yogurt, held onto the Granny Smith, and slowly closed the fridge door. "You're too young to have a car."

"Dennis has one," Arnie said promptly.

"Say! Wow! Look how late it's getting!" I said. "I ought to be getting home! I ought to be getting home right away! I—"

"What Dennis's parents choose to do and what your own choose to do are different things," Regina Cunningham said. I had never heard her voice so cold. Never. "And you had no right to do such a thing without consulting your father and me about

"Consult
you!" Arnie roared suddenly. He spilled his milk. There were big veins standing out on his neck in cords.

Regina took a step backward, her jaw dropping. I would be willing to bet she had never been roared at by her ugly-duckling son in her entire life. Michael looked just as flabbergasted. They were getting a taste of what I had already felt—for inexplicable reasons of his own, Arnie had finally happened on something he really wanted. And God help anyone who got in his way.

"Consult
you! I've consulted you on every damn thing I've ever done! Everything was a committee meeting, and if it was something I didn't want to do, I got outvoted two to one! But this is no goddam committee meeting. I bought a car and that's
it!"

"It most certainly is not
it
," Regina said. Her lips had thinned down, and oddly (or perhaps not) she had stopped looking just semi-aristocratic; now she looked like the Queen of England or someplace, jeans and all. Michael was out of it for the time being. He looked every bit as bewildered and unhappy as I felt, and I knew an instant of sharp pity for the man. He couldn't even go home to dinner to get away from it; he
was
home. Here it was a raw power-struggle between the old guard and the young guard, and it was going to be decided the way those things almost always

BOOK: Christine
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