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Authors: Stephen King

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BOOK: Christine
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are, with a monstrous overkill of bitterness and acrimony. Regina was apparently ready for that even if Michael wasn't. But I wanted no part of it. I got up and headed for the door.

"You let him do this?" Regina asked, She looked at me haughtily, as if we'd never laughed together or baked pies together or gone on family camp-outs together, "Dennis, I'm surprised at you."

That stung me. I had always liked Arnie's mom well enough, but I had never completely trusted her, at least not since something that had happened when I was eight years old or so.

Arnie and I had ridden our bikes downtown to take in a Saturday afternoon movie. On the way back, Arnie had fallen off his bike while swerving to avoid a dog and had jobbed his leg pretty good. I rode him home double on my bike, and Regina took him to the emergency room, where a doctor put in half a dozen stitches. And then, for some reason, after it was all over and it was clear that Arnie was going to be perfectly fine, Regina turned on me and gave me the rough side of her tongue. She read me out like a top sergeant. When she finished, I was shaking all over and nearly crying—what the hell, I was only eight, and there had been a lot of blood. I can't remember chapter and verse of that bawling-out, but the overall feeling it left me with was disturbing. As best I remember, she started out by accusing me of not watching him closely enough—as if Arnie were much younger instead of almost exactly my own age—and ended up saying (or seeming to say) that it should have been me.

This sounded like the same thing all over again—
Dennis, you weren't watching him closely enough
—and I got angry myself. My wariness of Regina was probably only part of it, and to be completely honest, probably only the small part. When you're a kid (and after all, what is seventeen but the outermost limit of kidhood?), you tend to be on the side of other kids. You know with a strong and unerring instinct that if you don't bulldoze down a few fences and knock some gates flat, your folks—out of the best of intentions—would be happy to keep you in the kid corral forever.

I got angry, but I held onto it as well as I could.

"I didn't let him do anything," I said. "He wanted it, he bought it." Earlier I might have told them that he had done no more than lay down a deposit, but I wasn't going to do that now. Now I had my back up. "I tried to talk him out of it, in fact."

"I doubt if you tried very hard," Regina shot back. She might as well have come out and said
Don't bullshit me, Dennis, I know you were in it together.
There was a flush on her high cheekbones, and her eyes were throwing off sparks. She was trying to make me feet eight again, and not doing too bad a job. But I fought it.

"You know, if you got all the facts, you'd see this isn't much to get hot under the collar about. He bought it for two hundred and fifty dollars, and—"

"Two hundred and fifty dollars!" Michael broke in. "What kind of car can you get for two hundred and fifty dollars?" His previous uncomfortable disassociation—if that's what it had been, and not just simple shock at the sound of his quiet son's voice raised in protest—was gone. It was the price of the car that had gotten to him. And he looked at his son with an open contempt that sickened me a little. I'd like to have kids myself someday, and if I do, I hope I can leave that particular expression out of my repertoire.

I kept telling myself to just stay cool, that it wasn't my affair or my fight, nothing to get hot under the collar about but the cake I had eaten was sitting in the center of my stomach in a large sticky glob and my skin felt too hot. The Cunninghams had been my second family since I was a little kid, and I could feel all the distressing physical symptoms of a family quarrel inside myself.

"You can learn a lot about cars when you're fixing up art old one," I said. I suddenly sounded like a loony imitation of LeBay to myself. "And it'll take a lot of work before it's even street-legal." (If it ever is, I thought.) "You could look at it as a… a hobby… "

"I look upon it as madness," Regina said.

Suddenly I just wanted to get out. I suppose that if the emotional vibrations in the room hadn't been getting so heavy, I might have found it funny. I had somehow gotten into the position of defending Arnie's car when I thought the whole thing was preposterous to begin with.

"Whatever you say," I muttered. "Just leave me out of it. I'm going home."

"Good," Regina snapped.

"That's it," Arnie said tonelessly. He stood up. "I'm getting the fuck out of here."

Regina gasped, and Michael blinked as if he had been slapped.

"What
did you say?" Regina managed. "What did you—"

"I don't get what you're so upset about," Arnie told them in an eerie, controlled voice, "but I'm not going to stick around and listen to a lot of craziness from either of you.

"You wanted me in the college courses, I'm there." He looked at his mother. "You wanted me in the chess club instead of the school band; okay, I'm there too. I've managed to get through seventeen years without embarrassing you in front of the bridge club or landing in jail."

They were staring at him, wide-eyed, as if one of the kitchen walls had suddenly grown lips and started to talk.

Arnie looked at them, his eyes odd and white and dangerous. "I'm telling you, I'm going to have this. This one thing."

"Arnie, the insurance—" Michael began.

"Stop it!" Regina shouted. She didn't want to start talking about the specific problems because that was the first step on the road to possible acceptance; she simply wanted to crush the rebellion under her heel, quickly and completely. There are moments when adults disgust you in ways they would never understand; I believe that, you know. I had one of those moments then, and it only made me feel worse. When Regina shouted at her husband, I saw her as both vulgar and scared, and because I loved her, I had never wanted to see her either way.

Still I remained in the doorway, wanting to leave but unhealthily fascinated by what was going on—the first full-scale argument in the Cunningham family that I had ever seen, maybe the first ever. And it surely was a wowser, at least ten on the Richter scale.

"Dennis, you'd better leave while we thrash this out," Regina said grimly.

"Yes," I said. "But don't you see, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. This car—Regina… Michael—if you could see it… it probably goes from zero to thirty in twenty minutes, if it moves at all."

"Dennis!
Go!
"

I went.

As I was getting into my Duster, Arnie came out the back door, apparently meaning to make good on his threat to leave. His folks came after him, now looking worried as well as pissed off. I could understand a little bit how they felt. It had been as sudden as a cyclone touching down from a clear blue sky.

I keyed the engine and backed out into the quiet street. A lot had surely happened since the two of us had punched out at four o'clock, two hours ago. Then I had been hungry enough to eat almost anything (kelp quiche excepted). Now my stomach was so roiled I felt as if I would barf up anything I swallowed.

When I left, the three of them were standing in the driveway in front of their two-car I garage (Michael's Porsche and Regina's Volvo wagon were snuggled up inside
they got their cars,
I remember thinking, a little meanly;
what do they care),
still arguing.

That's it,
I thought, now feeling a little sad as well as upset.
They'll beat him down and LeBay will have his twenty-five dollars and that '58 Plymouth will sit there for another thousand years or so.
They had done similar things to him before. Because he was a loser. Even his parents knew it. He was intelligent, and when you got past the shy and wary exterior, he was humorous and thoughtful and sweet, I guess, is the word I'm fumbling around for.

Sweet, but a loser.

His folks knew it as well as the machine-shop white-soxers who yelled at him in the halls and thumb-rubbed his glasses.

They knew he was a loser and they would beat him down.

That's what I thought. But that time I was wrong.

3 THE MORNING AFTER

My poppa said "Son,

You're gonna drive me to drink

If you don't quit drivin that

Hot-rod Lincoln."

— Charlie Ryan

I cruised by Arnie's house the next morning at 6:30 A.M. and just parked at the curb, not wanting to go in even though his mother and father would still be in bed—there had been too many bad vibes flying around in that kitchen the evening before for me to feel comfortable about the usual doughnut and coffee before work.

Arnie didn't come out for almost five minutes, and I started to wonder if maybe he hadn't made good on his threat to just take off. Then the back door opened and he came down the driveway, his lunch bucket banging against one leg.

He got in, slammed the door, and said, "Drive on, Jeeves." This was one of Arnie's standard witticisms when he was in a good humor.

I drove on, looked at him cautiously, almost decided to say something, and then decided I better wait for him to start… if he had anything to say at all.

For a long time it seemed that he didn't. We drove most of the way to work with no conversation between us at all, nothing but the sound of WMDY, the local rock-and-soul station. Arnie beat time absently against his leg.

At last he said, "I'm sorry you had to be in on that last night, man."

"That's okay, Arnie."

"Has it ever occurred to you," he said abruptly, "that parents are nothing but overgrown kids until their children drag them into adulthood? Usually kicking and screaming?"

I shook my head.

"Tell you what I think," he said. We were coming up on the construction site now; the Carson Brothers trailer was only two rises over. The traffic this early was light and somnolent. The sky was a sweet peach color. "I think that part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids."

"That sounds very rational," I said. "Mine are always trying to kill me. Last night it was my mother sneaking in with a pillow and putting it over my face. Night before that it was Dad chasing my sister and me around with a screwdriver." I was kidding, but I wondered what Michael and Regina might think if they could hear this rap.

"I know it sounds a little crazy at first," Arnie said, unperturbed, "but there are lots of things that sound nuts until you really consider them. Penis envy. Oedipal conflicts. The Shroud of Turin."

"Sounds like horseshit to me," I said. "You had a fight with your folks, that's all."

"I really believe it, though," Arnie said pensively. "Not that they know what they're doing; I don't believe that at all. And do you know why?"

"Do tell," I said.

"Because as soon as you have a kid, you know for sure that you're going to die. When you have a kid, you see your own gravestone."

"You know what, Arnie?"

"What?"

"I think that's fucking gruesome" I said, and we both burst out laughing.

"I don't mean it that way," he said.

We pulled into the parking lot and I turned off the engine. We sat there for a moment or two.

"I told them I'd opt out of the college courses," he said. "Told them I'd sign up for VT right across the board."

VT was vocational training. The same sort of thing the reform-school boys get, except of course they don't go home at night. They have what you might call a compulsory live-in program

"Arnie," I began, unsure of just how to go on. The way this thing had blown up out of nothing still freaked me out. "Arnie, you're still a minor. They have to sign your program—"

"Sure, of course," Arnie said. He smiled at me humorlessly, and in that cold dawn light he looked at once older and much, much younger like a cynical baby, somehow. "They have the power to cancel my entire program for another year, if they want to, and substitute their own. They could sign me up for Home Ec and World of Fashion, if they wanted to. The law says they can do it. But no law says they can make me pass what they pick."

That brought it home to me—the distance he had gone, I mean. How could that old clunker of a car have come to mean so much to him so damned
fast
? In the following days that question kept coming at me in different ways, the way I've always imagined a fresh grief would. When Arnie told Michael and Regina he meant to have it, he sure hadn't been kidding. He had gone right to that place where their expectations for him lived the most strongly, and he had done it with a ruthless expediency that surprised me. I'm not sure that lesser tactics would have worked against Regina, but that Arnie had actually been able to do it surprised me. In fact, it surprised the shit out of me. What it boiled down to was if Arnie spent his senior year in VT, college went out the window. And to Michael and Regina, that was an impossibility.

"So they just… gave up?" It was close to punch-in time, but I couldn't let this go until I knew everything.

"Not just like that, no. I told them I'd find garage space for it and that I wouldn't try to have it inspected or registered until I had their approval."

"Do you think you're going to get that"?"

He flashed me a grim smile that was somehow both confident and scary. It was the smile of a bulldozer operator lowering the blade of a D-9 Cat in front of a particularly difficult stump.

"I'll get it," he said. "When I'm ready, I'll get it."

And you know what? I believed he would.

4 ARNIE GETS MARRIED

I remember the day

When I chose her over all those other

junkers,

Thought I could tell

Under the coat of rust she was gold,

No clunker…

— The Beach Boys

We could have had two hours of overtime that Friday evening, but we declined it. We picked up our checks in the office and drove down to the Libertyville branch of Pittsburgh Savings and Loan and cashed them. I dumped most of mine into my savings account, put fifty into my checking account (just having one of those made me feel disquietingly adult—the feeling, I suppose, wears off), and held onto twenty in cash.

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