With the transformation of Christine from rustbucket to pure-hell-on-wheels came a new side to Arnie that I wasn't too sure I liked.
It's not that I enjoyed the way he seemed to slink into himself before the confidence boost - that makes me sound like some kind of masochist. Like a shitty, unsupportive friend. It wasn't like that at all, I swear.
But he just wasn't himself anymore.
In those stupid self-esteem units you're forced to take in Health class, the teacher always tell you to be proud of who you are. There's no one else like you! High schoolers are all just a bunch of cheerful fucking unique snowflakes, right? Try telling that to a kid whose face is ruled by nearly-dime-sized acne scars and gets picked on at least once a day. I knew Arnie wasn't happy, but I never once considered that he hated himself. He was too quick - too damn smart - to let superficial shit like that cut into him.
Shows what I know.
I'm not exactly a running candidate for Prom King, but I never had it as bad as Arnie did. Most of the (mainly harmless) stuff flung my way ended in middle school when that familiar monster, puberty, approached and I shot up several inches taller. Becoming a member of that tried-and-tested clique, the Libertyville varsity football team, didn't hurt matters. Unfortunately, puberty is when the worst jibes aimed at Arnie were just beginning.
He'd always been a skinny kid, and that didn't look to be changing soon. He had what my mom called "lightning quick metabolism." And maybe, just maybe, being nothing more than that skinny dorky kid could've gotten him by with only a black eye or two over the years to show. And as we went into high school and the other guys matured just a little, most of them let up on him.
Buddy Repperton was one of the guys who didn't.
He seemed to have it out for Arnie from the beginning, almost hating him, but for whatever reason I didn't know nor care to guess. Guys like that don't seem to need a reason to pick on other kids, and there was an almost endless list of reasons to pick on Arnie - those dorky thick-framed glasses, his intelligence, his penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, the fact that the teachers adored him, that skinny body that escaped puberty unscathed...
And maybe that was the reason why Repperton was so furious about Arnie's transformation. Things like worrying about being beat up just didn't seem to concern him anymore. The reliable punching bag had vanished, and in his place was a confident, good-looking guy whose time was now occupied by his car and his girl.
I never thought Arnie was ugly before, but the change in his looks that occurred almost overnight was ridiculous. He stopped flattening his hair against his skull with Brylcreem, and the result was a wavy, pompadour-esque hairstyle that would've looked odd on most other kids, but gave Arnie this timeless James Dean quality that actually really suited him. Acne and pockmarks were replaced by perfect, smooth skin so pale that it seemed to glow - and yeah, that's a fucking pimple-cream-romance-novel cliche, but I'll bet that pretty much every girl in school would've sold her soul for a complexion like Arnie's.
High school's like a time warp, though, and first impressions are tough to break. It's difficult to see your classmates in a new light after being saddled with them for so long. If Leigh hadn't been new to our school and had the same mental picture of Arnie that the other girls did, it's doubtful she would have even noticed him.
I'm not trying to sound bitter, or anything. I got over that little competition far before it ended. I think I was more concerned with Arnie by this point, and the disconcerting power his new confidence seemed to bring him. And how I seemed to be the only one (until his parents, and then, eventually Leigh - they'd come to recognize it later) to realize that below his new, cool exterior, there was something very wrong with my best friend.
“You look good in red, you know?"
I hadn't meant to say it aloud, but Arnie looked too surprised by the abruptness of my words to reply sarcastically.
"Uh, thanks." He shifted his gaze away from me, and continued fishing inside his fridge. I felt my cheeks burn. Well, I'd been thinking it. I meant it. I just didn't mean to tell him.
The vibrant color of his new jacket was a nice contrast against his dark hair and pale skin, and he'd be stupid not to know it. But complimenting the old Arnie resulted in mock modesty that bordered on hilarious. I had a feeling that complimenting the new Arnie would've made me want to sink several miles below the earth if he hadn't let me off easy. The fact that his parents were going to be gone most of the day was probably what had put him into such a generous mood.
He finally managed to surface a half-gone loaf of bread, cold cuts and a jar of mayonnaise, and closed the refrigerator door with a satisfied slam.
It only took a few minutes to slap ourselves together a plate of sandwiches that easily could've fed an entire basketball team, and not long after that to finish them off. I was polishing off the remains of my last sandwich when Arnie flicked on the dusty little radio on his parents' kitchen counter, taking the time to search through the haze of AM static until an old rock tune full of jangling guitars and crooning vocals - probably something from the late fifties - blared out of the speakers.
"This isn't bad, Arn." I grinned, winking, and curved my fingers into the 'OK' sign. "You've got shitty taste in cars, but when it comes to music, there's some hope yet."
Arnie's jaw tensed at my knock at Christine, a shadow of resentment flitting over his face, but as quickly as the change in mood came, it passed. He shrugged.
"Of course it isn't bad. Gene Vincent's one of the greats."
The name struck me as familiar, but not enough to draw real recognition. I laughed, slugging him lightly on the shoulder.
"Whatever you say, man."
As Arnie moved to slug me back, his t-shirt sleeve rode up over his arm, revealing lean, sinewy muscle. This - coupled with the surprise that this time, one of his punches actually hurt - was more than enough to stun me into stumbling back in my chair.
He smirked. "Hey. I'll go easy on you next time, okay?"
The truth of it was, it had taken me up until now to realize that Arnie-- well, he wasn't exactly scrawny, anymore. Due to those months spent repairing Christine and hauling various pieces of scrap and whatever else around Darnell's, there was now an underlying toughness in that slim frame of a body, and I felt a flicker of uncertainty in my smile.
Christine sure whipped her man into shape, didn't she?
Pushing that uncomfortable thought away, it was easier for me to focus again. I didn't think it would be such a wash-out anymore if Buddy Repperton walked up, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked if he wanted to kiss the concrete.
I snickered at the thought. "I'd like to see Repperton try some of his old shit on you now, huh?"
He raised his eyebrows at me, pulling his sleeve back down over his arm.
"He did. Last week."
"Arnie, did those guys gang up on you again? Are you okay? Fuck, man, why didn't you tell me this before?"
I couldn't help sounding angry. Maybe it was arrogant, but as the guy who got my best friend out of too many other tight spots to count involving Repperton's gang of douche-bags, I almost felt it was my right to know what was going on. Who was trying to hurt him. What I could do about it.
A million other questions raced through my mind, backwards and jumbled up with one another, but I could barely get my mouth moving properly to ask them all. Arnie let out a sharp hiccup and I whirled in my seat to face him, wondering what to do (and what this meant to his new persona if he was crying), tentatively reaching for his shoulder, but--
--he wasn't crying.
Arnie was laughing.
The sound was abrupt, almost bright, and I felt my stomach jump at it. It sounded like him again - before the damn car, before his own transformation, like we were just sprawled out on my living room floor, drinking Cokes and giving each other shit instead of studying for the test we had the next day.
"Dennis, Dennis, Dennis."
The cool, relaxed smirk on his face barely matched the laughter that had just escaped him.
I frowned. "What is it?"
Arnie rolled his eyes. He was doing a great job of making me feel awkward - like an unwanted parent.
"I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself, okay?" As he reached a hand up to smooth the hair that fell over his brow in that mock-pompadour he'd started wearing, I couldn't help but watch the play of lean muscle under the skin of his arm. He caught my gaze and grinned, as if to illustrate his point.
I wasn't letting this go that easily.
"But what happened?" I demanded. "It's not like he had an appointment beating someone else up and gave you a raincheck, huh?"
"Ha, ha," said Arnie dryly.
"Seriously, Arnie. Come on."
He stretched languidly in his chair, reminding me - absurdly - of some movie star taking time from a busy schedule to answer a few mundane questions.
"There's really not much to tell, I'm afraid." He pretended to inspect his nails, and it became clear in an instant that he wasn't going to cooperate. "He wanted to work things out between us, so he offered to take me for beer and burgers at Primanti's. I already had a date that night, so I had to decline."
It was my turn to roll my eyes. "I'm taking a nap. Wake me when you're going to tell me what really happened."
Arnie's gaze - somehow even more intelligent without those clumsy, horn-rimmed glasses to hide behind - narrowed, his eyes turning to slits. His mouth twisted into a bitter smile.
"Okay. Then how's this rendition? As usual, Dickless showed up when his friends told him I was in the shop alone. But this time, I was given this charming ultimatum; go down on him - right there in the shop - or receive the kind of ass-kicking that'd make everything he'd done to me in the past look like a series of love taps."
I let out a weak laugh that turned into a cough.
"You're having me on, Arnie; right?"
His eyes darkened as he slowly shook his head. He was telling the truth.
I exhaled painfully. "Shit."
"So the asshole had me cornered at the far end of the garage," he continued, "and even though he's nothing but two-hundred or so pounds of pure creep, he still outweighs and towers over me in every possible way. I had to beat him at his own game, right?"
"Right," I echoed weakly.
I had a not-so-hot feeling about where this story was headed. There was a strange yet familiar twisting in my gut - something I wouldn't identify until later as the same way I'd felt when I'd first seen him kissing Leigh.
"So," said Arnie, leaning over to me conspiratorially, "I said, 'Okay. I'll do whatever you want as long as you let me go. Deal?' And he got this big, nasty grin on his face and agreed. So he grabbed my shoulders and shoved me onto my knees, and you can just picture me squeezed into that small space with Buddy fucking Repperton and his two dollar aftershave looming over me."
I tried not to picture it.
"Anyway." Arnie rolled his eyes, grinning. "I figured I'd better make this good or I'm never going to get out of here, right?" He laughed quietly, almost to himself, as if nearing the punchline of a good joke. I didn't share the sentiment.
"Arnie, you--" It was a struggle to choke the words out. "Tell... tell me right now you didn't, okay? You di--"
"Would you shut the fuck up and let me finish, Guilder?" he asked good-naturedly. I slouched back, defeated. "So. Where was I?" He stroked his chin, an expression of mock wonder on his face. "...right. When we last left our hero, he was trapped in a situation of remarkable horror, lost in the clutches of a psychotic high school bully who just happened to lean towards homoerotic tendencies. Would he escape? Would he manage to defeat the terrible--"
I glared, clearing my throat.
"O-kay, moving on." He sighed loudly. "Now, remember that there wasn't much space to move around, so I had to time things just right."
My best friend had either just said the dirtiest thing I ever heard come out of his mouth, or something confusing as hell. I desperately hoped against the former.
"I slid my hand up his leg real slowly, right? Trying to draw things out a little, trying to buy myself time..." Almost as if he didn't know he was doing it, Arnie - his touch light as a ghost - was absently gliding long, pale fingers over my knee as he spoke, drawing them up over my faded jeans in a loose demonstration of his story. I swallowed a lump I didn't realize was in my throat. My gaze now on his hand instead of his face, I was startled when he began talking again.
"I thought he'd yell at me, y'know, try to get me to hurry up before anyone could barge in at the top of the stairs and destroy the romantic moment, but... but he didn't say anything! The fucker just stood there, not saying a damn thing, which was good, because that really could've broken my concentration and screwed things up. Then again, if that's all he contributes to the bedroom experience, it's little wonder he's forced to corner random dorks in auto shop for a little relief, huh?" He chuckled, the sound low in his throat.
I didn't laugh.
"I just kept playing it slow, until I finally got to the zipper, and-- shit, Dennis, you won't believe this, the guy was actually hard." There was a sort of malicious glee to his voice, as if he was still unused to being the object of anyone's lust, let alone being the cause of something like-- like that. "It was so fucking surreal, I felt like screaming and laughing at the same time. But really, it made things a lot easier for me."
Although I'd been bracing myself for this since the beginning of the story, bile still rose in my throat. Arnie had drawn his hand away from my leg, now twisting it against his other hand.
"So, I pulled down the zipper--"
I was two seconds away from revisiting my lunch. "Arnie, I don't think I want to hear anymore of this."
"Will you shut up and listen?" He looked indignant. "So, I pulled down the zipper, and got myself a nice, decent-sized handful of-- of, well, you know, his..." He trailed off, glancing at me meaningfully.
My lips thinned. I wasn't going to supply any words for him.
"And I looked up, and his eyes were closed, just like I thought they'd be, so..."
He held out one pale hand, miming a swift curving of it into a claw before yanking it down vertically.
I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. "What?"
Arnie leaned back, looking tremendously pleased with himself. There was a shimmer of the guy who thought himself insignificant, who became immensely proud about things like academic rank, in his smile.
"Yeah. Got him all geared up to think he'd be enjoying a little afternoon delight, and then-- twist and crunch!" He rapidly snapped his clawed hand open and shut, tossing his head back and laughing hysterically. He looked like a lunatic, but all I could feel was relief bubbling up in me.
"So, then you ran for it, right?" I asked, now with an eagerness that had been absent throughout the rest of his story. Arnie shook his head, still laughing, and I felt my heart sink.
"Nope. I'd had enough, and the shitter was going to pay," he continued, a new kind of smile overtaking his face. "After I grabbed him, I gave him a left hook under that spot between his chin and his Adam's apple... a really vulnerable spot, Dennis, which is a great mark if you're in the right position for it..."
His lips curled into that smirk that was becoming painfully familiar.
"Which I fortunately was."
He leaned closer, and his voice took on a dangerous softness.
"Knocked him clean over. He started screaming at me, then, all right - stuff like 'You little shit, you're fucking dead!' - y'know, the same old sentiments of love that've always been between us. But I'd put him in enough pain that he was still grabbing for what was left of his manhood." I smiled at that, against my better judgment. "I kicked him a few times, in the stomach, in the face... wasn't too difficult now that he was down... it disoriented him, that's for sure. And it was what I needed to be able to drag him by that long, lovely hair of his over to a vise."
Arnie's eyes widened, taking on that frightening, swallow-the-world intensity that only seemed to possess him when he was talking about Christine.
"In an ideal world, it would've been his dick in that vise... but it's not, and the shitter had almost a hundred pounds on me, so I had to lift up and slam his other head into it." He sounded distinctly disappointed, and I would've laughed if my mouth had not gone dry in disbelief and something akin to growing horror.
He must have sensed my discomfort, for his mood seemed to deflate even further as he glanced over at me.
"Calm down. I've been taking shop long enough to know how much pressure to use without doing any damage too permanent… not that with him, it would’ve even mattered." The grimace on his face was enough to indicate his resentment over this fact. I was almost afraid to ask.
"Just left him there. None of his pals came after him, obviously, because I heard that Mr. Casey was the one who found him. He's already been expelled, so I have no clue what the hell they could've done to him now. And he obviously didn't blame it on me-- come on, Dennis, who'd believe him?"
"I washed my hands for, like, two hours when I got home. Eurgh. I thought I'd never be clean again."
I found myself desperately curious over whether he was referring to being honest-to-god sexually assaulted, or the fact that it was Repperton, or just the act of touching another guy’s dick, and then wondering why the fuck that even mattered.
I forced a smile. "You'll never be clean if you spend all of your free time under that rustbucket of yours, asshole."
The grin dripped from his face as easily as a drop of wax from a candle.
"You want to watch what you say about Christine, or you might be the next one with your head trapped in a vise."
I swallowed. All matters of joking had gone out of his voice. "That's not very funny, Arnie."
His glare vanished, and then his face looked strained, as if he was debating something with himself.
"No. No, I guess it isn't."
It wasn't long before Buddy Repperton found his revenge by mangling Arnie's car. If I was still the only one on my friend's side, by the time I was out of the hospital, Repperton would've ended up nursing a pair of black eyes.
But Christine had taken my place. And saying Repperton ended up far worse is an understatement.