I sat in the back where the leather seat dipped, the stick of it pulling a creak from my jeans as I jostled for higher ground.
– I’m being sucked into a fucking rabbit-hole, Jim.
But Jim didn’t turn around, he just kept staring down the white lines that came towards the car one after the other. The music was loud, too loud for a rescue mission and with the rate we were bounding down the motorway, well over the limit, I was certain we’d get the police on us in no time.
– You’ll kill the both of us.
– As long as I keep the lines in the middle we won’t hit a thing.
Jim’s shoulders loomed over the top of his head-rest. With the music playing he’d slump down before bumping his head up again in rhythm. His neck was tense, the veins standing out on the surface.
– Was it upper body today?
– Core, man. Core.
Yesterday was leg day, like the week before, the month before when we’d grouped around the squat cage and Teddy had showed us three sets of 575. We’d measured him later but there wasn’t any need, he’d clearly overtaken the two of us. Jim and I took some pictures of him in front of the mirrors, the oilcan we kept by the front desk soon brought out and I sprayed a good load on Teddy’s pecs, bigger than an 8-year-old’s head. When he was oiled he flexed his arms, he flexed his shoulders.
– Watch this. Take a picture of this.
Teddy lifted up the rack. The weights thudded onto the rubber floor and he shook it as if it were a wet umbrella. He let out a laugh, fed through clenched teeth.
– Ugh. Yeah.
After showers we’d had a smoke in the changing room. Teddy let his towel fall to the floor, put his foot up on the bench and lunged a good lunge. Jim looked like he was about to do the same. He moved to stand. He stretched his calves. Jim had always been competitive, but I sat where I was. I was big, I was toned, my ass could open a beer bottle but I kept my competition tucked away. When Teddy lunged liked that, hands on hips and a cigarette in his mouth, a look of pure envy would flash over Jim’s face. I caught him looking down at his calf muscles, lifting his heel so that the muscles bulged from his legs before sadly letting his heel touch the ground once more.
– You see me pound it?
– You smashed it, man. Wrecked it.
Jim had started going to the gym later than Teddy and I. He’d joined up after his girlfriend got him a discount voucher. She wanted him to lose a few pounds, a bit on the sides and a bit on the belly, but something had clearly opened inside him and he’d jumped head-first into a strict regime of boiled chicken and twenty eggs a day. He’d grown so fast that he’d gone from M to XL in two months flat. Maybe that pace was part of what made him so jealous of Teddy, who stood before him as some constantly rising benchmark. Every session he would watch the weights Teddy lifted, write the numbers in a little notebook. As I sat there in the changing room with Teddy’s right leg raised on the bench and a look of pure contentment in the way he swivelled his upper body to-and-fro, I could feel Jim’s green-eyed envy pouring out to drown us all.
– You should be in magazines, Ted. You should be on TV.
In truth, Teddy was long past steroids, somewhere far beyond that at the point where he’d try whatever he could get his hands on. Rumours had it that some Quaker website had told him it was whale oil that did the trick. He’d shoot up in the toilet after eating two bananas, chuck the needle and the skins straight into the bin and finish with a high-protein bar. He did this every time, he did this right before he told us about the ad he’d found in craigslist for ‘fit guys who want to get a start in the adult film industry’. He’d forwarded it to all of us. He said he’d applied as a joke but he’d accidently forwarded his response as well and there was quite a detailed cover letter.
– They want a piece, they want the pie.
So we had a routine, and we’d turn up every evening and the rows of skinny little runners would turn and glance at the three of us there, us solid men. We all wore vest tops. We all looked good. We grunted and groaned, gritted our teeth and threw the dumbbells to the ground. Teddy roared as he gripped the barbell and pushed it hard against gravity’s will. With a heave he admitted that he hadn’t heard from the adult-film people. He sneered and said it wasn’t important, but his voice wavered and later I watched the corners of his eyes grow wet, his face turn to a thousand folds as he lifted the bar above his head with the faintest of tears on his cheek. After we showered he didn’t lunge, he didn’t speak. He sat and looked down at the tiles of the floor. We told him it would be okay, that just because he hadn’t heard back didn’t mean he wasn’t qualified to be naked on film.
– They’re just intimidated. They’re just scared of the beast.
Jim came in the next evening with a box for Teddy, wrapped up with a little green bow. It was something to cheer him up, he said. Teddy snorted but took it in his hands all the same. He pulled at the little green bow and the box folded delicately open. Inside was a snake, coiled up, its little tongue lapping out at the air. Jim said he wanted to get him something tough, and a snake was as tough as it got. Teddy grinned, he liked the gift, he took it home. He’d feed it mice and the snake would swallow them whole.
– It slithers and hisses. You can’t take it for walks.
– Everybody needs someone to love.
From then on things got better and better for Teddy. He got a tattoo of a snake on his right bicep. He showed it to Jim the next day, showed him how it would twist and swell each time he flexed his arm. Sometimes Jim would go over to Teddy’s to feed his pet if he was out of town, sometimes they would go out drinking without me. It seemed there was new brotherhood between the two of them, Jim’s jealousy all sweated out, and although I felt a little excluded it made me happy to see them slap each other’s backs with genuine feeling.
– Come on, man. Don’t give up. Don’t you dare give up.
But the words of encouragement stopped when the gym announced it was looking for a new face. There was going to be a competition, a big one, one to be in all the posters across the whole chain. The three of us went for it. All three of us got into the finals, and when the judge finally shook Teddy’s oiled hand that green look of envy, the one I’d seen so many times before, glinted back across Jim’s eyes. Later he watched from behind the cameras when Teddy’s gigantic frame was lit with flash after flash, all the muscles on his body piled together with a fake skyline draped behind. In the photographer’s studio it seemed that Teddy was expanding outwards, stretching out over the tops of buildings in bursts of lightning that bulged and shook his skin across the city. Teddy said to us that when he’d found out he was going to be in advertisements he’d felt a tension released that he’d never really known was there. Something that had clung to him for as long he could remember.
– Stand like a man.
– Like this?
– Yeah. Yeah, just like that. Don’t move an inch.
And so Teddy’s body was the size of a building, 50 feet tall, hung from the roof. But the day they stuck up the advert was the last day we saw him. A whole week passed and he didn’t turn up to one workout. He didn’t come for core, upper-body, not even legs. I found it hard to concentrate without the sight of him there. I did the weights, I went through the motions, but it didn’t feel the same. I couldn’t focus. After one workout I’d had some drinks with Jim, a few more drinks after that. We talked about protein, we talked about TV, we talked about our friend and where he could have possibly gone. By 3am, after we’d tried his phone for the fifteenth time, I got it into my mind that we should go to his flat, that we should go there as soon as we could. So Jim drove and I sat in the back, slipping down a hole in the seat.
– His phone’s ringing. I can hear it ringing.
A white light shone beneath the crack of Teddy’s door. We’d knocked and rung, but there wasn’t any response. With a few steps back and few steps forward I made short work of the lock, splintered the door in half, pushed it in and Jim followed close behind. Jim stuck to my back as we rounded the corner to the kitchen.
– Teddy? Teddy, are you there?
There on the living room table was a pile of men’s health magazines and an open glass case. There were boxes of protein supplements, rows of jars with a light brown liquid inside. The walls were covered with porn, with pictures of famous athletes cut from magazines. The naked men showed their bodies, mouths open in ecstasy. The athletes posed on plinths, gold medals around their necks. Their smiles spread from ear to ear and with outstretched hands they beckoned us in.
– Come stand beside us. Come rise towards the marble men.
There was a bang, a thud against the wall. We stood and followed the source of it, out of the living room, along the corridor. There in the hall was a door we hadn’t noticed before. A white door. Jim’s hand pointed to the handle. His finger shook and he looked me in the eye. Before I had a chance to open the door he spoke to me in a soft voice, a voice I’d never heard on him before. I noticed in the light of the hall that he was as white as a sheet. He was as pale as a ghost. He asked me if I thought he was strong and I looked at him there, his neck so tense, his body so broad.
– You look strong, Jim. As strong as stone.
And I pulled the door. And my hand reached out for the wall. If I did not hold it then I knew that I would fall straight to the floor. Behind the door was a small broom cupboard. There were brooms, two brooms, but only their tops could be seen behind the heaving mass that pressed against the walls.
The scaled body had been so stretched that there was neither sight of head or tail. The belly spread out over the floor, bloated and full, and that which lay nestled inside the snake was unmoving. I closed my eyes. I closed them tight, but I could still see the muscles rippling back and forth beneath the skin.