The white car slewed off the hot tarmac, the painted slogans on its doors blurring into a disordered graffiti of words. It veered out of control, ploughing through bales of straw, kicking them out like a mule, screaming a thin protest at the violent distortion of bodywork.
Ashley Rivers barely heard the gasp from the crowd, though she drew in her own breath on a sharp rise of fear. The noise gathered her up into stiff arms, bore her forwards on unfamiliar legs through the spectators. Helplessly, she watched the car roll over and somersault across a subsidiary road into undergrowth.
For a moment, Ashley thought she was watching a film. But the crunching of metal was real, so was the blast of fuel igniting. The heat seared her eyeballs and she couldn’t see, believing the sheet of hot orange across her lenses was a scalding blindness.
As the car turned into a rushing, glittering ball of flame, Ashley began to scream, but did not recognise the sound coming from her throat. None of this was happening. She would wake up soon and find herself in her cool apple-green bedroom at Kerran Hall.
She did not know if the roaring sound was from the burning car or the crowds or the firefighters racing along the tarmac. The men seemed to run slowly, weighed down by equipment, defying gravity. Ashley broke through the barrier, running towards the blazing car, stumbling, her ragged breath gathering into a hard knot in her breast, her dark hair escaping from under her baker’s boy cap.
“No, no! Please God, no…”
The windscreen went wavy then shattered and the glass blew out in streaks of arrowed light. Inside the car glowed, and she saw the outline of the driver’s shoulders. He wore fireproof overalls and a helmet. He was struggling to unfasten the safety belt, moving in slow motion.
“Get him out!” she screamed. “Get him out. . .”
The firefighters had reached the car and were activating their foam extinguishers. People were running from all directions. A tall man in crumpled black overalls, his tanned face ashen, flung his helmet to the ground. He tore at the door handles, the searing heat sending him crashing to the ground, the burnt flesh of his hands escalating the shock.
Somehow Ashley got through the crowds. The image was the worst of all sights. The face within the helmet was Ryan — carbon black, no features, his arms flailing the air, flames licking at his suit.
“For God’s sake, somebody do something!” Ashley shouted, pushing forward. She fought anyone who was in her way.
“Get that woman out of here.” The tall man broke out of the horrified crowd and, despite his hands, caught Ashley’s arms in a vicious grip. “You can’t help, you fool. You’re getting in the way. These people know what they are doing.”
“Leave me alone,” she stormed, prising off his hold with her nails. He flinched, biting on the pain.
“Mr. Ross. . . it’s Ryan O’Hara in the GT3000,” said a mechanic.
“Think I don’t know my own car?” the man said.
The firefighters managed to wrench open the door and Ryan fell to the ground, rolling over, trying to put out the flames devouring his suit. They pulled him away from the car before the reserve fuel tanks exploded. He was howling in agony.
Ashley could smell the sweet scent of burning flesh, and went cold. Her body shrank, repulsed, even though she loved him. A hot dry wind blew across the tarmac like a breath of fire. Her nostrils filled with charred fragments, and ash rose like black snow. She felt the world revolve slowly, and scenes of years ago came back with a clarity that she thought time had long since dimmed.
Meadows, river banks, a barn with hay smelling of wild flowers and herbs, the sun on her bare limbs, and a day that was all sweetness and light as her young body appeared for his gaze and touch. She had moved instinctively beneath him with sensual ease. Their love was a wondrous surprise, new for both of them. Time sailed through layers of sleep and loving, laced with the exhaustion of torn butterfly wings.
Ashley remembered it all while Ryan smouldered and burned in a writhing heap on the ground. Then she heard his voice.
“It doesn’t hurt. I’m all right,” he croaked through a ghastly grin.
He doesn’t know, she thought. He doesn’t know. He can’t feel anything.
The stench of death lingered in the air. What percentage burns killed? Ashley tried to remember. Third degree burns involved the whole thickness of the skin. Rule of nines for the area… fluid loss, plasma loss, strain on the heart. What was the minimum for survival? Were the fireproof overalls efficient? That’s why drivers wore them in events. She wore them.
“Get back!” the firefighters shouted.
Ashley was crushed in the turmoil of retreating bodies. The growling cars came to a halt as word spread round the track. She found herself flung against the tall man in the black overalls. He was like a wall, blocking her escape, looking over her head.
“It’s going up,” he said, without hope.
The reserve fuel tanks ignited and a great arc of flame lit the blue of the sky. Birds flew up from the singed hedges in alarm, pale wings flapping helplessly in the scorching air.
Ashley watched in a kind of stunned acceptance. Somehow, she had always known that their love had no future.
But then, Ryan had often told her so, hadn’t he?