“Damn, Neill, I don’t think that there’s the sheriff.”
I had known for quite a while that it wasn’t. The sheriff was a tough old codger, hard as nails if you tried to keep him from getting his cut, but he was no driver. It had to be Bert doing the driving, and that was bad news. He might only have gotten the deputy’s job and the easy life that came with the badge because he was the sheriff’s favorite nephew, but there was no question that he could drive.
Of course, if I’d mentioned that to Jed, he would have fidgeted. Besides, I could outrun anyone in this valley, even if the local cops had wised up and gotten flatheads under their hoods to chase us with. At least that’s what I thought. But the headlights on the brown car behind me were doing a pretty good job of keeping up. Were they actually getting closer?
“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” I replied, slotting the box into third. I needed Jed to stay calm. “Just remember that this is a trick car. As soon as the road straightens a little we’ll leave him in the dust.”
He sat back and shut up. He knew I was right. A four on the floor and the special camshaft would more than make up for the extra weight of the moonshine in the trunk, especially once the road ran straight. Just a few more curves and we’d make the highway – this section of the road was already out of the mountains and in the woods around the old dairy farm. We’d be out of here and on our way to Bristol in no time.
I checked the mirror, and damned if the thing wasn’t right on my bumper. Well, the last couple of curves were a sharp right and a doozy of a left. I’d show ole Bert a thing or two. I gunned the engine and felt the Ford leap under me. The dirt was loose here, but I could hold it, tail out, on the throttle. It was a fine line, of course, but I’d done it more than once, without even a scratched fender to show for it.
My lights, illegally bright, showed me the position of the curve by where the road twisted between the trees. I turned in, balanced the car in a slide and felt it take the perfect pitch.
Then I saw the water, reflecting on the road. I tried to correct for the lack of grip, but it was already much too late for that. A tree appeared right ahead, moving at incredible speed, and the sound of breaking glass exploded around me for a tiny fraction of an instant.
Where was I? I shook my head to clear it, and found that it wouldn’t quite move the way I wanted it to. At least nothing hurt. There was something wrong with my eyesight, though. It was like looking through a tunnel. The crash must have scrambled my eyes. And it was day-time. It had been three in the morning just before I hit the tree. Had I been out? Maybe I was still trapped in the car, only dreaming I was awake.
But no, I was definitely awake. I was sitting in some kind of seat and, though it took me a moment, I quickly realized that what looked like hundreds of tubes around me were actually the inside of a car. I could hear the sound of a V-8, muffled by whatever they’d wrapped my head in, coming from in front of me, and the sound of quite a few more coming from all around.
I might not have a clue as to where I was, but my foot had no such problems; it moved of its own accord, blipping the throttle and pushing me forward, almost into the car ahead of mine.
I looked some more. The car in front was like nothing I’d ever seen before, squared off, and low, like one of those fancy imports or something on the cover of a magazine about the future. Men from Mars might use something like that to cross through space. And the pink paint hurt just to look at it. Maybe I was in a circus?
No. Not a circus. A racetrack. The car ahead of me turned into the curve, and I saw that, apart from the garish paint, there was a huge number on the side. To my right, what I’d thought were painted walls were actually grandstands, filled with what must have been thousands – tens of thousands – of spectators.
I realized that I was at the back of a long row of cars – no, two rows, I realized as the nose of another vehicle appeared at my left – and we were in some deep-dished oval. It was as though the dirt track we’d hang out in on Saturday nights had grown into a monster. The car in front accelerated and my foot moved again, rocketing me forward. The old moonshine jalopies never had this kind of horsepower. But I couldn’t enjoy the sense of speed. Why was my body moving on its own? Why were my hands controlling the wheel without my help? And why on Earth were they doing it so badly?
Some of the lines the car took would have shamed even the old sheriff. No wonder cars passed on all sides. When I tried to improve things, my body resisted. It wanted to do things its own way, while I wanted to pass the red car that had just gone by. I moved one way, my body moved the other, and my ride would probably have ended in disaster if the pink thing I’d seen earlier hadn’t spun lazily into the infield coming out of one of the turns and tapped an inside wall.
Everyone slowed like they did in the microseconds after a wreck. I tried to move the steering wheel from one side to the other, to keep heat in the tires, when I heard a voice crackling in my ear.
“Pit in,” it said. “Four and fuel.”
I tried to look around and see who’d been talking, but my head didn’t want to obey
orders any more than my arms and feet, and besides I was tied in too firmly. My mouth, of its own accord, replied: “All right, and gimme a half-turn of rear bar, it’s pushing in three and four.”
I had no idea what I’d just said, and could do nothing but watch as the car came to a stop in a huge pit lane and a bunch of big guys in black armed with tires, a jack and a big fuel can attacked it. Hard as it was to believe, twenty seconds later they’d gotten the tires changed and the car sped back out onto the track.
Soon enough, the green came out – I saw it this time – and I found myself sawing at the wheel ineffectively as other drivers went by. Why had I suddenly forgotten everything I’d ever known about driving a car? After ten minutes of it, I wanted to take over and do it right so badly that it hurt.
In one curve, the line the car was taking was so awful that I couldn’t resist and put my entire strength of will into pushing it back online. My body resisted for a second, but then gave way, and we went through the corner at a decent speed.
What’s going on? Who are you?
I jerked suddenly and almost put it in the wall. That voice had been inside my head. Not scratchy, like the radio – I wondered if it actually was a radio – but scared. One scared southern boy talking at me in my own mind. Had I finally lost it? How did one answer to a voice in his mind? I thought at it: I’m driving this thing. Unless you wanna be dead last before the next five laps are up, let me take over.
The voice shut up, but I found that my body gradually stopped resisting when I sent the car through the curves. Whatever, whoever, was in my head seemed to understand that we were going much faster this way, and as he stopped resisting, he began cheering every time we’d pass some other driver.
I fell into a groove and relaxed, and I had time to notice what the writing on the outside wall said: Bristol Motor Speedway. At least I was still in good old Tennessee. I wondered if any of the boys – especially Jed – were up there in the stands. Swell track like this one, I’d bet anything they wouldn’t miss it. But when had they built the thing? Certainly hadn’t been there this morning. I had the ugly feeling that this might be the same Bristol Tennessee I’d known back when I was running moonshine, but it wasn’t the same day. There was something strange going on.
But there was also a race on, and that was something I couldn’t ignore – partly because that was the way I was and partly because of something I couldn’t define, pushing me on. Some of these guys were pretty good, but I could see that none of them had grown up on the dirt roads around this valley. There was nothing like driving on loose earth at eighty miles an hour in a heavy pig of a sedan to give you a feel for where the weight of the car was taking you. And this one might be powerful, but I could tell in every curve that it weighed as much as – if not more than – my old jalopy.
We – my partner, whoever he was, and I – clawed our way through the field. There was one driver left to pass as we entered the last five laps, and I could tell that this guy knew his way around the circuit. He skidded just the right amount of time and then caught it, pulling through the curves faster than anyone else except for me.
All of a sudden he seemed to slide a bit more than normal, and left the door open for me to pass him on the inside. I floored it and was through before he could react. I wondered what had happened; I’d been watching this guy drive for the last thirty laps, and this just wasn’t like him. But I wasn’t going to worry about that right now. I had one lap to go, and the fellows on the radio were going wild, screaming their heads off at me through the link. Three corners. Two.
“Inside!” a voice called out over the link.
Coming out of the final curve, I suddenly saw a flash of blue half on the track and half on the grass, and then the world went around in circles. I think we hit the wall first, and then the rest of the field collected us, and I found out why I was so well tied in, and what the bars were for, because after getting smacked around for what seemed like forever, my body, with no help from me, began unbuckling the straps that held it in, and I couldn’t feel any pain.
I was already fading. A feeling of anger swept through me, but it seemed to come from the very earth the track was built on – it certainly wasn’t mine. All I knew was that my job was done, and that I’d failed. For the second time in what seemed like a few hours, the world went dark.
But I learned from it. I learned that things weren’t quite as gentlemanly in the new world as they’d been in mine. Even the old sheriff wouldn’t have bumped me off like that. But I could give as well as take and, in the time since my first race, I’ve won more than I’ve lost. I also learned that the track pulls me out of the ground – yes, I died against the tree that day – whenever there’s a risk that some Yankee or some Californian is going to win the big race.
This track owns me, or maybe it was built on my grave and I’m a part of it, but anyway, it can’t bear the thought of an outsider, someone whose blood hasn’t done its time in these mountains, winning on its surface. I’ve run more laps on this track than any man, alive or dead. It always puts me inside a car on the back rows, a driver on a small team, or a youngster doing his first race; always someone that no one expects to win; and always a nice mountain boy from Georgia or Virginia or Tennessee. And, like I said, we win more often than we lose.
So, listen to me, rookie. If you want to be anything in this sport, stop fighting the wheel and let me do the driving. We don’t have a lot of time before the pace car pulls off, so make your decision quickly.
If we win, I won’t ask for much. Take some of your winnings and buy a wreath. Find the access road to the circuit, the one that comes down from the mountain and cuts into the highway. They’ve paved it now, but those two nasty curves are still there: one left, one right. Just leave the flowers under the big bent tree.
Bio: Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over a hundred stories published in ten countries. His first two books were published in 2010: a collection of Gustavo‘s previously published stories, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places was released in October, and his short novel The Curse of El Bastardo in November. His third book, Virtuoso and Other Stories was published in 2011. He can be found on his website at www.gustavobondoni.com.ar, and his blog, located at http://bondo-ba.livejournal.