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Fiction by Darren Colbourne
The Grand Prix
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A Wager at the Grand Prix
by Darren Colbourne
Come the latest hours of a muggy summer night – when the fireflies swim in
humid air, their tails lighting a path towards morning – Maria felt naked
without a seatbelt on. It was nothing to do with the seatbelt itself, of course,
but what the seatbelt was built into, the machine that glided along the miles
of empty darkness. Maria thought of the girls in their black evening dresses,
the pin up poster wannabes and their appetite for accessories: good
southern belles to a one, living in some chauvinistic fantasyland that reality
seemed content, at least for the moment, to leave well enough alone.
“Well you can have them”, Maria said to the empty interior, “keep your
pearls and your gold and your crystal and…”
She drowned herself out with a roar from the turbo, pushing her right foot
down hard before releasing the clutch. Sure, let them have their toys, their
fun. I have mine she thought, and all I need is here, literally strapped to
Well, almost, everything.
The road snaked through the pines, and Maria watched the trees speed
past. She thought of driving along the spinal column of some great creature,
its ribs curved up and over.
She kept her nose pointed south, towards where the cracked road ran out
to gravel and grass.
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Usually as the drive got tougher her mind eased, her slowing thoughts inversely proportional to the
rising of the speedometer’s red needle. But tonight she couldn’t stop thinking. She turned every
detail over in her head, all the earlier hours blurred with drink and the hours to come a haze in
future’s fog. She’d spent all night in her bed running through what she wanted to say, parsing the
words down into a single sentence. Eventually even the gravel began to run out, and Maria turned
off the road and onto a driveway beyond which a house lay dark and still.
Her breath caught in her throat as she swung the door open but remained pinned to the seat.
The panic subsided into embarrassment as she fumbled stupidly with the seatbelt latch she’d
forgotten to remove.
That feeling of nakedness enveloped her, her shadow bare and illuminated by the high beam
against the house’s walls. The engine idled a questioning purr, and Maria drew her hand across
the hood unable to push herself towards the window on the corner. Before she could make up
her mind to carry on or turn around, the window threw itself open. Maria ran towards the figure
shielding its face from the light.
“Jesus Christ Schumi, I was trying to sleep. You wanna turn the floodlights off before you wake
the ‘rents up? If they catch you out here again…” The girl stopped as Maria’s shadow shielded
her from the light. She dropped her hand and Maria could see her mouth, a curious mixture of
knowing and annoyed.
“That’s why I didn’t honk this time. They can’t see the light, they’re on the other side of the house.
It was the only way to get you up.”
“You could try, you know, knocking. Or throw a rock at the window, that always works in the
“You’re such a bitch.”
“Bite me, you’re the one playing Bonnie and Clyde at, damn, what time is it anyway?”
“It’s, look, it doesn’t matter,” Maria felt her voice giving way. As it broke, her mental script
erupted in flame, the ash dropping down into her lungs and choking the words out. “I just, it’s,
tonight wasn’t great and, I mean you were there and…”
“Hey, relax.” Jane swung one leg over the frame and straddled the windowsill, her hand falling on
Maria’s shoulder. “It’s fine, really. You’ve just been good at giving me a little warning lately, is all.
You wanna come in?”
Maria started and drew back. “Actually, I was sort of hoping…” Jane saw the expectant look
and sighed. Maria noted with relief there was more knowing than annoyance this time.
“But it’s so late Schumi.”
“We both know if you weren’t coming, you wouldn’t call me that.” She was already walking back
towards the car, trying to control her breathing. Jane sighed again and emerged fully from her
room, shutting the window behind her.
“Okay, you got me out. But tonight is going to be a short heat, do you hear me? No 8 hours of Le
Hickville, no Bumfuck 500, this is, like, the tenth running of the Maria Crisis Grand Prix this summer
and it’s gonna be a sprint, understand?”
Maria laughed in spite of herself, her hand finding the familiar comfort of the warm hood. The little
hatchback’s engine droned on, and that felt good too.
“Whatever you say.”
“It’s always whatever I say, but once you get going in this death machine of yours it’s hard to say
much of anything without wetting myself. How many miles does Seb even have on him now? You
treat the poor guy worse than you treat me.” Jane obviously intended sarcasm but Maria could
find neither condescension nor pity. To anyone else Jane was just a good sport. Maria knew
better than that.
They both got in, the passenger hardly buckled before Maria peeled out in reverse, aiming the
faded decal in the back window for the sagging mailbox at the end of the lane. Just as the box
came into view beyond, Maria shifted gears. The car lurched badly and a sick mechanical sound
pieced the otherwise dead night. Jane choked herself on the seatbelt and Maria slammed against
“What the fuck?” Jane asked. “What kind of amateur misses first? And put your seatbelt on. I
know you have a death wish, and God knows I wouldn’t mind letting you off yourself. What it
would do for my sleep… but then I don’t feel like explaining this to my parents. Or yours.”
Maria felt her hands shaking as she popped the leaver back into neutral. The car sat in the middle
of the road as she gathered herself. She prayed the tears wouldn’t start. Not yet, not now.
“Are you alright Maria?” Something in her friend’s voice shifted, the tone a concern that snapped
her back into composure.
“I’m fine. Never better. Now we have to make up time.”
She was about to rev back into gear when she caught herself. The ashes had blown away in the
moment and she instinctively began to speak. “Look, Jane, about tonight I just…”
“Wait, did they build a pit lane on the old raceway since we last ran it?”
Jane pointed towards the driver’s display in the dash. “You’re running on empty. You have… what,
twenty miles? Thirty max? And that’s EPA estimate. With how you drive, we’re not gonna make it
back to the main road.”
“I could have sworn,” Maria began, but she knew her friend was right. The fuel gauge read danger
close to empty. In sport mode she might have fifteen minutes. Twenty tops.
Her desperation gave birth to an idea. An idea that would give her a bit more time. Please, God,
just a bit more time. Time to find the words. Time to make the feelings sensible, the half packed
knapsack in the boot a reasonable choice. She’d drive and she’d find whatever it was that brought
her out here in the first place.
“I’m going to make you a bet.”
“Listen, just hear me out, you’ve always given me that much.”
Jane paused. To her credit, it was a short one. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“I want to make you a wager.”
“A wager? Jesus what is this, 1880’s Deadwood…
“Look, you promised you’d listen.”
“I’m listening!” Less confrontational this time: “I’m listening.”
“Good. Okay, at this time of night, Whitley’s Feed Shop on Jackson is closed right?”
“That means the Corner Shop is closed too.”
“Point being, the only place to get gas is the BP out on Underpass beside the freeway. And like
you said, I need gas.” Maria was leading, and though Jane could wax poetic with the best of
them, she never liked having the game played on her. She wasn’t the type to fall for the bullshit
build up. Not wanting to take any more chances, Maria sped on. “So I’ll make you a deal. This car
cuts out before we reach the BP, you win. I’ll get you a ride home. Call you a cab, call Shane and
beg, whatever, it doesn’t matter. And I’ll never bring you out on one of these rides again.”
It wasn’t the first part of the wager Jane perked up at. Sure, cabs were few and far between,
extravagant even, out here in the middle of Appalachia-no-where. And calling Shane? He was a
hanger-on, a necessary inner circle addition in that timeless girlfriend code that handled such
nuances. But no more midnight kidnappings? No more white-knuckle joyrides, not even in the
grips of excitement or the throes of late teenage angst? Well that was interesting.
“Okay. Even that’s chump change, cause I don’t feel like sitting on a curb waiting for the yellow
cab of Winnie Dixie to pick me up at 4AM, but it’s not about what it means to me cause I know
what it means to you. So what exactly am I staking against this?”
Tension is a funny thing. Like awkwardness, or social anxiety, it’s one of those deals that requires
a partner. Takes two to tango, as Maria’s father always liked to drawl out when he was drinking
and antagonistic with mom. Maria felt her heart in a vice grip, veins pulsed blue in her bird bone
arms, anxiety tightening the smooth muscles throughout her body. But she was smart enough to
know this was a one way street: she’d pulled Jane out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, a
nuisance yes, but not a critical or dangerous one. She doubted her friend felt its full force. So she
went all in with the cards laid hidden on the table, hoping to God the show worked in her favor.
She regained her composure: “If we get up to that pump, and I can drag the hose over, I’m filling
the tank to the brim and we’re gonna pull away and drive off. We’re not going to look back, and
we’re not going to leave any sad tear-stained notes. We’re gone and we’re never coming back to
this deadbeat little town.”
She hadn’t prepared this. But it still came out better than all those scripted confessions, those
halfhearted invitations or self-important soliloquys. Billy Shakes himself couldn’t stage direct it
And it showed. Jane sat in her seat, equal parts tired and taken aback, unsure how to respond.
Before she could Maria threw the lever into first and slammed the clutch, this time not missing.
Seb’s launch control kicked in and the hatchback shot forward, the front wheel drive throwing
gravel pebbles against the under carriage.
Jane forgot the proposition as the forces pressed her back. A four stroke engine doesn’t mean
much on paper, but a twin turbo boost coupled with a low body weight and modified onboard
computer made it a constantly impressive surprise to the uninitiated, or even to the seasoned but
Maria was in fifth and out of sight of the house before Jane spoke up.
“That… Look, Schu… Maria, I love you, God you know that’s true, but what are you even…”
“That’s the deal, you can take it or leave it.” Maria fired this back at the first corner, a low gear
slant left on gravel, which she maneuvered with a downshift entry as the back wheels slipped out,
her headlights momentarily illuminating the forest perpendicular to the road before slamming back
on course. “You’re the one always talking about how much you hate this place.”
Jane eyed the fuel gauge before taking a close look at Maria’s face. Jane was exhausted and it
showed, Christ knows, the night had been long with the party and the open bar. Too much banal
conversation, too much schmoozing. And she had thought long about her friend, her best friend,
the one who had left early. She’d been almost sick with worry before Shane drove her home. But
then worry was the type of thing born in a moment. Real knowledge, real familiarity, that came
with time. And she knew Schumi. Her friend needed this.
“Okay, okay. You know what, “ Jane took one last look at the display, glaring red in race mode,
as it dominated the driver’s dash. There wasn’t a chance in hell they’d make it. “You’re on. Let’s
go for a ride. Punch it girl.”
Maria was way ahead of her. She flared out of the corner and accelerated through fourth.
The car hit asphalt before anyone dared to speak again. Up ahead the curves increased, the
road split definitively into two lanes. Maria concentrated on the task at hand. Jane, hoping to
make sense of tonight’s odyssey, spoke first.
“Hey, what was that anyway? You left so early. And in a huff. Why the theatrics?”
“Nothing. It was nothing. The boys are in Austria tonight, and the first practice session started at
midnight, so I needed to get home.”
“Cut the bullshit. You already got me out here, so just tell me the truth.”
Maria sighed. “It’s really nothing, and that’s the hell of it. I just couldn’t be there anymore.
Everyone’s so desperate. Did you see Anna falling all over that one guy? How did her tits ever
stay in that dress anyway?” She shook her head. “I just couldn’t fake it anymore. The smiles. The
niceties. I hate little black dresses, I hate heels, and most of all I just hate myself when I’m trying
to wear them.”
It was Jane’s turn to sigh. “How do you ever expect to get a nice southern boy if you’re not willing
to play the game?”
“I don’t want a nice southern boy.” Christ, if only Jane knew how on the nose that was.
“Well, with how standoffish and defensive you get any time we go out, you’ll be lucky to get
anything at all.” Jane leaned against the window and closed her eyes. She knew the buttons to
push, alright. But she also knew when to back off, when to change the subject or lighten the
mood. “You look good in heels anyway: I’m sure they’re a pain in the ass to drive in though.”
Maria smiled for the first time since getting in the car
“Was there actually a race tonight?”
“Not a race. Practice session at the Red Bull Ring. Your boy Hamilton did pretty well.”
“A handsome Brit in a fast car. What’s not to love?”
The observation brought a familiar memory and a warmth into Maria’s chest. Monday mornings
with the DVR set to ESPN, a Formula 1 race recorded from the early morning hours. Maria sitting
on the floor watching intently, Jane on the couch with a book and a look of satisfied amusement.
“You’re so unoriginal,” Jane says while flipping a page. “The blue eyed, blonde German boy with
the sexy accent. Sebastian’s his name for Christ sake. Give me the dark British guy every time.”
Maria didn’t bother to correct her friend. It wasn’t the driver she was in love with, though
Sebastian Vettel was her favorite. It was the cars. The most beautiful machines on the planet.
The curves in the metal, bright liveries, the graceful precision of a well taken corner. For her
sixteenth birthday she’d gone to New York City and seen the ballet. They had nothing on the
Formula cars and their feminine aggression.
That was the word, feminine. She’d never taken an interest in the NASCAR races her father fell
asleep in front of, the brutish instruments of power and garish noise. The Ferraris and McLarens
were sexual: more than that, they were mystical.
Her own little hatchback might not have the same poise, but it offered a small window into their
world, a glimpse and chance at the same experience. She’d named it Seb.
Jane knew, as much as anyone can know the fantasies of another, about her friend’s obsession
and humored her. She even played along. A few years ago she’d started addressing her as
Schumi, in honor of the other German superstar Michael Schumacher. It’d stuck.
“Schumi, earth to Schumi,” the voice played from inside the car instead of inside her head,
bringing her back. Just in time, too, she noticed. The upcoming section of road was the most
technical on the route.
“Yeah, sorry, I was somewhere else.”
“Well, if you don’t mind sticking around, I’d appreciate it. You rode the shoulder all the way
around that last bend.” Jane said. “Can you please level with me?”
“You’ve been somewhere else all night. And I don’t just mean in the car. I think you believe
yourself, for what it’s worth, all that self-pitying stuff from earlier. But something’s been eating
you, and whatever it is, it’s not just some pretentious holier-than-thou…”
“Tell me how you really feel.”
“Am I wrong?”
Maria felt her heart rate picking up again, the warmth from earlier dissipating. “No,” she almost
whispered, “no you’re not wrong.”
“So what is it?”
The question sounded tiny against the car’s engine as it revved up again. Maria navigated a
difficult S-bend, cutting the throttle back in the middle before stepping hard on the gas. The turbos
sang a counterpoint to the screeching tires. The spectral audience of fireflies and cicadas clapped
with light, roared with heavy buzzing, the trees illuminated on both sides. Maria looked over Jane’s
shoulder as she approached a hairpin. Seeing no cars coming from the opposite direction, she let
the wheels slide out again, Seb taking up both lanes as it cut around the corner.
“I hate it when you do that,” Jane said, trying to hide the tension in her hands as she held onto the
door. “But I’ll give it to you Schumi, you’ve gotten damn good at it.”
“How many more of these parties do you think Anna will have?” Maria asked, playing at casual
conversation in the hopes of changing the subject.
The ruse worked, at least for now. “No idea. They were great back in middle school, I guess. But,
and I hate to admit this, I think you’re right. It all seems a little forced.” Jane laughed. “Do you
remember the first time she ever threw one? What were we in, seventh grade?”
Once again Maria didn’t correct her, but it had been the eighth. If the memories of Monday
mornings and couches, races and conversation, were combinations of hundreds of half recalled
events all filling each other’s gaps, the memory of that party was as concrete as anything stored
in Maria’s brain.
The night was rapidly approaching its climax, and Maria knew it. She wanted nothing more than
to prolong it, to keep her emotions under control just a while longer. But Jane refused to make
that easy, bringing up that night. It wasn’t her fault, of course, Maria had walked right into it. What
was that saying, out of the frying pan and into the fire? Besides, Jane didn’t know, how could she
know? But God, Maria prayed she would let it go at that.
She didn’t. “That was a crazy night. I still don’t know how Anna got into her dad’s wine cabinet.
He was in the room, remember? All of us hanging over the banister and watching? Conspicuous
is an understatement.”
Maria forced a laugh. “Yeah, that was the first night I’d ever had a drink.”
“Me too! God. Do you think we’d have had the guts to play truth and dare without it? I mean, with
all those guys there. We knew what was coming didn’t we? Of course we did.”
Maria certainly had known. That’s why she’d poured most of her drink down the sink and went
with truth every time. Jane joked about her prudishness which, at a time when most of her friends
were taking an almost unhealthy interest in the opposite sex, bordered on puritanism. It wasn’t
that she was averse to sex or anything. The idea just sort of bored her. It felt… unattractive?
Maybe. She certainly found nothing attractive about the handful of horny teen boys eyeing her like
Which isn’t to say she liked the way she felt, far from it. Something seemed wrong with her. She
felt broken, different, and distant from all the things society told her to value.
It wasn’t until that night in eighth grade that she figured out why.
“Got to hand it to those guys though, they sure as hell weren’t shy.”
Jane, already on her second glass of the evening, had picked dare first. Maria saw the blood
flush across her cheeks in what she could only assume was eager anticipation. And she was
right, the boys weren’t shy, and they didn’t disappoint.
When they dared Jane to take her top off, Maria almost left the room. But something kept her
glued to the seat. A sense of curiosity tinged with excitement. She hid her emotions with a look of
casual disgust but inside something stirred, something she’d never experienced before. Her heart
raced and she felt the flush on her own cheeks now.
Jane had giggled and wasted no time, pulling off her shirt. She hadn’t been wearing a bra, Maria
remembered. She pulled her hands up to cover herself, but not quickly enough. Maria glimpsed
the swell of her breasts, small, but larger than her own.
Standing there half naked with her face red, her short hair messy, Jane looked beautiful.
The first physical attraction she ever felt was for her best friend. The years that followed only
intensified her feelings. Eventually she’d ended up accepting the truth: she was in love.
“Jane, look, I…”
“Was Shane there that night? I can’t even remember. Not that it matters I guess, he’s seen them
“I don’t know. So are you guys back together again? He seemed like he was all over you tonight.”
“I honestly can’t even keep track anymore. I hope not, though he did drive me home, so make of
that what you will. Christ I’m going to end up marrying that loser aren’t I? That’s how all these on
again off again things end, right?”
Maria had never understood what Jane saw in that boy. He was a loser, nondescript and dull.
She’d never seen him show an ounce of passion for anything, let alone a passion for the girl he
Not that she was biased or anything.
The car hit the longest straight of the night, and Maria pushed into sixth, the speedometer rapidly
“It’s just a symptom of this place,” Jane continued, stifling a yawn. “You’re right. I fucking hate this
town. It’s all the same, it’s all so boring. Each day’s just a skipping record needle and you know
where we’re going? Towards a suburban house in a town just like this one, with two cars and three
Maria felt momentarily hopeful. “So let’s get out of here.”
“How long have we been saying that? First it was dropping out of high school. You made it, what,
three days before your parents caught you? Then it was going to the west coast for college, but
who was ever gonna pay for that anyway?”
“But now things are different…”
“Different? You’re not listening. Nothing ever changes for people like us. Run away? And go
where? With what money? You’re impulsive, Schumi, but you’re not an idiot. Besides, the odds
aren’t looking in your favor.”
Maria checked the gauge. Seb was dying. She might have a couple miles left. And the BP was at
least five away. She could cut back, throw the car into comfort mode and conserve gas. But she
wouldn’t go down that way, it just wasn’t in her.
Jane leaned against the window and closed her eyes.
Maria took her hand off the stick and walked it towards her friends’ thigh. The corners of Jane’s
mouth turned upwards in a smile. Still pressed against the window with her eyes closed, she took
Maria’s hand in hers.
The trees gave way to housing developments as they approached civilization, or at least what
passed for it in this place. Just up ahead the bright green neon of the local BP pulsed against the
Maria couldn’t believe it. She should have been stranded somewhere back along Route 23, but
somehow Seb had pulled through, somehow…
She drummed her free hand against the wheel, laughing and eyeing the home stretch.
But then nothing ever went so smoothly, and Maria figured the story of her life could be amply
summarized in that old pessimist’s creed that when something seems too good to be true it
probably is. So it came as no great surprise when the engine cut out and the numbers on the dial
started falling rapidly.
The laughter which moments before carried the unmistakable ring of triumph metamorphosed into
an ugly, painful sound. “A few hundred yards you bastard,” she hissed at the steering wheel, her
voice sharp but kept low from fear of waking her friend. Every muscle tensed as she willed the
car forward, her legs taut and pressed into the floorboard, as if her weight would make the critical
difference. Only her right hand idled, not wanting to lose its place in Jane’s.
“Jesus Christ it’s right there, it’s right fucking there.” If the road so much as declined slightly, Seb’s
momentum might carry them to the turn off. But the asphalt lay flat, the ground artificially leveled
for easy access to the on and off ramps just beyond the gas station.
The speedometer hit zero a hundred feet from the turnoff.
Maria tried, really she did. She tried so hard to maintain some dignity, stifling the sobs which
echoed through her chest, wiping preemptively at her cheek expecting the tears.
Legends lose on their own terms, she reminded herself, the voice in her head grasping at
composure. I bet Lauda didn’t cry that rainy night in Japan after losing to Hunt….
And so what? She wasn’t Niki Lauda, she wasn’t a world champion of anything. She was a sad
girl who spent her nights dreaming while wide awake; half hoping she wouldn’t have to come down
in the morning, that an overly ambitious corner might mean an early finish. A girl who came from
nowhere and would die there too and no amount of window dressing – the pet names, the
fantasies – could change that.
Oh, grow up sweetheart, the voice chimed back in. Self-pity looks even worse on you than those
Another moment of desperate inspiration struck her.
Legends lose on their own terms. And hadn’t Hunt driven a car a few inches too wide for half of
his championship season? She still had a chance, a fleeting, underhanded chance it’s true, but
some things outweigh petty morality.
Maria drew in a breath and took one long look over at Jane, dead to the world against her
window. Gently she pulled her hand away. It met no resistance. She opened the driver’s side
door, making as little noise as possible: she didn’t even bother to close it.
She stood for a moment looking out towards the highway. No cars drove by, the hour was late
and the location remote. She could just make out the shoulders of a napping attendant behind
the station counter, all the pumps left vacant.
Returning to the task at hand Maria jogged to the back of the car. She tested her weight against
the bodywork: it surprised her just how much force Seb needed to get rolling. But Maria would
muster up all of the strength she could find. Planting her feet firmly, one at a time, she pushed the
car along the last stretch of road.
Eighty feet. Sixty. She concentrated her gaze down towards her feet until a gentle tapping on the
rear window lifted it up.
Her heart nearly burst up through her throat as she locked eyes with Jane.
“You fucking cheater.”
Maria had no words. She turned around, facing away from her friend and collapsed onto the
bumper, too defeated to even resume crying. The cicadas had started up again, but this time they
sounded tiny and far away. The only significant noise was the opening and closing of the
passenger door, swift and final.
“You thought I’d fall asleep? How well do you know me, Schumi? When we passed Maple I
thought you might actually do it. Forget the water to wine nonsense, that right there was a real
miracle. That tank was empty, flat empty. We shoulda been dead to rights fifteen minutes ago.”
She still looked exhausted but her voice carried a genuine amusement.
It faded when she saw her friend’s face. It said many things, some Jane understood and some
she didn’t, but most obvious was the disappointment.
“You were dead serious weren’t you?” No answer came. “I bet you’ve got a suitcase in that trunk,
don’t you? Holy shit. Look, don’t worry about it, I’m not gonna let you stop driving me around.
Tonight was one of your better ones, some real SportsCenter top ten mom…”
She decided to shut up as something broke inside her for the figure still hunched against Seb.
Jane couldn’t even tell if the girl was breathing. So instead of talking she huddled close and threw
her arm around Maria’s shoulder.
They sat together like that for God knows how long. Finally Maria spoke.
“I’m sorry I woke you up.”
“Don’t be. You know how to make a girl’s life interesting.”
After another moment spent in commiserating silence, Jane rose to her feet. Maria felt Seb give
out from under her. She barely managed to avoid falling on her ass.
“What the hell?”
“I’m catching my second wind, so let’s get Seb his. Am I pushing this thing all by myself or what
“What does this mean?”
“Who knows? Let’s figure it out together yeah? Besides, your scrawny ass might just faint dead
away trying to push this beast to safety. Like I said, who knows? You’re the driver, so I shouldn’t
have to tell you: a lot can happen in a hundred feet.”
Darren Colbourne is a Columbia University student working on his first novel, while studying
philosophy. He's published before in 4x4 and International Lit. He hopes to soon publish a novel
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