When I shut my eyes I can still see it: a pale winding road and then a sudden mass of skyscrapers huddled together like enormous stalagmites, eking upward to a great blue cavern ceiling.
My eyes dry out and I blink and it’s all gone. The Zone, like so much in life, has escaped into the past.
That spring into summer (the one I got to know Neo and Glue, Hammer, Leona and Sara) was one for the ages. I like to think it might just find its way into the history books, a footnote maybe in a chapter about the Zone. I still think about it often, the Zone, even though it’s long gone. I remember the size and spectacle of it, that feeling of sheer possibility you got whenever you turned down a new street. How could it not have captured our hearts and minds?
I’m reminded in particular of something Neo said to me, towards the end of things, about the Zone. “It’s the only place for us,” he’d said, with that distant look to his eyes. And he was right; it was the only place for a young person in the Outskirts back then. It promised everything and nothing, a place of freedom and moral silence, a playground to act out the wildest fantasies or escape the most damning realities. But I should explain in more certain terms what the Zone was. I’m sure there are many who have forgotten it completely. The Zone’s rise came not long after the Columbia Accords and, by most accounts, it would not survive the Last War (or the Quiet War, as some still insist on calling it)—so no small amount of time.
The Zone was one of those idealistic visions, a large-scale perversion of Walden. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine people had ever been so naïve and optimistic, and many in today’s generation won’t understand how it ever came to be. But it did come to be and was a simple, ordinary fact of life for a very long time. The legislators, in a stroke of heady optimism following the Accords, designated a special experimental zone south of the nation’s capital. In this deregulated zone, the normal laws and regulations of the United States were suspended in favor of three simple rules we young people came to call the Code. The Code, as we knew it, was simple. There were three laws:
That’s how I first learned the Code and that’s how I remember it, although I’m sure there was a more formal parlance. Perhaps we should have known then it would never work out. It was far too simple, and so too easy to manipulate. It’s a wonder it all went on for as long as it did. But then, let’s not forget that it did work for a long while. The Zone was never perfect, but it was a far cry better than most of us have done after it.
I grew up in the impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of the Zone, where the maids, taxi drivers, and janitors of the Zone lived. In my father’s words, “We were too poor for everything.” I never felt poor, though. I was aware, dimly, that much of the world did not live as we did, but the only people I interacted with (the only people that mattered) were all just like me.
And that was how I grew up, ordinarily enough, that is, until I met Neo and the others and everything changed. I have always marked the beginning of the main events of my life at the first time I entered the Zone. From there began everything of note. It was my fifteenth birthday.
I’d never even visited the Zone before then, but a few months earlier I’d fallen in with an older crowd, upperclassmen at my high school mostly. They’d made it a practice of visiting the Zone every weekend. I wasn’t sure why they’d singled me out, but I expected it had something to do with my quiet disposition. They must have thought I’d be easy to manipulate, a hanger-on to do the dirty work, a squid as they called me, at first.
In those first couple months, I did their bidding quietly: stole from the lunch room, snagged a classmate’s homework, carried their bags to and from school. But it was not all Machiavellian domination. The eldest, and de facto leader, looked after me like a younger brother (or so I liked to believe). His real name was Scott, but we knew him as Neo. Why we called him that, I couldn’t tell you, and as far as I knew, he’d always been Neo to everyone, even the teachers.
Neo was a smoker, tall and lanky, with the dark hair, pale skin, and sunken eyes to match. He dressed in old, threadbare clothes, but never quite looked shabby. Somehow, he could never be called anything but relaxed. His eyes could stare at you with that strange indifferent intensity which inspires puerile admiration.
We first met one day when Glue called me over to sit at their table. I forget why they wanted me over there (it was probably some joke they all meant to play on me) but I went eagerly. For the next twenty minutes I was their novelty for the day. I sat with them , answering biographical questions here and there. How old was I? Fifteen in May. Where did my parents work? Mom used to work in the Zone, no job now. Dad? Passed away. That was normal enough. It was our rite of passage back then, fatherlessness. Most of our parents were divorced and the cool kids were orphans or had only a mother to raise them. If you had a whole family, a dad and a mom, maybe some siblings, you were strange. We all agreed, the kids with families were just different from us. Probably all those family dinners they had.
I suppose that was how we coped with our abandonment. It was our dirty little secret that we’d all been abandoned in some way. Glue, for example, was a life-long orphan. He never knew his dad and barely remembered his mom, who had left him at an orphanage when he was four years old. He, like so many of us, belonged to that untamable breed of children raised by his peers. He’d known Neo his whole life and the two of them were like brothers. Together, they had popularized a trend among us high schoolers called “zoning.”
I don’t know how it started, zoning, only that all of us either did it or wanted to do it by the time we reached high school. Really, it was a thing for upper classmen, those who had their licenses. The rest of us just came along to watch. Although, thinking back on it, I can see that there weren’t nearly as many of us into zoning as I once thought. Back then, my narrow view of the world had made that relatively small group of us seem all the community one could imagine.
They took me with them, Neo and Glue and a few others, as I’ve already said, a couple months after they’d christened me Squid. Before then, they’d talk about zoning (they did it every weekend) but never thought to invite me along. Finally, on my birthday they were discussing what time they would zone, when Neo looked at me and said “Why don’t you come along this time? You might be useful.” My heart was thumping in my ears before he finished talking.
I used to think that acceptance was all most of us really ever wanted but now I see that’s not quite the case. We didn’t want to be loved or embraced. We didn’t even want life to be easier or more exciting. What we really wanted was an escape, from what I’m not sure—rejection, judgment, reality maybe.
We found all that in the Zone.
There were four of us that first night; we thought of ourselves as a team. Neo and Glue drove me to the spot where we met Hammer, our team’s wrench.
Hammer’s father was a mechanic and had taught him everything he knew before passing away. He was a big, lumbering character who didn’t speak much, but always hung around Neo and Glue. Together, the four of us formed the core of our team; that is, the kids from our school who zoned. The rest of the people who tagged along were more of an entourage than friends.
Each of us had a function, although I didn’t realize it then. Hammer was our mechanic and Glue fixed our races. Neo was our driver and I, the Squid, had a medley of jobs no one else wanted: lookout, spy, thief, messenger, etc. “You just make sure if any slugs come by, we know first,” Glue had said to me on the drive over. And on more than one occasion we barely escaped the cops before crossing into the Zone, beyond their jurisdiction.
That was zoning, I realize now. More than anything, it was about running away.
We arrived at 9 p.m. at the turn-off where Compton Road began. It was a woody, hilly area tucked away from the world, a sort of amusement park for adolescents, filled with cars and drugs and alcohol. The kids who gathered there were like us, poor and from broken homes for the most part. Some upper classmen from Langley High would roll in every now and then in their new cars, purchased by their parents of course, but for the most part it was a place for our kind. There must have been close to a hundred people there that night. Music was blasting from somewhere and the odor of weed and grilling meat ruminated all around us, but above those sensations stood the sound of revving engines and the smell of burnt rubber and gasoline.
“Do you know how this works?” Neo asked me as we got out of his car. It was an old, once-white Subaru Impreza he’d found at a junk yard with Glue a couple years back. They’d pooled their life savings (which, I would later learn, were strangely large for boys their age) and bought it. Technically, the car belonged to both of them, but I never once saw Glue behind the wheel.
Of course, this was no ordinary Impreza. It hadn’t been for a long time. In the two years since they’d bought it, they’d replaced the entire exhaust system, swapped the lumpy stock seats for bucket seats off a totaled Porsche, and installed a large single turbo good for what Hammer described as “a couple Franklins” of horsepower. There were, however, no brake or suspension upgrades, which made for an interesting driving experience.
Neo popped the hood to show off the engine, done up in chrome paint, faux-carbon fiber and snazzy neon greens and icy blues; he eyed me. “So? Do you?”
I nodded and pointed at some of the other cars. There were heavily modified Honda Civics, old BMWs that were now little more than metal shells, a couple Toyota Eight-Sixes, and a large assortment of Imprezas and Mitsubishi Evos. They were all at least a decade old, that is, cheap enough to buy and fix. No one individual owned any of these cars. We bought and raced them in teams. “We race one of those,” I said finally. “Winner gets the cash.”
“Neo,” Glue interrupted. “It’s that white Eight-Six again. He wants to run in an hour.”
“Again?” Neo asked, smiling a little. “Two weeks of losing wasn’t enough?”
“I say it’s not worth our time,” Glue said, leaning on the fender of the Impreza, custom fenders which he and Neo had helped Hammer sculpt. “We already ran them for four hundred. What more can they have left.”
Neo shrugged and lit a cigarette. “If they want to lose that’s fine by me. Tell em we’ll only run for double this time.”
In those days, Neo and the Impreza were celebrities. On a good day, no one could beat them in a race. The power of that single turbo coupled with Neo’s precise driving style left almost everything behind. Where they ran into trouble was in inclement weather. The Impreza ran all-wheel drive, but the power easily outstripped its tires in the wet. Pair that with breaks and a suspension system designed for a one-hundred-fifty horsepower family sedan and the Impreza was nearly undriveable in slippery conditions.
“I’ll get em to run for triple. Easy money,” Glue said. That was his role, as fixer; find the races, fix the bet. He was good at it too. “I just hope they don’t split after they lose. They’ll be down well over a grand after tonight.”
Glue left to talk with the Eight-Six team and Neo had me haul out a cooler from the back of the Impreza. It was filled with beer. He grabbed one and handed it to me. “Drink,” he said. I took the beer, twisted the cap off, and drank as smoothly as I could manage. It was my first beer, but I didn’t want anyone to know that. It must have been obvious that I’d had no experience, since I puckered a bit at every swig, but Neo acted as though nothing were out of the ordinary. He grabbed a beer of his own and leaned against the rear bumper of the Impreza. The rear of the car faced west and so, sitting there, we had a good view of the sun setting behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the opposite side of the car, Hammer fiddled with something in the engine.
“There’s nothing like it,” Neo said after a while.
“The sun?” I asked.
Neo shook his head. “A race. Running flat out to the perimeter. Slugs on our tail. And then we fly past that border and we’re free. Flush with cash in a city without rules. Where you really can do anything you’d ever want. You’ve never been before, have you?”
“To the Zone? No.”
Neo took a long swig of beer and exhaled deeply. “Once you experience it, you’ll never want to leave. Pretty soon, the days you’re not there don’t seem real. They’re just empty spaces, like the hours you’re sleeping.”
“Dammit!” we heard Hammer yell from the front of the car.
Neo turned around and shouted, “What’s wrong?”
“Nuthin,” Hammer replied and muttered a bit to himself.
Neo just shook his head and returned to his beer and the sun. We sat there for what seemed like a long while but in reality, it was probably only a few minutes. It was one of those experiences, I suppose, that ages like fine wine, growing in depth as the years go on. Then, it was nothing to me, a pretty sight for sure, but mere prelude to the real excitement. By the time the girls arrived, the sun had barely moved.
There were six of them in all and, if I’m honest, I can’t remember most of their names. I remember the important ones, though. There was Shai, a slim sophomore who I’d seen at the lunch table that first day Glue had waved me over. She was pretty, in her own way, dark haired and just a little too reserved to seem intelligent. Her older sister Sara couldn’t have been more the opposite. She was either chubby or voluptuous (I could never decide) and wore her light brown hair in a bob. I never thought she was beautiful, but she was not without a special sort of charm. She had an easy way of getting along with boys that only certain girls possess and she was in love with Neo, unrequitedly, and the unrequited love of Glue.
Then there was Leona. She was a few inches shorter than me and nothing short of beautiful. She had long dark hair and fair skin, eyes that could stare at you as if you were the only person in the world, and a natural sense of presence that came through in the strangest ways. She knew how to hold herself, how close to stand, depending on the moment, to make you feel just the way she wanted. She could make you feel like her friend, her lover, or her worst enemy. Thinking back on it, she was probably the smartest of all of us. And she was Neo’s girl.
At least, she was unofficially. I never saw them hold hands or exchange words as a couple would. But as the night wore on, they would always appear closer to each other, until finally they were arm in arm headed to one of the Zone’s hotels.
As for the other girls, there were three of them, their names, I think, Jules, Fay, and Randi, but I might be mistaken. They were decent people. But then, I think all young adults are, if you really think about it, decent. They are only just discovering how to be really terrible and so retain a little of that innocence from early childhood. Give them a few years though and much will change.
“Sorry we’re late, boys,” Sara said coolly, smiling at Neo first then sparing me a look. “You brought him.”
“I did.” Neo cracked a smile at one corner of his mouth.
“Where’s Glue?” Leona asked, placing herself on the bumper of the Impreza, stretching even tighter an already very tight pair of pleather leggings. She rolled up her sleeves and nudged Neo playfully. “Don’t tell me he’s already fixed a race.”
“Hell’d be wrong with that?” Hammer grumbled from half-inside the engine bay.
Leona smiled, flashing a clean, even-toothed mouth. “For one, it looks like you’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
“She’ll be ready, don’t you worry.”
Leona shook her head at Hammer, just as Neo had. They were similar in that respect, cool-headed, naturally charismatic people. But I always felt that there was something deeply incompatible about them. For all their apparent similarities, Leona was softer in some way. Deep down, I think, she wasn’t as much like Neo as she wanted us to think.
Sara fished a few beers out of the cooler and handed them to Leona and Shai. “Here,” she said, shut the cooler and sat down on it, like a mother hen atop her eggs. “So when do you think you’ll run?”
Neo shrugged as he finished the last of his beer. “Probably within the hour, so Hammer has time to fix what’s wrong with her.”
“I said she’d be ready, didn’t I?” Hammer eased himself out of the engine bay and was wiping his hands of grease when he came around to the trunk with us. He was an immense figure, the kind you’d imagine sitting in front of a roaring fire with some dead animal head above it. His face sported a perpetual stubble and his hands looked like old baseball gloves rather than the dexterous tools they were. “You gonna move or do I have to knock you on your ass.”
Sara did a double take, realizing Hammer was talking to her, and gave him a face that would have scared most guys our age. But Hammer wasn’t most guys. Even then, Hammer had a code. He spoke what he thought and felt, whether he meant it or not. If you held it against him, well, whatever.
“Oh just move,” Leona said. “Or are you going to glare at each other all night?”
Sara spared her a quick frown but relented. Hammer fished a Coors Light out of the cooler and sat down on the ground, unbothered by the dirt and smoke which had been kicked up by all the cars. I always found his total disregard for appearances refreshing. It was something I could never manage.
We sat there for a while, enjoying the cool weather and beer (only Neo and Leona didn’t take a second drink since they’d later be driving) as the sun dipped below the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was peaceful yet exciting. The air was filled with this intangible force, a potential energy personified in all the engines, but originating in our souls. Put it all on the line, risk your life, and then find release in the Zone.
Glue joined us a short while later, a troubled look on his boyish face.
“They agreed,” he said.
“To everything?” Neo asked.
Glue nodded. “More than everything. They offered pink slips.”
Neo’s expression was unchanged. “What’s the trouble?”
“I dunno,” he shook his head. “I don’t like it. Why are they so confident? Their fixer, he seemed off. It’s hard to explain.”
Neo frowned and folded his arms. His eyes were distant but his brow hung in just such a way that you knew he was deep in thought, and his lips creased evenly, betraying no emotion but seriousness. It was this very look that I suspect drew so many to him. I stole a glance at Leona and saw in her a white hot attraction. In the end, Neo decided we’d race anyway, despite Glue’s misgivings. After all, we’d beaten them twice before. What was the worst that could happen?
Compton Road was a sinuous ribbon which snaked through a hilly, wooded area adjacent to Centreville and eventually ended in the Zone. The road was filled with elevation changes, blind turns, and hairpins and, in all, stretched four miles from start to perimeter. It was on this road that we lined up for every race.
The start of every race was intoxicating, but there would never be an experience quite like that first time. There were ten or so of us in all and two cars as we reached the start line, which was marked by two spray-painted boxes, one red and one blue, side by side. Leona and the girls watched from behind in their Mini. They were to run after us against a Volkswagen Golf.
Neo pulled up into the blue, spray-painted box on the right. Glue sat shotgun, Hammer and I in the back seats. The Eight-Six was nowhere to be found, but a crowd had gathered around us. They were cheering and jeering and wagering. From the sound of it, we were healthy favorites.
All of the kids in the Outskirts had gathered in this one spot and the energy was palpable. It fed through the engines, out the exhaust pipes, and into the air and we breathed it in as though it were the stuff that kept us alive. In many ways, it did just that. It kept us going in a life with very little of anything.
It was now almost totally dark and the only light came from the Impreza’s headlights and the glow of smartphones in the crowd. The Eight-Six was still absent and Neo was starting to get restless—or what amounted to as much from him. He leaned back in the driver’s seat and lit another cigarette.
“Ya gotta do that in here?” Hammer grumbled.
Neo rolled down a window and hung his arm out. “Keeps me sharp.”
“Where the hell are they?” Glue brooded.
Hammer: “Maybe they bailed? .”
Outside, the crowd was also growing restless. Before, a sort of potential energy had hung in the air as though everyone’s attention were balancing on a knife’s edge. Now they grumbled and tossed their cigarettes at the empty red box next to ours.
“You think they’re playing mind games with us?” Glue asked and scratched his head.
Neo shrugged. “It won’t make a difference.”
Just then we heard the sound of another engine. The crowd moved as one, heads snapping in the direction of a white Toyota Eight-Six. The engine had a higher pitched, perhaps more refined, sound and, as it pulled up next to us, I was able to appreciate how much lower it sat to the ground than our Impreza. At the end of the day, the Eight-Six was a sports car. Its engine and chassis were designed with spirited driving in mind. Our Impreza began life as a family sedan without a sporting pretention to speak of. And yet, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind as to the outcome of the race. It was as if the presence of that turbo on our engine was a universal equalizer. The Eight-Six was a purer driving machine, but we had a turbo. I hadn’t the slightest idea then how it worked, and yet it evened our odds.
The Eight-Six pulled up to the red box, its nose even with ours. I looked over and saw the leader, with his baggy and sunken eyes, seated in the driver’s seat. His number two sat shotgun, his mouth drawn to a thin, pressed line. The others I had seen in the group emerged from the crowd. They looked fidgety, scared even.
“Smoke him, Neo!” I heard shouted from the crowd.
“Wildcats!” Our school mascot.
That brought a laugh from the crowd and I saw in the rearview mirror Neo crack a smile. He threw the last of his cigarette out the window and revved the engine. The crowd exploded in cheers. Neo was fastest and so he was their star, their hero, whether you were from Centreville or Station or Chantilly.
Neo stuck his head out of the window and waved his arm.
“Bring her over already!” someone shouted.
Out of the crowd emerged a leggy girl with outrageous burnt-orange hair who, who stood nearly six feet tall in her black Chuck Taylors. She wore a loose single-strapped top that left much of her stomach and chest exposed and a pair of denim shorts that were a fabric change away from private attire. My mouth must have dropped at some point because Hammer tapped me on the chin and said “Never seen, Shirley before, have you?”
I shook my head.
“She’s a Station girl,” Glue put in eagerly.
“She’s our grid girl,” Neo added. His voice was cool and emotionless but not harsh. I noticed then that his personality had taken on a new pose. For all his over-relaxed demeanor, there was a sterility to him now in the way he spoke and sat and even moved. His entire being strained to a single point of focus. “Don’t get distracted.”
“That’s a tall order,” Hammer grunted. “Shirley’s somethin else.”
Shirley placed herself between the two cars and leaned on one leg, hand on hip, shoulders thrown back, blithely accentuating her chest. I felt my heart thump as only an adolescent boy’s can. The crowd erupted in whoops of excitement.
“Somethin else…” Hammer’s voice trailed.
Shirley took it all in stride, smiling and I suppose posing for us too.
“That’s a girl who loves attention,” Glue said.
“What girl doesn’t,” I mumbled and saw Neo’s eyes flicker my way in the rearview mirror.
Shirley spared Neo a smirk and a wink. Then, she raised her long, slender, bare arms and motioned for the crowd to quiet down. After a moment, the cheers fell to a murmur and she flashed a big, not quite gummy smile. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Are you ready for a race?”
The crowd exploded, its energy doubled. She was like a cheerleader at a pep-rally, channeling the energy of all the drugs and alcohol and youth. Only Neo seemed unmoved, collected as ever in the front seat.
I have always admired his composure and though I tried to emulate it I always came up short. Neo and I were fundamentally different and maybe that’s why we grew to trust and admire each other so much in the coming months. He was a cool customer; I was not. I could muster the façade, but beneath, somewhere deep within me, was a tide of emotion that I have always struggled and failed to lock away. My mistake was believing Neo was different, not recognizing that his calm too was in some ways a façade. True it ran much deeper, much older than mine, but it was not his core.
“On three then?” Shirley shouted and raised both arms in the air.
“One!” Her right arm swept halfway down, parallel to the ground and pointing at the Eight-Six, and I could feel Neo slipping the car into gear. The crowd screamed.
“Get ready, Squid,” Hammer grumbled to me.
“Two!” Her other arm fell even with the right, pointing in our direction, and both the Eight-Six and Impreza revved wildly. The cheers of the crowd vanished against the backdrop of those engines, so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. I couldn’t even hear Shirley shout “Three!” I just saw her spin around and throw her arms down the road and before I knew it Neo had dumped the clutch and my head slammed against the headrest. I saw only a flash of Shirley’s half-bare behind as we sped down the road.
Neo jumped out to an early lead, as the Impreza’s all-wheel drive system gave us traction off the line, but the Eight-Six was still close behind by the first turn. Neo braked late, into a blind, sharp right-hand turn that dropped suddenly on the exit of the corner. My stomach churned as Neo masterfully rotated the car, his hands a blur on the wheel, and smoothly applied power out of the corner, the Eight-Six shrinking behind us.
“He should be quicker in the corners,” Glue said, spying the Eight-Six. “Something’s up.”
Neo grunted. He was barely aware of us now, caught in a trancelike state. It was as though he were controlled by some alien force. Or maybe he was just like the rest of us, high on thrills, at last granted a release for the energy which built up within us all the time. I wouldn’t understand it completely until I experienced the same thing, the void of a race. It takes you, from head to toe, body to soul. You stop thinking, stop worrying, stop feeling everything but what’s in front of you. Your past is gone and there’s only the future which you’re plunging recklessly into.
“You’ve got good separation,” Glue continued. “No need to push it.”
Neo didn’t respond. He hit the brakes again into the second corner and I had to brace myself against the door and Glue’s seat. It was another sharp turn that allowed the Eight-Six to catch up momentarily, but again we escaped on corner exit and then put distance between us in on the straight.
Outside, it was now pitch black save for the dim glow of the Impreza’s halogen headlights. Still, we seemed to fly around corners, up and down elevation changes, as though Neo knew precisely where every crest and turn lay. Neo was effortless, even graceful, and yet he worked furiously, punching through the gears like a boxer, downshifting, blipping the throttle as we entered a corner. Gradually, the Eight-Six was barely visible behind us, a small pair of headlights, narrowing the distance only slightly under braking.
“Let’s take it easy,” Glue said. “No way he catches up now.”
We were nearly to the end of the race, only three turns left. I remember thinking that it was a little anticlimactic. We hit the third-to-last turn noticeably slower than before and the Eight-Six inched closer but was still far from threatening to win the race. Neo applied the throttle smoothly at the apex of the corner and the car rotated, its rear tires slipping ever so slightly as we hit the straight at full throttle. The engine screamed. My brain told me it was no louder than it had been before, but my heart, my soul, felt that nothing in the world had ever been louder.
“Last two corners,” Glue shouted over the engine. “Keep it clean and we’re through.”
The final two corners of the run into the Zone were both technical and dangerous. A short straight led into a long, high speed right-hander which transitioned almost immediately into an almost square left hander. From there on, a relatively short straight led right into the Zone. Many, however, would only glimpse the straight for a moment.
On first glance, the final turn’s corner is an early apex, meaning you get on the throttle quickly after turning, but experienced drivers know it is actually a very late apex. As a result, many a novice takes the early, faux apex, missing the wide line required for the turn. However, by the time the corner reveals itself, it’s too late for the novice to adjust, so he plows into either the side of the car in front of him or one of the many trees which lined Compton. The final corner then is dangerous to those in front and behind. The best way to take it when leading a novice is slow enough through the faux apex to correct for the late one. You lose time and narrow the gap, but you ensure your car doesn’t get side swiped.
But the Eight-Six was no novice and so Neo emerged from the penultimate corner following a wide line. Throughout the race, I had noticed the Eight-Six braking later and later, becoming unsorted on turn-in and corner exit. Around the penultimate corner, he had turned sideways a little before slamming on the gas and straightening out. Just as Neo took the wide line, I watched the Eight-Six leap closer, taking the inside line.
“He’s going to hit you!” I shouted and Neo’s eyes flashed to the rearview mirror.
In an instant, he slammed the brakes and, dancing an intricate ballet between the brake and throttle, placed the car on the inside line just in front of the Eight-Six. The driver of the Eight-Six should have been able to brake and avoid Neo, but something was wrong with him, that much was now becoming clear, and instead he slammed into our rear bumper.
A loud smash-crack-squeal let out behind us. The Impreza fish tailed and a series of images and sounds flashed before me. Neo slammed the steering wheel into the spin of the car; the Eight-Six’s headlights blared straight through my window; and then blared through Hammer’s window; more squealing (from the tires, I realized); and then we stopped, coming to a screeching halt. Smoke floated up from all the tires, clouding the windows. I saw the Eight-Six facing us, stopped but still on the road. Remarkably, we were still on the road as well, an outcome which I attribute solely to Neo’s skills as a driver.
“Everyone, good?” Neo asked, his voice unchanged. We might as well have been lounging around the car drinking beers. “Squid, you good?”
“I think so,” I said and noticed how quickly my heart was still pounding. You don’t realize what people mean when they say “My heart is pounding” until you experience a life-threatening situation yourself. “Pounding” doesn’t quite do it justice. And yet, I was strangely excited. I didn’t know it then, but I was. “You?”
“I’m fine,” Neo said.
“Fucking piece of shit,” Glue groaned. “I knew we shouldn’t have taken the race.”
Hammer grumbled something indecipherable and rubbed his forehead.
The Eight-Six’s engine fired up.
“The fuck they think they’re doing?” Glue shouted and craned his head to get a better look at the Eight-Six.
I saw Neo’s eyes narrow in the rearview mirror and then, very quickly, he started the Impreza, slammed it into gear and spun us back around. I could hear our rear bumper, still partially attached, scraping against the pavement. Glue grabbed Neo’s arm but Neo shook him off and floored the gas.
“They’re still trying to win,” Neo said as we shot down the final straight. The Eight-Six emerged behind us, gaining. “There’s no rule about stopping after a crash.”
“Fucking fucks,” Glue groaned.
“They seem faster than us now,” I said.
Neo replied, “Tires and suspension are shot. I can feel it.”
“Are we going to make it?”
“Just a couple seconds now,” Glue said and pointed at a big orange banner that hung over the road about a hundred yards away. Printed across it were the words “Welcome to the Virginia-Federal Deregulated Zone.”
The Eight-Six’s crumpled nose drew even with our rear tire.
“Come on!” Neo shouted and slammed the wheel in a rare show of emotion, but the Impreza was already giving everything she had. The orange banner was fast approaching, but so was the Eight-Six—another few seconds and it would be past us. “Let’s fucking go,” Neo said, his voice raw, almost guttural, and swerved the Impreza ever so slightly towards the Eight-Six.
The Eight-Six swerved out of our way, probably more than it needed too, and its tail went out of sorts for a moment. An able driver would probably have been able to regain the car’s composure quickly enough to still have won the race, but the driver of the Eight-Six had to correct his steering several times before regaining control. By then, we were already safely across the perimeter.
We had entered the Zone.