“He's got brake fade.”
It seems things like this happen all the time to race cars. Yet, something in the solemn tone of Mr Phil's voice as he says it has Peter whip around to look at more solemn faces. His mum is covering her mouth with both hands, Mr Phil cursing under his breath and Charles watching with widened eyes in awe and it takes a few seconds before realization sinks in. His dad's brakes have failed.
It's the worst feeling in the world, knowing what's coming and yet being unable to stop it. Peter's body feels numb as he stands to the side and watches his dad's GT spin out of control before it collides with some fuel filled barrels and giant flames light up the night sky. If he were more of a romantic, he'd call the sight beautiful; the way the fire blends with the pitch black, starless sky resembles a canvas that any artist would be jealous of. But his dad is there, trapped under the flames, alone and helpless, no one with him to hold his hand or assure that he's going to be okay.
People are moving frantically around him, trying to get his dad out, someone screaming at Charles to bring a fire extinguisher. Peter doesn't really take notice, images simply flashing in front of his eyes without actually being processed by his brain. He just wants his dad to be okay, and instinctively he takes a cautious step towards the burning Ford.
His mum is instantly upon him, wrapping her arms around his torso, and gently pushes him back towards the garage. “Peter! Go inside, just stay there.”
He does as told. It's not like he can go anywhere, anyway. His knees feel weak and his heart is thudding against his ribcage, almost to the point of hurting him. And he likes the garage; it smells of oil and rubber and reminds him of his dad. But it's also frightening because he's in there alone, Mr Shelby having rushed out of his office and close to his dad as well, with nothing but his own bleak thoughts as his company.
“Please...” he whispers into the night, voice trembling at the end. “Please, let him be out in one piece.”
The whole thing barely lasts some seconds but to Peter it seems like an eternity has passed before a limping shadow emerges out of the flames coughing. It's him, Peter thinks and exhales his breath in relief.
He wants to cry. He wants to run to his father's side, hug him hard enough to knock the air out of his lungs and sob in his chest how scared he was, how he thought he had lost him and how much he loves him.
But he doesn't. Instead, he remains rooted to the spot, watching at a certain distance as his mum throws herself into his dad's arms and Mr Shelby urges him to sit down. The fire is dying down, too, Mr Phil and Charles having managed to put it out, and Peter is left alone to pick up his pieces.
It's okay, he mentally says to himself as comfortingly as he can. It was just a bad dream.
* * *
But he can't sleep. He keeps tossing and turning in his bed, unable to keep his eyes shut for longer than a few seconds before the flames are back to haunt him. So, he lies on his back, staring at the ceiling and wills his brain to think of something else.
He can hear his parents talking quietly to each other downstairs and in some respects it's comforting and slightly calming down his racing heart. He yawns, exhaustion slowly taking over him but he forces himself to remain awake. If he closes his eyes, he might lose the moment and he's not sure he'll be able to have it back afterwards.
Peter is no stranger to the racing world. He has spent most of his life following his dad to his races and listening to the broadcast on the radio when he's not able to attend physically. He has seen people crash right and left. And it's never been a pleasant sight but it never bothered him that much. Because none of these people was ever his daddy.
For the first time tonight, Peter is scared. Scared that something bad could happen to his dad and he won't even be there to say goodbye. For the first time tonight, Peter hates that he loves cars and racing. It can cost him his dad and that's not a price that deserves to be paid.
He wonders whether his dad is not scared at all when he climbs into the car. Considering that the next second after he was pulled out of the fire he was talking to Mr Phil about how to make the car faster, probably not. But he's still human. He still must possess the instinct of survival. He still must have something to hold dear to his heart, something that he's afraid of losing. Besides, he assures him and his mum that he loves them every day.
Then, why take the gamble and race? Why risk to have everything taken away from you for something as trivial as a checkered piece of cloth and an empty cup?
Peter doesn't understand. Maybe his brain just doesn't work the same way as his dad's and the other racers'.
But watching his dad on TV as he sets lap record after lap record in Le Mans a few weeks later, Peter almost thinks he gets it. People like his dad aren't just a bunch of lunatics driving around in circles. They're dreamers. Corner after corner, lap after lap, they're chasing time and along with it they're chasing their dreams. They're not immortal and they know it. They're very much conscious that they can defy the law of physics for only so long. But it's their way of living. They love what they do and they're willing to die for it.
It's a frightening thought, all the scenarios of what might go wrong. But his dad is leading the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and for the time being, Peter will cling onto that.