Tyler eased his foot off the accelerator, just a little. He felt the car protest. It was built for speed. He grinned, slow and easy. Life was good. At eighteen he didn’t have a care in the world; no responsibilities, nothing to worry about except for which university to attend.
Convincing his father to buy him the sports car had been child’s play. All it took was reference to his brother’s absence and his genuine envy that Sebastian was out in the big wide world. Tyler couldn’t imagine leaving Winchester long term, but the thought of losing another son had kept his father sweet.
He felt invincible; young, smart and sophisticated in the flame-red Porsche. The road stretched ahead, enticing him to open her up – to give the beautiful beast free rein. He couldn’t have known what was around the corner.
Tyler sensed the commotion before he saw it. Some impending doom, or perhaps an echo of the disaster ahead. He noticed the fire first. It demanded attention as it mushroomed outward, threatening everything in its path. Heat came second. Even from the opposite side of the carriageway, separated by the central reservation, it was enough to incite fear.
His brain froze, stuttering in its attempt to process the scene. The twisted, burning metal of a dozen vehicles too horrific to contemplate. As he edged closer he hit a wall of sound. It was like a physical blow, and it snapped him out of his stupor in time to prevent another collision. Slamming on the breaks he stopped a hairs breadth from the car in front. He knew what had caused the tail back; the carnage across from them was hypnotizing.
Flipping his indicator, he checked his mirror and pulled over. His wasn’t the only car to hug the hard shoulder. A small group gathered at the front of a dark blue Range Rover, all talking frantically into a series of devices.
He stepped onto the road, his eyes drawn to the wreckage opposite. Without the insulation of his car he could hear the piercing screams of those trapped. The sound shot straight through his heart, sending another ripple of fear through him. He wanted to stay and fight for these people, as much as he wanted to get back in the Porsche and leave the nightmare behind.
A siren cut through the chaos, and all but Tyler turned towards the sound. His gaze followed the sea of cars, all the way back to the ball of heat he could feel like a brand against his cheek. He made a quick calculation and estimated there were twenty cars surrounding the crash site. It felt natural to follow the small group as they headed towards the central reservation. They were the only line of defence until the firefighters arrived.
He climbed into the danger zone, thinking only of the desperate cries of those trapped. His heart pumped adrenalin around his body so fast that, at first, he didn’t react when the explosions started.
The fire devoured everything it touched, heating it up so quickly that tyres popped under the pressure. The screaming intensified and it was like a call in his blood, a call to action, and he followed it without question. The fire called to him too. He watched in both horror and fascination as it continued its domination.
He was almost upon the first vehicle when a fire fighter stepped into his path and told him to stay back. Tyler couldn’t decide if it was the stubborn look in his own eyes, or the sheer desperation in the officer’s, which helped them make the choice. As Tyler went one way, the fire-fighter went the other. They were on a quest to save lives and only one of them was qualified.
His intended destination, a Ford Focus, was sandwiched between two larger models. The driver on the left lay slumped over the steering wheel. On the right, a young man talked frantically on his phone. After a moment’s indecision, he snapped his attention back to the Focus and a young child’s terrified wailing. The pitch was so high he had to repress the urge to cover his ears.
He ignored the startled glance from the phone wielding youth, climbed onto his bonnet and jumped across to the Ford. The driver, a woman in her earlier forties, lay unconscious behind the wheel. He squinted, his breath rushing out in relief when he saw the rise and fall of her chest.
Though it was difficult, his mind tuned out the cacophony of sound around him. He stepped onto the next car and jumped to the ground so he was on the passenger side of the left-hand car. Prying open the door he ducked inside. The male driver faced him, allowing Tyler a good look at the open face wound. Blood ran in a river down his cheek, making Tyler’s stomach clench. He looked to be in his fifties, but it was hard to tell.
“Sir, can you hear me?” he called. Nothing. No response.
Taking a deep breath, he leaned in further and stretched out to feel for a pulse in the man’s neck. For a long tense moment he thought the driver was dead – hearing nothing but the frantic beat of his own heart. Then he caught something, a weak flutter against his fingers. He was alive, though even as an amateur Tyler knew the danger.
Ducking back out, he turned in a circle and watched the activity around him. The professionals were on hand. “We need some help over here,” he called, not expecting an immediate response.
“What have you got?” a female paramedic asked, jogging in his direction.
“Two unconscious drivers.” He indicated the male driver with his thumb. “He’s unresponsive and his pulse is thready.”
He stepped back to give her room, his eyes wandering to the Focus. Two fire-fighters had the boot open and were working to calm the screaming infant.
He scanned the other cars, wondering for a moment why he was there, in the midst of all the chaos. With adrenalin leaking from his body, he registered the heat pushing against his skin. It was unbearable. He could hear the fire too. It wasn’t something he could explain, even to himself. It just was. The beast was having fun and it wasn’t about to give up without a fight.
“Sir, are you hurt?” a paramedic asked, shining a light into his eyes.
He cringed away instinctively. “No, I…I just wanted to help.”
“We have things under control now. Why don’t I get you to safety?”
Tyler nodded. “My car…” The words died in his throat when he caught a glint of yellow; a Volkswagen in the middle of the blaze. No, that couldn’t be right. Other people were crazy enough to buy a canary-yellow Beetle. But he knew, even before he recognised the familiar dint in the bumper. For a moment he could only stare in horror as flames licked across the paint-work. And then her face worked its way into his mind and he lost it.
“Lilly-May,” he shouted, his body coiling in readiness to run.
The paramedic pre-empted the move, placing a hand on his arm in warning. “Sir, I need you to come with me now.”
Something dark rose up in Tyler, stealing all reason; perhaps even sanity. It took two firefighters to subdue him, and even then his mind was racing, trying to find a way to get past them.
“There’s nothing you can do, son,” the elder of the two said, his gentle voice grating along Tyler’s nerves.
“You have to help her. She…” His breath rushed out as nausea clutched in his stomach. The scream hadn’t been her, he told himself. She wasn’t calling to him. “Please.”
“We’ll do everything we can.” The same gentle voice, the same low burn of irritation along his skin. “Go get yourself checked out. We’ve got this.”
They stared at each other until Tyler felt the heat burn his skin, like an urgent reminder of where they were. If he didn’t allow the firefighters to do their job, it would be too late.
He nodded, watching the men run back into battle, because that’s what it was – a battle. The fire a ferocious beast, seducing even as she punished. Such thoughts led to Lilly-May and he felt the panic rise again, his heart heavy with the need to save her. It was agony, waiting for the firefighters to douse the flames and contain the outbreak. His gaze never left the scene, his ears alert for any sign that she was okay.
When he heard mention of a passenger, a wave of ice travelled up his spine and his phone was in his hand before he’d even registered the thought.
Mind whirling, he tried to remember where his brother was supposed to be. “Come on, come on,” he said, growing impatient with the ring tone.
The sound of her voice brought him to his knees. She was with Dylan. She wasn’t in the car. “Oh God,” he croaked, shuddering. “I thought you were in the car.”
There was a long, tense silence. “Tyler, what is it? What about my car?”
He was aware of the police officer now, bent on one knee, talking to him. Heard Lilly-May calling to him, asking what was wrong. Her rising panic mingled with the scene around him and he closed his eyes a moment – closed his mind to it all.
When he spoke again, his voice was deadly calm. “There’s been an accident on the M3.” He swallowed. “Who’s in your car, Lilly?”
“My parents.” It came out in a hushed whisper. “I’ve been having a few problems with it and Mum persuaded Dad to take it for a spin. You know how she worries…oh God. This is my fault. What happened Tyler…you have to tell me what happened.”
“Tyler? What’s going on?” It was his brother’s voice now.
“A major pile-up on the M3. It’s bad, Dylan. Her car…” He glanced towards it. “It’s bad,” he said again.
“Are you injured?” Concern replaced his brother’s irritation.
“No. I wasn’t involved. I stopped…” A wall of flame shot into the air, choking the words in his throat.
Was it wrong he wondered, to see the beauty in it? The beast had unleashed her power, and the beat or two of silence was almost reverent. It rushed back in on a wave; the sound, the colour, the heat. Through it all, Tyler couldn’t take his eyes from the battle. In that moment he knew. He had been claimed. This would be his role in life. To tame the dragon.