Clayton stepped out of his vehicle. There was the stench of gasoline and oil in the air. Behind that was the distinct smell of burning flesh and amid the screaming and yelling from the racing fans were the sounds of men and women howling as they bled to death. So, that was the other smell that Clay detected, blood. So much blood. You didn’t get that in the big Race, but you could smell the blood on one of these smaller tracks. You could smell the death even before the race started, because it was never really clean. You were never really clean again after you raced.
None of that mattered to Clay.
Clay had been first across the finish line and that was all that mattered.
The car was shot to hell. It was barely functioning at this point and there were so many bullet holes across it that it looked like some abstract art piece. This was an underground race and that was a good thing because his passenger seat was shredded from shrapnel and bullets. Had he a Navigator, the man would have been dead, splattered all over the back seat.
Clay's legs were shaking. There were flashbulbs going off in his face. Blood ran down his cheeks, dripping off of his chin. When had he gotten cut? Must have been when the windshield exploded on the last turn. It had been close, but he'd been able to fire back using his pistol and take out the other driver. He could still see the bullets spattering into the man's chest and forehead.
The officials were saying things about it being a great race. There were people running toward him from all sides, including a woman who looked like a Vegas showgirl and who was carrying a giant cardboard check. Clay smiled, his right leg nearly gave out, he caught himself and stood up near the front of the vehicle. He could smell gunpowder and feel the heat from the machine guns mounted on top of his vehicle. Even this far away—so hot.
Clay accepted the check. He posed for photos. He shook countless hands. When he could, he limped away fast and got into his personal day-to-day car and drove away. He had minutes to get to the bank and deposit this check.
He barely made it.
After that he had to get to the hospital. She would be waiting. The doctor would be waiting. Clay hoped he would get some good news.
He drove fast, past the countless cars. In the distance the towers of Toronto rose like sharpened fingers pointing accusingly at the sky. Where Clay was, the buildings were smaller, many of them covered with graffiti. People stood in the streets, ragged, wearing clothing that was falling apart, scrounging for food, for metal scraps, for anything that would let them live for another day.
His wife. His wife had to live for another day.
He got to the hospital in minutes and scampered out of the car as fast as he could. The hospital cashier was open late. That was good. Clay hid his limp, paused in a restroom to wash his face, hoped his wife would be asleep and not smell the sweat and motor oil.
Then he paid the cashier and ran upstairs.
Soon, he thought, soon I can see her.
But the doctor was waiting. He was going to have to take care of that first.
Please, he thought, please let it be good news.
CHAPTER 1: CLAYTON
"It's bad," the doctor said, looking grim, his eyes locked on his clipboard.
"No shit, doc," Clayton Masters said. "I know it's bad. I brought her here because it's bad. How fucking bad is it? Is she dying? Will she be OK?"
Still looking down, the doctor let out a sigh.
Clay wanted to punch him in the face. "Her vitals are stable for now, but there is only so much we can do. Since the last insurance laws were passed, your coverage only takes care up to a certain number of days. It takes money to get the kind of surgery your wife needs, Mr. Masters."
The doctor finally looked up, peering over the wire-framed glasses perched on the end of his nose. His balding head was shining from the harsh lights of the hallway. "Do you have that kind of money, Mr. Masters?"
Clay really almost hit him then. Clay worked down at the docks, and the doctor knew it. He had some of the best insurance that money could buy, at least for a working class schlep like him, but it wasn't enough. It was never enough.
There's still Wesley's offer, he thought. You could do it. You could do it and get the money.
No, it was suicide to go down that route.
"You know that I don't have that kind of money," Clay whispered through clenched teeth.
"Then there is little I can do besides keep her medicated and comfortable for about the next month. After that, she'll have to go home."
The doctor closed the clipboard and Clay knew from the look on his face that he was indifferent. The doctor was jaded and tired of dealing with people like Clay and Judith.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Masters," the doctor said.
No, you're not, you sanctimonious asshole, Clay thought.
Clay let out a long breath and then leaned his forehead against the hospital wall. He could hear people walking up and down the hallway behind him, but he didn't care who saw him with his head down. It was the busiest hospital in Toronto, the public one, the one with the dirty halls, overworked staff, lousy beds, and long wait times. That meant his standing even this far off to the side was likely blocking traffic.
Not one fuck could be given, at least in Clay's mind.
He had fallen for her more than ten years ago when she was a young woman with long dark hair and bright green eyes. She had been so full of youth, hope, and desire. He still felt that inside of her, trying to get out, but the wasted body she had now showed little of those sparks anymore.
Her kidneys were failing. She needed a transplant.
It might as well have been a trip to Mars for all Clay could afford on his salary.
Clay opened his eyes and stared at the people shuffling around him. They moved along like zombies. Most of them were also dying, just trying to hold on to a few more days, a few more hours. In their eyes, however, he could see what the reality was. They were already dead inside.
Clay turned and joined the shuffling horde and made his way back to the room where Judith lay. There were three beds in the room, but Judith was currently the only patient in there. It wouldn't last, of course, there were probably six people downstairs right now who needed a bed. It was just how things worked here. At the moment, however, Clay was glad for the silence.
A monitor beeped and showed Clay that Judith’s heart was still beating.
Clay found a chair near the wall and brought it over beside her bed, near her right side. That was her good hand, the one he tried to hold whenever he could. It felt softer, gentler, and smoother. He took it and held it gently.
When he looked at her, he still saw her the way he had all those years ago. Her hair had been so thick and vibrant. Her face was full of color, and her smile was wide and beautiful and lit up a room. He did not see the gray hollows of her cheeks and the thinness of that hair. He could still feel the life in her, transmitted through her hands, and into his own.
How can I live without her? How can I let this go on? How would she live without me?
Clay felt the tears again, like tiny needle pricks behind his eyeballs. .He had spent many an hour wracked with sobs; he did not want to break down here. He was a fairly big man, and when he wept, he wept big, too.
Outside this room was Toronto. The city was so much bigger than it had been when he visited here as a child. Beyond those buildings were the streets and hovels where people lived and beyond that was a country that was slowly descending into chaos, just as the United States had all of those decades ago. Rumblings of revolution were in the air. He remembered liking the vibrations of the city, the feel and smell of it, but now it was all different. Now the buildings towered so high they almost blotted out the light and the people who lived down in these lower levels might as well have been crabs to the whales swimming in the crests.
Whales like Wesley.