Chapter 1: The Void
Walker’s hands squeezed the steering wheel, as if the pressure would make the light turn green. His wife, Connie, sat beside him in the passenger seat, staring blankly ahead. Twenty minutes ago they had been happily eating Chinese food, discussing what color to repaint the guest room. Connie’s phone had buzzed. Unidentified number. She ignored it.
“I like browns and greens,” said Walker. “I don’t want it to look too girlie.” The phone buzzed a second time. The caller had left a message.
“Agreed,” said Connie said, casually placing the phone to her ear. “I want something warm too. But not dark. Darkness can be…” The blood drained from her face and she trailed off mid-sentence.
“Who is it?” asked Walker.
“Shh!” she said, with unexpected intensity. She finished listening and slowly placed the phone on the table.
“It was the police. Lizzie’s been in an car accident. She’s in an ambulance on the way to the emergency room right now.”
“They didn’t say. Only that it’s serious and we need to get there as soon as we can.”
They made their way quickly out the door, shoving a wad of cash in the hands of their puzzled waitress.
The emergency room looked like a scene from M.A.S.H. Wounded people filled every chair. Some leaned against the walls.
“My God,” thought Walker. “When did this become a third-world country?”
A sign over the triage nurse’s desk said “Start here.” Seven people stood in line. Walker ignored the line and stepped to the desk.
“Hi. I’m Walker Adams. My daughter Lizzie’s been in a car accident. Is she here?”
The nurse didn’t even look up “Sorry sir. You’ll have to wait your turn.”
“But my daughter has been in a serious accident. Is the ambulance here?”
The nurse looked up blankly. “You’ll have to wait your turn.”
Walker and Connie went to the end of the line. Connie stared at her phone, her thumbs fumbling instinctively with her Facebook page. On the way to the hospital she had posted a prayer request. The digital well-wishers were flooding in.
“Wow,” she said. “247 ‘likes’ and ‘praying for you’s’ in less than ten minutes. That has to be a record.”
Walker was not surprised. Everyone loved Lizzie. He was glad Connie had made it clear they wanted no visitors.
An elderly Hmong man with bad teeth and a kind face said, “Why don’t you go ahead of me?”
“Thank you.” Lizzie replied. The waves of her gratitude were felt all the way to the front of the line. One by one, each person motioned them forward until they stood face-to-face with the triage nurse again.
“I’m Walker Adams. My daughter Elizabeth Adams has been in a serious car accident. Is she here?”
“No. Not yet.” said the nurse, staring at a computer screen.
Do you know when she will be?”
“It doesn’t say,” she said, still staring at the screen. “She’s coming by ambulance so it should be soon. Why don’t you go over and get started on the paperwork?” She motioned to a sign across the room that said “Admitting.” There were four windows, one of which was manned. People waited in plastic chairs like at the DMV.
As Walker made his way across the room, his heart sank. Three weeks ago he had quit his job at the local hardware store. They couldn’t compete when Home Depot and Lowe’s moved into town and had cut his salary. Walker’s credit was stretched thin and he had to have benefits so he had reluctantly joined the enemy. His job at the Home Depot had begun two weeks ago. His family health insurance was in limbo. He wasn’t even sure he had any.
Sirens penetrated the emergency room windows. An ambulance had arrived. Walker and Connie jostled their way out the door just in time to see Lizzie’s bandaged head disappear into the ER on a gurney.
Walker went back inside and cut to the front of the line. He pounded the desk, looked the nurse in the eye and said,“I have to see my daughter.”
Without looking up, she took a visitor’s sticker from a pile and handed it to him.
“One at a time. It’s packed in there.”
Connie looked at Walker pleadingly.
“You go, honey,” he said, handing her the sticker. She put it on her blouse and disappeared through swinging doors with a large red “No Admittance” sign.
Walker spotted an empty chair and wedged himself between a mother with a red-nosed baby and an elderly woman. He knew he should pray but the very idea made him furious. He started to think about his insurance. He hated his new job. Actually, he didn’t like his old job either. He had been depressed for several years. People said he was having a midlife crisis. He knew they were wrong. This was not a passing phase that would be solved by time. In fact, time was making things worse.
Every chapter of life promised something around the corner. In high school it was college. In college it was marriage. In marriage it was kids. Now it was grandkids and retirement. Around every corner was another corner. He was running out of corners. He woke up every morning with a painful emptiness. It became so predictable that he named it. He called it “the Void” and joked about it with Connie.
“How’s the Void today?” she would ask him at breakfast.
He would smile and laugh but it wasn’t funny.
In church they called it the “God-shaped vacuum.” He was well acquainted with the vacuum. The problem was God had never bothered to fill his. They assured him he would go to heaven when he died. That gave him a reason to die. He needed a reason to live.
No one had an answer for the Void. They dealt with it by trying not to think about it. They stayed busy. They ate. They remodeled the house. They had an affair. They moved to the next town. They kept looking around the next corner. When that didn’t work, they drank.
Now Walker had come around a corner and found his daughter bleeding there. What was the point? All he knew for sure was that life was absurd and he loved Lizzie. He looked at the clock. It had been forty-five minutes. What was taking so long? Ignoring the nurse, he got up and barged through the “No Admittance” doors.
Thousands of beeping monitors made is sound like a video arcade. Nurses rushed from patient to patient plugging in tubes and pushing buttons on screens. Gurneys with patients lying on them were strewn up and down the hall like abandoned cars. Lizzie lay on one of them, her eyes shut.
“The rooms are all full,” said Connie. “We’re waiting for a doctor. How did you get in?”
“Don’t ask,” he said.
They stood by Lizzie’s gurney, trying to avoid the stream of traffic moving up and down the hall. Walker saw Lizzie’s face for the first time and swallowed hard. Her eyes were two dark purple bruises. Her nose was broken and the left side of her face was badly cut. He tried not to imagine what was underneath the bandages.
Lizzie’s eyes opened and she looked up slowly. Her eyes scanned Walker’s face, as if trying to make sense of it. They drifted slowly over to Connie.
“Yes, dear,” Connie said, fighting for composure. “You’ve been in an accident. We’re here.”
Lizzie smiled weakly and drifted back off.
Finally, the doctor arrived.
“I’m Dr. Philipps, he said,” extending his hand briskly. He examined Lizzie briefly and turned to Connie and Walker.
“The good news is that she still has movement in all her limbs. She took quite a blow to the head. From what I understand it’s a miracle that she’s still alive.” I’m ordering a CT scan so we can find out how extensive the damage is.
Two orderlies arrived and whisked Lizzie away. As Walker and Connie made their way back to the waiting area they recognized one of the paramedics who had brought Lizzie in the ambulance. They pumped him for information.
“We picked up your daughter at the intersection of Highway 99 and 20,” he said. She was headed west on 20 when a guy in a big pickup ran a red light at 60 miles an hour. He hit her broadside. You should see your minivan. It’s a miracle she’s alive.”
“So we heard,” said Walker. “How’s the other guy?”
“He’s fine. It was a big truck, an F-250 I think. His airbag went off. All he had were a few scrapes. One of his friends came. I think he went home.”
“Thanks,” said Walker.
“I hope she’s all right.” said the paramedic. “Seems like it always goes this way. The people who cause the accidents are never the ones who get hurt.”
An hour later, Dr. Philipps stuck his head through the doors.
“Adams?” he said.
“Here,” said Connie and Walker in unison.
“Come with me.”
They followed Dr. Philipps into a small consultation room where he showed them images of Lizzie’s head on a computer screen.
“She’s had a traumatic brain injury. There has been serious damage.”
“How serious?” asked Connie.
“Serious. Her head bounced off the driver’s side window. It gave her brain a serious jolt. The good news is that her skull remained intact and her vital signs are good. The greatest danger now is swelling. We’ll monitor her closely for the next few days. She belongs in our neuroscience intensive care unit, but the beds are all filled. Tonight we will watch her in the ER.
“Isn’t there anything else that can be done?” asked Connie.
“Not now. Tomorrow if she is up to it I’ll order more tests so we can get a better idea of what is going on. The best thing you can do is go home and get some sleep. This could be a long process.”
“Will she live?” asked Connie in a whisper.
“I can’t make any promises,” said Dr. Philipps, “Like I said, these cases are hard to predict. But chances are good.”
When they returned to waiting room they were relieved to discover that Lizzie had been put in a room. They were allowed to sit with her. Wires ran from every part of her body, connected to an array of beeping machines. They sat down. Connie made phone calls and updated her Facebook page. Walter sat in silence. At midnight, he looked over at Connie.
“You need to get some rest. I’ll stay here tonight. In the morning you can come and take my place.” Reluctantly, Connie went home.
The visitor’s chairs were not designed for sleeping. They were far too upright. Besides that, they were hard. He couldn’t have slept anyway. Why did everything in the room have to beep?
He was trying to process the day’s events when Lizzie’s eyes opened for a second time. This time she looked at him clearly.
“I love you.
“I love you too.”
“Why is this happening to me?”
Silence filled the room.
“I don’t know,” he said. “God must have a reason.”
She stared at him for a few seconds then drifted back to sleep.
“God must have a reason.” Hah! He hated the words even as they came out of his mouth. It was a reflex, like saying “fine” when people ask you how you are. But what was he supposed to say? “Life’s a crap shoot, honey. We roll a dice. Some people get lucky and some don’t. Guess you’re not one of the lucky ones. Sorry about that.”
Lizzie was an angel. What kind of a God mutilates angels? He knew the answer. It was Adam and Eve’s fault. But who made Adam and Eve? And the apple? And the tree? And the rules? Even if they had done some horrific thing by eating an apple, how did it make sense for God to torture Lizzie thousands of years later?
Walker could face his own Void. But this? Never. He realized why the idea of praying made him so mad. If God was loving, if God was caring, this would have not happened in the first place. If God could make a universe, surely he could make some punk look up from his cell phone. Maybe God didn’t bother to monitor things like that. Maybe God didn’t care. Maybe there was no God. Maybe God was a monster. Whatever the reason there was no use talking to him.
A nurse startled him from his trance.
“Would you like a blanket?”
“Oh… Yes. Thanks.”
He covered himself and drifted off. It was 3:00 AM. Two hours later he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Connie.
“How is she?”
“How are you?”
Connie hugged him. “You need some sleep. Go home and try to rest.”
He wandered out to the car and got behind the wheel. He flashed to the thousands of times he had sat behind the wheel with Lizzie in the backseat. Taking her to a soccer match. The first day of school. Sleepovers. Volleyball games. Trips to grandparents. He beat the steering wheel until it hurt his hand. Tears splashed down his face and he cried out in agony,
“My God, My God! Why have your forsaken me!”
He was startled to find that he was not alone. A Voice had said the words along with him.