The Flash Fiction Friday family has offered doubt as this week's topic. I call this story "No Way Out (Heaven's Trail)"
The Samuelsons were part of the 90% of the church that asked very little of anyone. They were there on Christmas and Easter, and they handed over their contribution when they were in the pews. They didn't join committees or sing in choir. They mostly kept to themselves, filing out briskly before anyone could socialize with them. When they started coming less and less, and then when the news blew through the congregation like an ill wind that their elaborately named daughter Cornelia was in serious medical trouble, I made sure they knew they could reach out to me.
When the call came, I set aside an afternoon, turning the corner into the oncology wing at about 1:30 or so. I shook hands with her father, a small, visibly nervous man, right outside her room. He was taking turns with his wife, one of them attempting to do work at home while the other sat vigil. His face and arms were tanned. He owned a landscaping firm, I thought.
"She's been waiting for you," he said. He looked tired, and he sounded beaten.
I squirted hand sanitizer into my palms and rubbed it in briskly.
"I would have come earlier if I had known," I said. "How is she?"
He didn't say anything, just looked down at the institutional gray tile floor. He sighed.
"Not so good. Do you mind if I go get a cup of coffee?," he said, steadily avoiding my gaze.
"No, not at all," I said. "I have lots of experience doing this. We're fine." I had walked into my share of hospital rooms, and seen just about everything it was possible to see. .
He walked off without another word, and I went into her room. I remembered Cornelia as a modest girl, a trim, pretty preteen, always turned out in her Sunday best, walking shyly a pace or two behind her parents as they leave the service. The girl I confronted now had lost all of her auburn hair, giving her a skeletal, alien appearance. Her skin, usually alabaster white, was splotched with ugly red patches. I knew enough not to react, but the contrast was striking. She barely looked human.
"Hi there," I ventured. She was hooked up to IVs, and there was a TV on a rocker arm way above her head, playing silently to no one. The gown hung on her skeletal form loosely, and I could see where her collarbone jutted out at the base of her neck.
"Hi Reverend," she said. Her voice was papery soft. She took a sip of water from a plastic cup in front of her. "Did my Dad leave?"
"Yes," I said. "He went to get something downstairs. He said you wanted to talk to me?"
"I need to ask you something," she said. It sounded like she couldn't get enough air to form the words.
"Absolutely," I said. "Anything at all."
"And you can't tell anyone what I tell you."
"No, sweetheart, no. I will absolutely keep this discussion between us. I wouldn't reveal it, and actually, legally, I can't. So ask me anything."
She took another sip of water, and laid her head back. I could see the outline of her chest more clearly now. I knew she was in middle school, but she was so thin she would pass for a tall second grader.
"Did God give me cancer?"
This was the Sunday punch of questions, and although I have answered it dozens of times, I've never felt like I answered it very well. There were volumes full of wisdom answering this question, from all faiths, across the centuries, and none of it helped.
"I don't think God does that. I think cancer is just part of the world we live in, and He gives us the strength to deal with it." It was hard to take on the cares of so many people. I thought about the scene in "Jesus Christ Superstar" where the actor says, "There is too little of me!" I know the Lord supports me, but it is hard not to feel alone, too.
"It's not because I did something bad? Not because of telling a lie? Or kissing a boy?"
"No, it's not because of anything anyone did. God understands we're not perfect. He loves us despite our mistakes." The trees were moving silently outside the window.
"But why, though? Why me?"
"I don't know, Cornelia. Nobody knows. A long time ago, I read a book where someone asked that question, and the answer was 'why not me?' I know that doesn't make sense, but we have to trust in God's plan. It's all we have." I looked at the highway in the distance, people rushing to get somewhere else, as fast as they could.
"It's not fair."
"No, no it's not."
"I'm never going to have a boyfriend. I'm never going to get married. I'm never going to get to do anything good. Why is that part of the plan, Reverend?"
"I don't know if that's true," I said.
"I think it is," she said firmly, then coughed once. "I hear the way they talk. I pretend I'm sleeping and they talk about me."
She was probably right. "I don't know why this is part of the plan. I really don't. All I can do, all any of us can do, is just trust that it is."
"So I'm not a bad person?"
"No, honey. You're not a bad person at all."
She yawned elaborately.
"Do you need to close your eyes, Cornelia?"
"A little bit," she said, and stretched, settling her tiny body again on the mattress.
"I'll let you go, then," I said. "If you need to talk, just have your mom or dad call me. I'm available whenever you need me."
"OK," she said, her voice thick and slow. "Thanks."
"Thank you, Cornelia. I'll pray for you."
"Thanks," she mumbled.
I backed out of the room. Her eyes fluttered and closed. Cornelia's father was sitting on a chair in front of the door, staring at the floor between his knees, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand. He looked up at me, and we both nodded. I walked down the hall, listening to the beeping and the chatter, the ringing phones and the rattling of carts. I was pretty sure she didn't believe my answers. I had trouble believing them too.