The children's ward of St Martins, contrary to what one would have expected from a hospital, had quite a cheerful air. Confronting the stark reality of sick and dying children every day, the ward still managed to put out a relatively upbeat atmosphere, mostly so for the young visitors who were either too young or too protected by well meaning adults to understand any better. The walls were covered in children's drawings painted in bright colors, there were toys aplenty, and occasionally the laughter of a child would burst through the hallways. If it wasn't for the constant bustle of white coated doctors and nurses one could be forgiven for thinking that they were in a children's camp or some sort of boarding school. This atmosphere - combined with the reward of knowing that they helped children - were motivators enough for the otherwise underpaid and overworked staff.
And then there were cases like Patricia's. Patricia had been born fourteen years ago with her bloodstream saturated with drugs and HIV. Nobody knew what had happened to her mother - who disappeared after dumping Patricia in the garbage - and nobody particularly cared. Patricia had been found by a man called Robert who had not turned the child over to Homeland Care, but had instead chosen to bring her up by himself.
Robert was an aging, childless widower who had lost his wife, Deidre, when the terrorists had destroyed Coventry. Many years had passed as a blur while depression, shock and alcohol had numbed him from the pain of her loss. He had stopped talking to people, lost interest in life, and as time went by he had retreated into his house to wait for his turn to eventually pass away. But on that cold February morning when he heard the cries of Patricia in the garbage, he rushed to help. As he picked up the child from the trash, his first thought was of the children that he and Dierdre had been unable to have. He wrapped the baby in his coat and took her to the closest hospital, which had been St Martin's, for the doctors to try and help her. He put down his name as next of kin. He talked to the doctors who told him that the child was born in a state of barbiturate withdrawal and to top it all off she was HIV positive. He decided to adopt her and help her live. He bonded with the little girl, and slowly at first, then faster and faster, the numbness that had enveloped him began to give way. He began to experience his first real emotions in a long long time. "We finally have a daughter", he would tell Dierdre's old photo, "You would have loved her, she even looks like you a little. I'll love her enough for both of us". And it was true, he loved Patricia very much.
In the course of fourteen years Robert had taken care of her, giving it his all, emotionally and financially. He had spent most of his savings on doctors who treated Patricia's illness, but as far as her upbringing was concerned Robert made sure never to overprotect or shield her from the world. She went to school just like any other child, she had her friends and dolls, she did her homework, and she was as happy and quirky as any other young girl. Robert could tell that not having a mother weighed on her, but as the years passed she had compensated by taking on the role of woman of the house.
Sometimes after finishing her homework she would hop down the stairs to the living room, drag Robert from the TV and they would go for an afternoon walk. Often they would visit the nearby lake and feed the ducks there. She would lecture the ducks and teach them manners when they bickered for the pieces of bread that she would hand out. "Now now" she would say and waggle her finger at them "if you don't quiet down and behave there will be no bread for you today." And the ducks would quiet down and behave because they could see that she meant it.
During all this time, deep in Robert's mind, the old anger still burned: Anger towards a God who had let the terrorists take away his sweet Dierdre. He missed her so much. And every night the anger would take away some of the happiness that Patricia had brought back into his life. There was only so much loneliness and pain that a child, no matter how sweet and loving, was able to cure in an old man. There was too much past that dragged behind him and there were too many empty moments in his life.
So many nights after Patricia had gone to bed the house would be deathly quiet. Robert would feel a graveyard chill prowling outside the house like a predator, patiently waiting for its next victim. "Not her" he would say to the winter blackness outside the windows, "Damn you God, you took Dierdre, you will have me soon enough, that ought to be enough death from this house for you. Let the child live a long life. Please. Let her live, or when it is my time I will come over and set fire to your precious heaven and your angels and anything else I can lay my hands on." Every night he would growl this desperate prayer. And God must have backed down every night because Robert, an otherwise peaceful and pious Christian, meant every word.
Every week Patricia would visit the doctors to be checked up. She would take a cocktail of drugs and prescriptions with her to school to mix with her lunch, and would take another handful before bedtime. It wasn't a dark or troubling concept to her. H.A.A.R.T. rituals were something she had learned to do as a baby along with her potty training. Her stats and medications were carefully monitored and she had never shown any AIDS symptoms. As time passed, Robert had begun to hope that God had backed down. Then, while talking with her friends after school, about a week after her fourteenth birthday, she went into violent convulsions.
Once again, the closest hospital was St Martins. She was rushed over and diagnosed. The virus had began to slaughter Patricia's immune system at a rate that shocked even the equipment operators. Within the space of a month she lay wasted on a bed in the children's ward, surrounded by the bright colors of the drawings on the walls. She had made a few friends there during that time, but their parents would keep them away from her as soon as they found out about her condition. Her numbers were all in the red, and all the doctors could do is make her as comfortable as possible before she passed away. Robert would spend every minute that he could with her. He brought her girly magazines and sneaked McDonald's cheeseburgers into the ward which they'd nibble on conspiratorially. When not with her, Robert would be in the chapel praying, begging, offering up to God everything he had -including his own life- in order for her to get better.
Then on a Tuesday night, while they were watching the Pop Superstar finals she went into a convulsion so violent that it burst a fluid mass that was building up inside her brain. The doctors told Robert that she would not have felt any pain at all. The nurses said that she passed away knowing that she had been loved and would never know loss and loneliness, that she had experienced more love and care in those few years with Robert than some people ever had in their entire lives.
But Robert wasn't really listening. He walked out into the night in a haze, swallowed inside the same evil cold which he had confronted every night of the last fourteen years. A single thought pulsed inside his head, loud and unceasing: There is no God. First Dierdre and now Patricia. There is no God. He stumbled away from the hospital towards the lake where Patricia used to lecture ducks about manners. He saw for the first time that there was no God there, or anyplace else. There had never been any God watching or listening, ever, he realised.
As he walked, Robert felt something break inside him, as if a large bubble around his heart had burst, and pain flowed over his chest like a hot liquid. The dark did not feel so cold anymore. Feeling empty and old, he sat on a bench at the edge of the lake and looked with his tearful eyes over the still waters. All that he could see was the dark.
And then, in pain and despair, he understood that he was finally truly and completely free. He breathed out a long tired sigh into the darkness, and never breathed back in.