ORANGE — Vicki Varner decided on a purple lace shirt and pink Hunter boots, and she left her light-brown hair hanging casually down her back.
It had been months since she and her boyfriend, Tyler Thomas, had been on a date. They had plans for dinner at Carrabba’s Italian Grill in Fredericksburg.
Vicki, a 19-year-old college freshman, was excited about the date. But she wasn’t looking forward to the twisting, rural roads between her home in Orange County and their destination.
She knew every curve in the road would force her to shut her eyes. Every turn would remind her of the car crash on Christmas Eve.
Tyler was in the blue Ford Focus with her that night. Her brother, R.J., was driving. “Downtown” by August Alsina was playing on the stereo.
They weren’t far from her mother’s house when the car missed a sharp curve on Tower Road and smashed into a tree.
R.J. and Tyler were able to get themselves out of the wrecked vehicle. Vicki was not.
“I can’t,” Vicki Varner said.
R.J. and Tyler kept asking Vicki to get out of the car.
“I can’t!” she yelled.
Her brother and boyfriend stopped urging her to get up and started comforting her. They bent down to rub and kiss her head, telling her it would be OK.
The word “downtown” played in her mind like a broken record. It sounded warped and unnaturally slow.
The sound of the lyrics blended in her head with the cheery “What is your emergency?” of the 911 responder who was automatically called by the car’s security system when the airbags deployed.
She couldn’t feel her legs when the ambulance arrived.
An emergency surgery at Mary Washington Hospital stabilized her organs, but she was immediately transferred to VCU Medical Center.
That’s where the standout athlete learned she was paralyzed from the waist down.
Vicki, a 2015 graduate of Courtland High School in Spotsylvania County, was home for Christmas break when the wreck happened. She had just finished her first semester at Missouri Valley College, where she had earned a softball scholarship and was studying psychology.
“I lost all the independence that I just got,” she said.
In early January, Vicki was transferred again from VCU to the Shepherd Center in Georgia, which specializes in spinal cord injuries.
“All I wanted is to be able to do things on my own again: getting dressed, going to the bathroom,” she said. “I’m not one to sit around and be weak.”
Within weeks, she checked off goals such as learning to transfer herself from the wheelchair to the couch, haul her body up what they called “cardiac hill,” put on pants in the chair and take a shower.
She became a peer mentor at the Shepherd Center, visiting new patients. She spoke to fifth-grade classes about how she was still the same person despite the wheelchair and the screws supporting her spinal cord, which she refers to as her “hardware.”
She gathered strength from her “twin” at the hospital — another girl who had been paralyzed in a car wreck with her brother. But that 15-year-old’s brother had died.
Vicki says she’s lucky, because at least she still has her brain and her personality. She also has her brother and boyfriend — and says she is thankful that the most serious injuries were dealt to her that night and not them.
Maybe this was her destiny, she said.
The physical therapists called it an unusually fast discharge, Vicki said. She returned home about two months after the crash.
When she got home earlier this month, a wheelchair ramp installed by Habitat for Humanity led her to the front door. Her Christmas presents sat under a small, glittering, pink tree. They were still wrapped, waiting for her return.
She was able, finally, to unwrap the pink Hunter boots she had been dreaming about since her time at VCU Medical Center. It was a nice way to be welcomed home.
But some things, and some memories, are still difficult to cope with.
Even now, Vicki will occasionally hear the song “Downtown” playing in her head, and she winces every time.
The lucky one
As the clock ticked down to her date with Tyler — their first since the wreck — Vicki’s pink cellphone was buzzing.
It was R.J., texting lyrics to “Downtown.”
Despite the memories it brings back, and the pain it causes her, Vicki is drawn to the song.
Vicki and R.J. were dissecting the lyrics — searching for something important in the song.
“No one told me life would be this way! I swear nobody told me,” reads one lyric. The siblings focus on another line: “People dying every day, that ain’t nothing new.”
They picked the song apart, but it left Vicki feeling haunted. Later, that feeling turned into determination.
Vicki said she won’t be wasting her second chance. She plans to manage a local softball team and wants to start a co-ed softball team for wheelchair-bound players.
And she told her introverted older brother not to waste his second chance.
“I told him I don’t know if any of this could have been prevented,” she said.
For R.J., the talk with his sister helped heal invisible wounds.
“It definitely helped me mentally,” he said. “I’ve been having a lot of problems since that night. I looked at that and it makes me appreciate life. I really have no choice but to look at it in a positive way because of her. I don’t want her to see any kind of weakness from me.”
For the date, Vicki planned to carry the Michael Kors purse that Tyler gave her for Christmas. As she waited for Tyler to arrive, the purse sat on the grey thigh-high chair Vicki uses to take a shower.
The couple has been together three years, and they plan to get an apartment this fall, just as Vicki starts classes at Randolph-Macon College.
“I just learned how to make his favorite: chicken wings,” she said.
Vicki adjusted her bracelet. It’s etched with the names Ian and Jalen Brown, two Spotsylvania County teenagers killed in a car crash a month before Vicki’s wreck.
The brothers died when the older one ran off the road and struck a tree. Ian was Tyler’s best friend.
Vicki was wearing the bracelet the night of her wreck. She rarely takes the bracelet off. It protected her that night, she says.
And it was on her wrist when Tyler arrived to pick her up.
Vanessa Remmers reports for The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star.