by Stanley McFarland
“Here, raise your head,” he said as he held a bundle of long grass to support my neck.
“We should call...”
"Your phone was in the truck."
I looked over at the flaming wreck that was once my F-150.
“You don't know how much freedom your mortality gives you.”
I took a few moments to let those words soak in. I'd just seen this... person pull me out of a fire that had engulfed my truck. I was almost certainly dead if not for him. I was lying in prairie grass by the side of hwy 2 in northern Montana. He was squatting there and staring at me. I was in surprisingly little pain though barely modest as much of my clothing had burned away.
He wasn't hurt at all. His clothes were untouched. He didn't even smell like smoke. He looked and seemed the same as he had when I had picked him up hitchhiking outside of Cheyenne.
"You need medical assistance," he said. "You're about to go into shock. Nobody's likely to come down the road this late at night."
"Maybe you could carry me?" I asked.
"The last town was what, ten miles back?" he asked. "I have no idea how far the next one is. I don't think you'd survive that."
"Oh," I said, unable to think of anything else to say.
"You see," he told me, "the problem is the law of unintended consequences. Rescuing you from the fire was instinct. They rarely blame you for that as long as your reaction is benign in nature. Now I have time to make choices, to think things through. That makes everything more complicated."
"Maybe somebody will come by," I said.
"Maybe," he agreed, "but unlikely. I can't base my choices on unfounded hope."
I couldn't think of anything to say, or rather I had too many thoughts to pick one. I wanted to plead with him for my life. I wanted to ask him what kind of person isn't touched by fire. Was he an alien, a superhero, a mutant, a god? Were there more like him hitchhiking the prairies and foothills?
He stood, knuckling his back as he straightened just like any sixtyish human man might. Whatever his powers might be, they didn't include super-dry-cleaning. His jacket and pants were rumpled. He had what looked like a coffee stain on one sleeve. Then again, maybe he did have dry-cleaning power, but using it might lead to his unintended consequences.
"No," he said as if I'd asked him a question, and I wondered if he'd read my mind. "No lights that I can see, no houses. Left alone, you'll be dead in a couple hours or less."
"Bad luck," I said, thinking it was an incredibly stupid thing to say, but the only thing that would come out.
"Yeah," he agreed.
"So..." I asked, "You can heal me?"
"But you're afraid to?"
He dropped back down to sit on the verge, hugging his knees in front of him. "I'm not afraid, exactly. It's not like anyone will do anything to me if I do."
"Well, I'm for it," I said.
He laughed. "Good to know."
"Maybe it would help if we talk it out."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of gum. "You want a piece?" he asked. "The chewing might help you stay with it."
I nodded my head weakly and he unwrapped a piece of perfectly normal Wrigley's -also undamaged by the fire - and put it in my mouth for me. I wondered why he didn’t just hand it to me; then realized that one of my hands was clenched like a claw while the other was red and swollen. I could only feel the swollen one which throbbed horribly.
"The thing is," he said, "that even talking it out is a choice that leads to unintended consequences." I must have grimaced because he paused and looked at me.
"A lotta pain?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said.
"I can do something about that." He laid a finger on my forehead. It reminded me of the movie ET only his finger didn't glow or anything; the pain just stopped.
"Better?" he asked.
"It'll come back," he warned me. "Just let me know."
"So stopping pain doesn't have unintended consequences?"
"I suppose it does," he said, "but they're rarely worse than letting somebody suffer."
"Oh," I said, stupidly.
"You see," he told me, "the way you're wired, the pain is suppose to tell you that you got a problem and where it is. You're not likely to forget that even when the pain stops, so it's not like I'm stopping your body from doing its job."
"Makes sense," I replied. "What about keeping me from going into shock?"
"That's more complicated. Giving you gum, making you comfortable, and elevating your head are all things that any of your people might do, but beyond that..." He shook his head.
"I see," I said and contemplated the choice between dying now, and surviving horribly disfigured and probably one-armed. How much of what I did with my life would have to change?
"What if I promised never to tell?" I asked.
He smiled and shook his head. "I'll never understand you people and your promises. You know that they're worse than useless, don't you? A bad person's not going change his behavior just because he makes a promise; a good person won't either, but the weight of that promise is going to bog him down."
"I don't understand."
"A good person," he explained, "is going to break his promise if he has a good reason to do it, but he'll carry a load of guilt for it. If he's forced to do it enough times, the load of guilt will get so heavy that he'll either get depressed..."
"Or sear his conscience?"
"Exactly," he said. "You see, you people know how destructive your promises are, but you still make them. Please don't make me any promises. That's one consequence I want nothing to do with."
Though it was a warm night, my teeth started chattering. I spit out my gum so I didn't swallow it.
"Forgive me," he said. "I wasn't thinking." He took off his jacket and laid it over me, tucking it under my arms."
"Better?" he asked.
"A little," I manage to say.
"It's going to have to do," he said. "There's nothing left in the truck."
"I'm going into shock, aren't I?"
"So what have you decided to do?"
"Ease your pain," he said, and he reached his finger over to touch my forehead.
I woke up in a hospital bed. A deputy sheriff was staring down at me.
"There you are," he said smiling.
"Huh?" was all I could answer.
"It's the drugs," said the deputy. "You'll be a little stupid the next few days, but I gotta tell you, you are the damned luckiest son-of-a-bitch I ever did see!"
"You'll have a few scars to remember it, but you're gonna be fine."
"But I oughta cite you," said the deputy.
"We got a seatbelt law in Montana. No way you got out in time if you was buckled."
I knew I'd buckled my seatbelt, but I wasn't going to argue.
"One thing I can't figure," said the deputy.
"Your jacket. How'd your jacket come out of it like that? It ain’t even scorched."
I looked where he was pointing and saw my rescuer's jacket hanging from the back of a chair.
"Oh, I helped myself to a stick of gum," said the deputy. "I hope you don't mind."
"No consequence," I mumbled.