Why do I get myself into scrapes like this?
My hands are trembling. I thrust them into my pockets and firmly tell myself to keep walking, but I feel strangely dizzy and faint, and a little sick to my stomach. I'll have to sit down. This is not just one of those things you can calmly walk away from, it's --
But suddenly my gorge rises and I bolt for a trash can. Supper comes up a lot less attractively than it went down. I shake, grasping the edge of the trash can, eyes watering, the horrible burn of vomit still in my throat, and try to calm myself down. I'm sure I did the right thing, but sometimes that doesn't make it any easier.
Earlier this evening I decided to sleep in a tent city near Portland. I try not to do this if I can -- I don't want entanglements -- but I was walking by and something about my look or walk must have suggested I was part of the brotherhood of the homeless, because one of the volunteers offered me something to eat.
Conversation among transients is very different from conversation in "polite society." For one thing, it's understood that you've got problems, so you're not encouraged to talk unless you want to. There's not much BS, unless you count the ramblings of mental illness or the influence of drink. I ate quietly in the mess tent, listening to other people talk sporadically around me.
"You need a place to sleep?" a volunteer asked me.
I nodded. It would be warm and relatively safe to stay the night there.
"Tents are all taken, but there's a spot free over by Joe there. Sometimes he talks in his sleep. Roll him over and he'll stop."
I accepted a rough, much-washed blanket (so different from my mother's beautiful soft quilts) and headed over to Joe's side of camp. I wasn't sure about Joe, but over time I've learned to trust my instincts. Besides, I've never yet been assaulted by a homeless person. That's not to say I've never been assaulted, but I can take care of myself.
Joe, a white-haired, dark-skinned man in his late sixties, was still awake. "Hey, lady."
"Hey, Joe," I said, "whaddya know?"
He laughed, a bit raggedly. "Not much, if I'm sleeping outside on a night like this." He laughed again, coughed, then lapsed into silence. I spread out my makeshift bed and lay down, curling up in the old blanket, grateful that at least it wasn't raining.
"So what brings you out to the Hilton?"
I started at the question. Maybe my surprise led me to tell him the truth. "I -- I'm looking for someone."
"Anyone someone, or someone in particular?"
It had been a while since I told anyone my story, and I was tempted to spill, but I knew it was a bad idea. "It's a long story," I said. I knew that was shorthand for leave me alone and figured that would be the end of the conversation. But Joe was persistent.
"Well, I got nowhere to be. It'd pass the time. But you don't have to tell me."
I sighed. Joe obviously wanted to know -- and to be honest, I wanted to tell. So over the next hour I told him the whole story, beginning to end. He was remarkably attentive, asking only a few questions during the course of the tale. When I was finally finished, he was quiet for some time before he spoke.
"That's quite the story," he said. "Be honest with you, I'm not sure I believe all of it, but it's quite the story."
I'm used to being disbelieved, so I didn't protest. "And what about you?" I asked.
"Oh, my story's nothing that exciting. I used to have a wife, a couple kids, a good job. I also used to drink too much."
"I'm sorry," I said awkwardly.
"Yeah, me too." He sighed. "Life does like to throw a curve ball or two when you're not prepared for it."
"You'll get back on your feet," I said, trying to sound convincing.
"Honey, no offense meant, but I believe that as much as I believe you got the powers of high hocus-pocus. At my age, with my health and my job history, who's gonna hire me? Merrill freakin' Lynch?"
I was silent. Clearly I'd hit Joe's sore spot.
"Don't get me wrong," he added, more gently. "You seem like a good kid, and I like you. But I'm a realist. When guys half my age and with a college education can't get a job, there ain't much hope for someone like me, you know?"
"I see your point," I said. "It's hard for everyone right now."
"Yeah. Just... just gotta figure something out... something that doesn't involve hitting the bottle again. I'm... done with that for good..."
His voice sounded strange, a little slurry, and for a moment I wondered if he hadn't been hitting the bottle already. But he'd been listening to me for the better part of an hour; I would've noticed if he had been drinking. And then, with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, I thought what else might be happening to Joe.
"Joe," I asked, "are you OK? How do you feel?"
"H -- head hurts," Joe said, still slurry. "Gotta... take a nap..."
Instinctively I lunged forward to touch Joe's head. He tried to fend off the sudden movement, but was too weak to do anything more than raise his hands a little. Experienced healers don't always need to touch their patients, but I wasn't that experienced. Yet I could identify the symptoms of a stroke in progress.
Sure enough, I could sense that a clot had formed in one of Joe's cerebral arteries. If I didn't act quickly and carefully, he could have severe brain damage or even die. I took a deep breath and began to concentrate on breaking up the clot, and at the same time keeping blood flow to his brain as steady as I could. Lysis is a tricky thing, and can easily go wrong if you don't manage the clot just so. Much like sweeping up a shattered glass, you've got to find and remove every bit before your patient is safe.
Joe was moaning. I prayed I wasn't doing anything to hurt him, but I had to get rid of the clot if he was going to live. It was starting to break up, letting the much-needed blood flow freely again. I focused intently -- then suddenly I was through, the clot broken up, dissolved and harmless. I let go of him, panting with exhaustion, only then realizing that I was covered in a clammy sweat.
"What the hell was that?" Joe exclaimed feebly. "What did you just do?" His slur was gone, his eyes focused, and I saw no signs of drooping features; he seemed to have gotten through the experience with no visible damage.
"You were having a stroke, Joe," I said, still trying to get my breath back. "But you should be OK now."
"I was what?"
"Having a stroke. But it's OK now," I said. "No more clot. How's your headache?"
Joe touched his temple. "It's gone," he said. "But I don't understand. What did you -- "
"I told you, I have the knack," I said, as calmly as I could. "I can't fix everything, but I know how to fix some things."
He looked at me, clearly still not sure what to think.
"Don't worry, Joe," I told him. "You're gonna be all right."
And then, only then, did I realize what I would have to do next. Joe knew too much about me, and it was a liability. After all that effort to fix his brain, I was going to have to inflict some damage on his mind. But what I had to do next didn't require that I touch him at all. It's a much more subtle art, the fade. Without any more explanation I got up and walked away, taking my rough blanket with me, leaving Joe still trying to ask what had happened. As I walked back to the entrance of the tent city to return the blanket, I focused on the specific section of Joe's mind that recalled my bedding down next to him, all the way up to the moments after I walked off. And I simply wiped it away, clean and clear and quick, leaving behind something like a fresh translucent scar in his mind. If he should ever see me again, he won't even remember my face.
Now I stand, still shaking, at the edge of the trash can, and try to think what I should do. Calm down. First things first. Find some fresh water, clean out my mouth, then discover a place to rest where there are no human beings nearby. I'm not safe around them.
I did the right thing to stop the stroke. I know that. I couldn't have just walked away and let him die; I couldn't have lived with myself, knowing that I could have saved someone's life and instead did nothing. But I saved Joe from one kind of brain damage, only to cause something even worse.
What sort of creature am I?