My family and I were driving East on a crowded highway at sunrise towards the city. Traffic wasn’t stop and go. But it was hardly moving fast enough to be considered movement.
As we reached one of the main intersections, passing over a north-south highway, a man nonchalantly walks from the breakdown lane next to the slow lane, and across 3 lanes of hardly moving traffic, stopping abruptly at the concrete blocks that divide East and West lanes of traffic.
We were a few cars back. My husband complained about this insane person. As per usual.
I felt the man stare in to my soul. It was uncomfortable. So I shrugged it off.
He is just another unknown man with crinkly hair and dirt encrusted around his joints. As if he worked in the fields surrounding the city.
I watched him take out a rusty can and stared as he opened it. He hastily rotated the lid. Righty tight-y, lefty loose-y.
And then he poured it on his hands. He patted his hands to his face.
Our dusty red toddler of a Subaru passed by him at school zone speed.
My eyes locked with this strange man’s eyes. Without looking, as if he knew exactly the movements he needed to make, he reached for his left pocket inside of his jacket. Still staring at me, he pulled something out. It was too small for me to see what.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize what it was.
He aimed this unknown object at his face. We drove pass him. Now a few cars separated us and him. I turned around to see if I could still see him.
A bright red flame flickered. His face disappeared as red flames took over. Flames took the place of where his hands should be.
We were too far away. There were thousands of cars on this 6 lane freeway. Somebody would surely call 911.
So we continued East, as the sun rose over the hills and shined in our eyes. Our focus returned to what we were doing that day.
That evening, when our errands were finished, we returned home. Heading west as the sun set in front of us. Our home just 30 minutes in the direction of the setting sun. It was a long day. I was day dreaming of my bed. It is not as comfortable to nap in the passenger side front seat as it should be.
The sun was setting. Traffic was slow. People were being blinded by the rays. There weren’t nearly as many cars on the road as this morning. But the cars that were in front of us – were being driven by people that have clearly forgotten how to drive as the sun is setting.
We were reaching that same intersection that passes over the North-South highway. I started thinking. And wondering. And worrying. Surely someone took care of that man that set fire to himself. I wasn’t paying attention to the news or social media. I hope someone was able to rescue him before he passed away. Nobody deserves to die. Especially not like that.
I should have made my husband stop and call 911. But instead, I became a prime example of the bystander effect. Eh – surely someone else is seeing this happen so surely someone else will jump in and save them.
I gave up taking a nap. I put my seat upright. I blinked the exhaustion away.
And then it happened. Again. This time, it was as if the man sped up while we slowed down. We locked eyes. I was uncomfortable again. He crossed the 3 lanes of westbound traffic. He did an about face at the middle divider. He must have removed the cap of the container while I blinked in exhaustion. He poured. I blinked once more. And then he was on fire. Instantly.
I told my husband to stop. Something took over. All neurons were firing correctly.
I tried putting the fire out. Just his hands and his face.
I thought it odd. How can this man be on fire again? There were no injuries from earlier? Why only parts of his body?
Questions can wait. We needed to get the fire put out.
Cars zoomed by. Faster as the sun was setting, as rays were beginning to be blocked by the coastal range mountains.
I told my husband to wait with the kids. I told our oldest to call 911 while my youngest was asleep in her car seat. I gave my husband strict instructions to do something.
And I ran. I ran to the kids Taekwondo dojang. I pleaded with the master to help. My gut told me she was the right person to go to. She was teaching a high belt class. It didn’t take but a second to plead. And they came running after me. I lead them to the overpass. 10 miles away. Where the man was still on fire. My husband had tried diligently.
With the help of the dojang masters and students, by some sort of miracle, we were able to stop the flames. Emergency responders never showed up. A question we didn’t have time to ponder. We knew we needed to get this man stable and bandaged.
There is a huge hospital about 2 miles north of where we were located on the freeway. But instead, as if we were all one mind, we knew we needed to get him back to the dojang.
We walked him back the 10 miles.
I still found it odd that no one else had stopped to help. That no passing cars fire fighters or EMT’s or even police officers, arrived to help. But again, we didn’t have time to ponder. So back to the dojang we go.
I directed the chaos. You get bandages. You get room temperature water. You get scissors. You get, well you get the point. We bandaged him up. It was all hands on deck.
Even though his hands and face were on fire for almost an hour, at least, there was very little burn scars. It was as if he had some sort of protective layer covering his skin.
My husband, the girls, and I all remained at the dojang for awhile. We got to know this man. He was friendly. He had stories of adventures. He shared words of wisdom. He laughed. He passed on some of his cultural traditions.
Hours went by. Soon it was way past everyone’s bedtime. Actually, it was the next day. How did that happen?
Suddenly, a caravan of bright LED headlights were coming our way. One by one, blacked out suburbans passed by the dojang. Just like the ones in Hollywood movies. Black on black on black. 6 in total. They came to a stop. Engines turned off.
Ok. That’s odd, I thought.
We were all sitting in the main dojang. The garage doors have been opened all day. It was a beautifully sunny and warm end of summer day. The night was a perfect temperature to relax and share stories. Mosquitoes were oddly nowhere in sight.
We all sat in sudden silence. We watched as a short man in an all black uniform leaped out of the extra large suburban in the last vehicle to arrive.
Without skipping a beat, he demanded to know where the man was.
I stood up. Something unseen told me I needed to be the person to take lead. And as if a still image started moving – a thousand thoughts overloaded my neurons. I took a deep breath.
In 2 3 4.
Out 2 3 4.
I calmly walked towards him. What man was he talking about? Did he know about the man we rescued? How did he know? Who is this man in all black?
He walked past 5 of the other blacked out suburbans to reach the front. Just as he arrived, I asked him why he “wanted to know”?
He didn’t respond. But instead, he took 6 short steps to the backseat of the first suburban in the caravan. He opened the passenger back door.
“Come here and see for yourself”
I slowly walked forward. There is no sense of urgency anywhere near us. Why am I listening to this unknown man? He still hasn’t told me who he is, or why they are here.
As I walk, I notice that no one else has moved in the dojang. They are waiting, silently. As if frozen in time.
And no one else from the caravan has made themselves visible. The windows were darkened beyond visibility. How could anyone see out?
I get to the open door. I stop. And then I peer my head around the edge.
A lady is convulsing in the backseat.
I didn’t understand. Why would he show me this?
“This is what that man did,” he accusingly told me.
I didn’t understand.
“The man you saved is a terrorist. He soaked his body in a biochemical weapon. He can injure himself without repercussions, but anyone that comes in contact with him….well this is what your future will look like.”
I falter backwards. How can the man I saved, WE saved, the man we have all become friends with, be a terrorist?
Everyone that had waited in frozen silence inside the dojang, came out. As if to catch me.
I looked back. The man we rescued – was no where to be seen.
As the man’s rescuers arrived beside me, the convulsing unknown lady, fell out of the car. Her hair, her hands, her joints, were bleeding.
She convulsed one last time. One last breath. Her physical body froze. Her soul departed.
We watched in horror. The man in black that still has no name, turned to us.
“We have the antidote. But we need the man first, before you receive it.”
I didn’t believe what he was saying. Alarm bells were ringing in my gut. Something was not right. We laughed with this man we saved. His eyes did not speak of danger.
We hesitated too long.
The man in black grabbed one of the dojang students. He grabbed a needle from a briefcase that just magically appeared. The man in black squeezed the student’s arm. Her hand whitening. He started the motion to inject.
Why would he take one of the students to inject them with the antidote if he won’t give us the antidote without the man first?
My gut tightened. I looked at the master of the dojang. We both knew, that something was not adding up. Is the man we rescued a terrorist? Or is it the man in black?
And then my alarm went off.