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Midnight Stranger

by
Kathleen Kohler

"You're burning the candle at both ends," I said to our seventeen-year-old son, Ben. "You can't keep going like this. Your body is not a machine."

"Oh, Mom, I'm fine." Ben waved his hand through the air to brush aside my concern. "You worry too much," he added as he headed out the front door for work. I watched him climb into his pickup and seconds later barrel down the driveway in a cloud of dust.

"Lord, please watch over him and keep him safe," I whispered.

Ben acted no different than other teenagers his age who think they're invincible. Besides school, he had started a landscape business two years earlier that kept him busy on weekday afternoons. When he bought his truck, he took on a weekend job at the movie theater to help pay for the insurance.

At 12:30 that night, my husband, Loren, snored beside me, while I listened for the sound of Ben's truck. My anxious thoughts soon blurred as I drifted into a light, restless sleep. When someone banged on the front door, I bolted upright in bed. Did Ben forget his key? I gave a quick glance at the clock on the nightstand. 1:30 a.m. Why is he so late? I thought as I passed through the kitchen and turned on the light.

From the living room window, I could see the bulky figure who waited on the porch was not Ben. In the light I recognized the uniform of a Washington State patrolman. My throat tightened and my heart pounded. My hand shook so hard I could barely grasp the knob to unlock and open the door.

The officer verified our address from Ben's driver's license. We lived down a rural road, twenty-two miles from town, and he'd had a difficult time locating our house in the dark.

"Yes, I'm his mother," I heard myself say as if watching a movie clip in slow motion. "Is he okay?"

"Your son's alive, but he's been in an accident," said the patrolman. Though he didn't know Ben's condition, the trooper assured me he'd arrived at the hospital.

"From the looks of the tire tracks, he made no attempt to stop," the officer said.

Through tears I managed to choke out, "I'm sure he fell asleep."

Luck?

"He's one lucky boy. If he'd gone off the road fifty feet in either direction, he'd be dead for sure."

From the officer's description, I knew the location. A solid wall of hundred and fifty-foot fir trees edged both sides of the highway except for a short patch of swamp land. Luck had nothing to do with it.

We later learned from Ben what we had already suspected. Exhausted from long work hours, Ben had dozed at the wheel, and his truck had careened off the dark road and plunged into the swamp. As the bottom of the pickup scraped down the steep gravel bank, the gas tank gave way and tore from its mounts. The truck bed detached and landed upside down several yards away.

Ben reached up with his right hand to wipe what he thought was oil on his face spewing from the truck's dashboard. Jagged pieces of glass from the windshield embedded in his skull scraped his fingers. Blood poured from the four-inch gash on the right side of his head. He spotted the headlights of a car speed by on the road above. He knew he needed help and realized no one would find him.

The truck lay on the passenger's side in the swamp. He struggled against gravity to push the driver's door open. Jammed tight by the impact, the door refused to budge. He lay on his back across the bench seat and kicked the sunroof until it broke free. Then he crawled from the vehicle and splashed into the water-filled swamp grass and tall stands of cattails. Blood ran down his face and soaked into his jacket as he clawed his way up the bank and onto the highway.

Stranger on the Scene

Ben stumbled down the road toward the unmanned fire station five miles away. Headlights glared at him as a car rolled slowly by on the highway. The car made a swift U-turn and crunched to a stop on the gravel in front of him.

"I'll go for help," the man said, then hesitated as he assessed Ben's injuries. He assisted Ben into his car and drove him to the volunteer firehouse where the man sounded the alarm. The stranger left Ben seated on the ground outside the building and drove away. Firefighters rushed to the station. The men loaded Ben into the aid car and worked to stop the bleeding. They called ahead to the nearest town where paramedics waited for them to arrive. Transferred into another aid unit, the emergency personnel rushed him to the closest hospital thirty minutes away, where he received blood infusions.

After the state patrolman left our home that night, Loren and I hurried to the hospital.

"Can't we go any faster?" I said. "It's taking forever." Not knowing Ben's condition a nightmare of possible scenarios clipped through my mind.

"Don't worry," Loren said and reached for my hand in the dark car. "We know he's alive."

When we saw Ben stretched out on a gurney in the emergency room, he reassured me, "I'm okay Mom."

"He's stable," a nurse said. "He just needs to be stitched up."

At the sound of his voice and seeing him alive, tears slid down my cheeks, my shoulders relaxed and the tension subsided.

"Someone was watching out for him," the ER doctor said to us as he entered. "Another fifteen minutes and he would've bled to death."

Who?

After the doctor stitched the gash on Ben's head we took him home. Several days later we tried to locate the man who had driven Ben to the fire station so we could thank him. We asked around the area if anyone knew who had picked him up that night. However, in a community of fewer than three-hundred people, no one could identify the man.

One of the firefighters suggested we inquire at the local mom & pop store a short distance from the station. He assured us the store's owner would know. But neither the store owner nor the locals recognized Ben's description of his rescuer.

We never did discover the man's identity. Whether he was simply an anonymous stranger or a guardian sent from heaven, remains a mystery. All we know is from the location of the accident to the arrival of the stranger on the scene; Ben's rescue was nothing short of a miracle.

© 2014 Kathleen Kohler