I quail under Peterson’s steady gaze. “Do I need a lawyer?”
He relents. “No. I’d just like to hear your story, and if at all possible, I’d like to do it somewhere out of the pouring rain.” The rain’s let up a little bit since I was nose-to-nose with the stormraiser, but that just means that it’s coming down in gallons instead of in buckets. I’m soaked to the bone and my cast is looking dangerously soft around the edges, so getting inside somewhere warm sounds like a pretty good idea, even if it is a police station. Besides which, even if I’m not under arrest right now, I’ve got the feeling that that could change if I tried to deny Peterson’s request.
I clamber up off of the ground, using Peterson’s hand and the front of Brian’s car for support, while Brian retrieves my crutches for me. As he helps me settle them under my arms, he shoots me a look that I can’t quite read. It’s somewhere between concern and pleading, so I take my best guess and say, “Do you need Brian, too? He’s had a long day at the hospital.”
Peterson hesitates, clearly thinking it over, then shakes his head. “No. Sir, let me just get your contact information and have a quick look in your car, and you can be on your way.”
I clomp over to the police cruiser while Officer Peterson copies down Brian’s information, then wait awkwardly outside like a girl who’s not sure if her date’s going to open the door for her or not. Peterson looks at me quizzically when he joins me at the car, and I ask, “Ah — am I riding in the front or the back?”
He smiles, coming around to the passenger side of the car, and does in fact open the door for me. “Sit in the front, Mr. Everton. I think you’ll be happier that way.” He stashes my crutches in the trunk as I carefully angle my cast into the car and get settled.
Before we get moving, Brian rolls past; I’m glad to see that the lightning didn’t do any lasting damage to his car. We make brief eye contact and he waves his phone at me. I check mine to see that I’ve got a text from him reading only, “You good?”
I send back a terse “Yeah,” which probably isn’t the most reassuring message, but it’s all I have time for before Peterson gets into the driver’s seat. There’s no reason why I can’t be texting when he’s in the car, I suppose, but it just feels like it’d be inviting trouble somehow.
We drive in silence for the first several minutes, and I watch the defroster fight with the steam rising from my clothes in the car’s heat. At first, the silence doesn’t bother me, but as it stretches on, it starts to feel uncomfortable, and I look for a topic of conversation to fill it.
After casting around for a minute, I ask Peterson, “So how did you end up out here tonight, anyway? Just a random coincidence?”
“No,” he says without turning towards me. “I was following you.”
As is evidently the norm when I’m talking to Officer Peterson, I panic for no apparent reason. “I — what for? I thought you pulled the watch on me, because of, because of everyone being too busy. That’s what you said earlier, right?”
“I told you that I was taking the patrolmen off, because the department could no longer commit resources.”
“So what changed?”
“I’m not a patrolman. And I’m off-duty right now. This was just a private whim, not sponsored or paid for by the department. I was playing a hunch, and if it didn’t work out, I’d’ve wasted no one’s time but my own.”
“Your question, Mr. Everton. About whether the blackouts had a central location. What made you ask that?” Peterson’s eyes never leave the road, but I can feel him staring at me all the same, which is an impressive trick. Despite the chilled water drenching me from head to toe, I’m starting to sweat, too. It’s a good thing I’m not a criminal. I’d crack in the first ten seconds of questioning.
“I don’t know! It was just an idea. Something I read once.” I’m thinking as fast as I can, trying to figure out how to spin this into a story that makes sense within the standard bounds of reality. “I’d heard that lightning can, lightning does strike twice in the same spot, kind of a lot, really. That a spot can get charged by a strike and therefore be more likely to get hit again, because of the, the polarity change.”
Peterson listens skeptically, but I press on, warming to the subject. “So Brian and I went out to see if we could find it — well, I wanted to see if I could find it, but I needed Brian to drive because of my foot — anyway, we wanted to go see if there was one of these, these supercharged spots and, you know.”
‘Talk her out of it,’ though that was the actual plan, is not really an answer that fits with the allegory I’ve been constructing, but I don’t have a good parallel. I finish lamely, “Maybe figure out where it was and get someone to, I don’t know, demagnetize it. So it would stop getting hit and this storm could break up.”
Peterson asks, “So did you find this spot?”
“Sort of? Maybe? I mean, we thought we did, but we kind of lost it, I guess.”
“That’s strange,” he says calmly, without so much as a sidelong glance at me. “Losing it, I mean. While I was around the corner, I saw five bolts of lightning strike at what looked like the same basic spot, all within a couple of seconds of each other. That sounds like you found your mystery spot, right?”
“Right,” I say guardedly.
“So how did you lose it again?”
“The um, magnetism of the storm can, can shift and so sometimes the polarized spot will, will, um — look, I’m not a scientist, I’m not explaining this very well. I can link you to the articles I read later, if you want.”
“That would be nice,” says Peterson, increasing my sweat level. He takes his eyes off of the road to catch me with a steady gaze, pinning my eyes on his. “Because it’s really not making a lot of sense to me right now.”
I start to stammer another explanation, but he dismissively turns his attention back his driving, then cuts me off. “Frankly, when I came around the corner, I expected to see you with some sort of a contraption set up to attract lightning. I can’t imagine why you’d do a thing like that, but I thought that maybe it would be more clear when I saw it.
“Instead, I find you in a pedestrian-vehicle accident with the man who drove you there, claiming that everything is fine. I find nothing more complex or metallic in his car than a tire jack, and I find that the lightning which was pulsing down so freely before has suddenly completely dried up.”
“Well, but the magnetism of the storm–“
“Completely dried up, Mr. Everton. Have you heard any thunder at all on this entire ride?” He’s right; there hasn’t been any. “So if the lightning was so prevalent before, what made it stop so abruptly and completely just as I got there?
“You’re asking me to be suspicious of nature, Mr. Everton. But I’ve found that nature isn’t half as suspicious as people are. I don’t know what you’re hiding, and I don’t know why you’re hiding it. I want to help you, and I think you want my help. But I can’t give it to you if you don’t trust me and let me know what’s going on.”
For a long, tense moment, we stare at each other, with my thoughts racing fruitlessly around a loop. Should I tell him? He’d never believe me. But if he did, he could help. Help how? Bring in people to catch the stormraiser, maybe. They could take her out of the city, away from everything. But if I don’t tell him what’s happening, he’ll never know to look for her. So should I tell him?
Peterson sighs and looks away. “You can get out now.” Abruptly, I realize that the car is stopped, and what’s more, that we’re outside of my house, not the police station.
“I thought you wanted me to come downtown to talk?”
“We managed it well enough in the car. I’m ready to listen when you’re prepared to talk more, Mr. Everton.” He gestures wearily at the door handle, and I let myself out. As I get my crutches from the trunk, I can’t help feeling like I’ve disappointed him, but I still can’t think of any way to tell him the truth.
My crutches slip and slide on the sidewalk as I make my way up to my door. When I get inside, I find out why; the rubber on the feet has mostly melted off, leaving bare metal to skid against the rain-slick surfaces. I peel my clothes off and hang them in the shower to dry, then I towel off and limp my way to bed. When I headed out this evening, I expected to be going to bed tonight triumphant and exhausted. As it turns out, I was half right.