As I creep back toward the door, I’m running through scenarios in my head. If she’s got a gun, I’ll duck low and sweep upward with the pan, knocking the gun away. If she has a knife, I’ll block the initial attack, then do a two-handed strike to the side of her hand to make her drop it. If she has her powers back — well, if she has her powers back, I’m going to throw the pan at her face, run back inside and cower while I figure out a better plan.
What I’m not prepared for, as I put my ear to the door to try to hear if she’s still out there, is the gut-wrenching sobs coming from the front porch. She’s still there, all right, and in the middle of a full-on breakdown. For a split second, I think that it might be a trick to get me to open the door, but I discard that thought as soon as it forms. These aren’t some fake tears forced for attention. They’re too raw.
I was at a funeral once, and I saw a guy whose only friend in the world had died. The sound he made when they put the coffin in the ground — that’s what Regina sounds like on my porch right now. It’s absolute abandonment, total loss made manifest through throat-tearing, guttural howls. I can feel the wall next to the door shudder when she sucks in each fresh breath.
It’d take a heart a lot harder than mine to walk away from this. Cautiously, I open the door. Regina is slumped down against the wall by the door: knees pulled up, arms wrapped around them, head down, hair in her face, absolutely bawling.
“Regina?” I ask. “You okay?”
Nice one, Dan. Why do I even talk sometimes?
Fortunately, Regina doesn’t seem to have heard me at all. She continues sobbing, and after a few seconds, I awkwardly step over her and slide down the wall to sit at her side. A moment later, she leans against me, and I hesitantly put my left arm around her. I have no idea what I’m comforting her for or if I’m helping at all, but she doesn’t push me away, so I stay there.
We’re still sitting on the porch like this a few minutes later, when an older man pushing a stroller walks by and looks at us quizzically.
“Her dog died,” I mouth at him, trying to convey this idea by gesturing with my right hand. Since I’m still holding the frying pan, this is even less effective than it might otherwise have been. He gives me a look of confusion, points at Regina, makes an “OK” gesture and raises his eyebrows questioningly. I don’t have the slightest idea if she’s okay or not, so I just nod and give him a thumbs-up with my left hand. He nods and continues on his walk.
Regina’s been steadily pulling herself together, but it’s probably another five minutes before the tears taper off entirely. We sit there in silence for a couple of minutes more before she runs her hands over her face, raises her head and looks at me.
“Do you have a tissue?” she asks miserably.
“Oh! Yeah, sure. Hey, come inside,” I say, standing up and offering her a hand, which she takes. I look her over as she stands up, and come to a quick conclusion: she’s a mess. Her hair is tangled and unclean even where she hasn’t been crying into it. Her clothes are dirty, her fingernails look bitten and she has a general feeling of frailty about her.
“Why do you have a frying pan?” Regina asks me, and I realize I’m not the only one who’s been doing a spot assessment.
“I, uh — I thought you were going to attack me,” I say as we walk into my house. This actually gets a smile from her.
“So you got a frying pan?” she asks. The refrigerator’s normal quiet hum surges weirdly as I seat Regina at the table.
“Look, it was nearby!” I call back over my shoulder as I retrieve a box of tissues from the bathroom. Returning to the kitchen, I slide them across the table to her, and she blows her nose noisily. To give her a moment’s privacy to clean her face, I go to the cupboard, get two glasses and fill them with water. When I turn back around, Regina’s rubbing at the inside corners of her eyes, but she looks a good deal more composed.
“So,” I say, putting a water glass down in front of her. “It’s something of a surprise to see you.”
There’s a pause. I wait it out. Eventually, she says, “I came looking for you.”
“How for?” I say, because I meant to say either “What for?” and “How did you find me?”, and instead said both. I sort them by most pressing and try again. “Sorry, I mean: how did you find me?”
“Huh. I’m in that? I should probably get that off of the internet.”
“No, the actual White Pages. The book. I looked it up at the library.”
“Wow, that thing’s still around? And my name is in it?”
“Your last name, yeah. I just wrote down the Evertons and started looking. There aren’t too many people with your last name around here. Who are Samuel and Melissa?”
“My parents. They own this house. Seriously, this is way too much information to just have out there.”
Regina shrugs. “Nobody said lack of privacy was new.”
“Okay, but why are you here?”
Regina stares into her water glass. “I don’t hate you anymore.”
I start to say something, but she keeps talking over me. “I thought it was all your fault at the time. Not just thought, knew. You singled me out, tracked me down, got in my face and wouldn’t leave me alone. All I wanted was to get on with my life and you just kept being there, ruining things.
“But then after the fight, after I woke up in the hospital and everyone there was telling me I was crazy, I tried to explain it to them — and I realized I couldn’t. Nothing that had motivated me made any sense. I had been crazy, and I hadn’t known.
“Not like they thought I was crazy, though. I remembered the feel of the rain, the pull of it. That was real. It was amazing, to be connected like that.”
Regina looks up finally, meeting my eyes. “I don’t blame you for taking it away from me. I’m glad you stopped me. My mind was screwed up. But I’m better now, and I miss the rain. Can you — is there any way you can give that back to me? Undo whatever you did?”
She looks so plaintive and hopeful, and my heart breaks. I screwed with her personal magnetic field to block her powers, but that’s not why she can’t “feel the rain” anymore, as she put it. The abilities came from the nanomachines inside of her, and they powered down after I neutralized her. She was just a test put in my way.
It sounds egotistical, yeah, but it’s what’s going on. I don’t make the rules here. When I find out who does, though, they’re going to have a lot to answer for.
“I’m sorry, Regina,” I tell her, as she starts to tear up again. “I wish I could give it back to you, but I can’t.”
“No, it’s okay,” she says, sniffling to hide the tears. “I just sort of hoped. I used to love the rain. Now I can’t even go out anymore if it’s thundering. Lightning’s drawn to me. I can’t even use a stupid phone anymore.”
A metaphorical lightning bolt of realization hits me. My phone glitching out when Regina arrived, the stressed hum of the refrigerator, her lightning affinity — it’s all tied to the massive boost I gave to her magnetism. She’d be completely unable to approach anything that’s affected by strong magnets. I’d sort of assumed that that would wear off in time, but clearly it has not.
“I can fix that!” I exclaim. Regina’s eyes flash with hope, and I hurry to qualify my statement. “The phone. And the going outside. I can’t give you your powers back. But I can demagnetize you.”
“You can? Oh God, thank you!” Regina whispers, and I can’t tell if that’s directed at me or meant as a legitimate prayer. She clutches her water glass with both hands as if it’s keeping her from falling over.
“It’s gonna take a while,” I say. “I lost my powers when you lost yours. I’ve only got a smidgen left. It took me almost a week just to demagnetize some pots. But I can do it.”
Regina’s crying again, but this time it appears to be from happiness. “Thank you, Dan! Thank you. You don’t know what it’s been like. I haven’t been able to use a phone or computer in months. I couldn’t get another job; no one had any way to contact me. I knew I was going to get kicked out of my apartment so I left while I still had money for food and I’ve been living in my car and even that stalls out half the time!”
I have no idea what to do at this point. Is this the sort of situation where I’m supposed to comfort her again? Or is this all just relief, and she needs to get it out? I’m physically exhausted from my day at work, mentally exhausted from this entire thing and I just don’t know how to react.
“So, um,” I say. “I’ve got a couch you can crash on if you need someplace to stay for a little bit.”
“No, I can’t,” says Regina, still crying.
“Okay, but seriously, it’s better than your car. Stay here, and tomorrow I’ll get started on demagnetizing you. Just try not to fry out anything expensive until then.”
Regina lets out a half-hiccough, half-sob. Was that a laugh through tears? Did my stupid joke just make things worse? I am in way over my head on this one. I stand around awkwardly for a minute, but she doesn’t say anything else.
“Hey, so, I’ve got to get up early for the construction job I’m on. So I’m going to bed. You staying?”
She nods, and I beat a hasty retreat out of the kitchen. This is not how I expected my day to end.