"The Longest and Windingest Road"
"What now?" James dried his hands on the tea towel slung across his shoulder and hurried from the middle of the kitchen to the living room doorway. Peering around the corner, he froze in place as House looked over at him in a moment of jaw-clenched triumph. His compromised right leg was making jerky movements in the air. Something like walking, but not.
Across the room on the couch, Baxter lay sprawled with his front paws hanging over the edge, and his muzzle placed strategically between them, watching closely. When his loud-mouthed friend was on the walker, the big dog kept his distance with a respectful compassion that amazed the humans. Only in the company of John House did the dog ever move more than a few steps away from Gregg's side. He and the older man had become instant friends, and even Blythe paused sometimes to scratch behind his ears affectionately.
James Wilson stared at the skinny leg in silent empathy, not trusting his voice to make a comment. Not yet.
He had watched recent developments between members of the House family in silent and astonished wonder. He hoped against all hope that nothing happened to break the fragile bubble between House and his Dad before a firmer rapport could be established. Even James' respectful, lifelong comradeship with his own father took a back seat to what was happening with the two men of "House." It was almost like the slow, timid blossoming of a fragile flower. No! Strike that! More like a cactus that suddenly burst into bloom in the desert after a raging storm! He'd smiled to himself on more than one occasion lately, and actually pinched himself to be sure he was awake.
When House was in the wheelchair or in bed or on the couch, Baxter would venture over to him and lay his head gently in Gregg's lap. With a silent wisdom endowed only upon the animal kingdom by Mother Nature, Bax knew that that was the best time to get a Meaty Bone and an ear scratch at the same time. His devotion and loyalty to Gregg House had everyone who met them shaking their heads in amazement. This fact alone gave Gregg yet another occasion for smugness. And he seemed willing to share it, tentatively, with his father.
Even as Wilson continued to watch, Gregg was leaning harder on the walker. Again! Both forearms anchored on the padded arm rests locked at elbow height, the broken hand slightly elevated, he was toughing it out for the third time that day. Wilson watched him closely, gauging the amount of time Gregg had left before he asked for assistance in getting back to the wheelchair. Or the couch. It wasn't going to be long, or he would never have called out in the first place.
House insisted on using the walker at least a half dozen times a day, but he could only tolerate the strain on his weakened body for very short periods each time.
He was wearing his other set of sweats … the dark blue ones …the second of two sets his mother had bought two weeks before and removed the right sleeve and right pant leg. He stood planted by the bookcase, both elbows firmly centered on the wide cushioned armrests for balance, his left foot in one of his Nike Shox.
House's right leg and foot were bare. It could not tolerate his weight, but lately he had begun to exercise the knee by assuming a walking motion. He had discovered that a shoe on the left foot afforded him just enough clearance to hitch up his right hip and clear the floor with his right foot.
The bandages were gone now from the recent thigh injury, and its scar stood out bright and pink and still a little puckered the entire length from knee to hip. The infarction scar, a little to the right of the laceration, remained hollow and angry, and made his leg look emaciated, which, actually, it was since the swelling had receded. He had a long way to go before his return to mobility even started to resemble what it had been before the accident with the Corvette.
James Wilson watched him closely as he began to move again, one difficult step at a time, and waited for the inevitable request to help him sit back down to gather his reserves to try it again.
At least House was enthusiastic in his own recovery this time. His anger and bitterness had eased a little, along with the old animosity between himself and his father. John and Blythe had moved out of Gregg's apartment and into the Peacock Inn downtown. They had extended their stay an extra three weeks, and were enjoying the sights and sounds of Princeton and its environs. New Jersey in the early Fall had the added advantage of less humidity, and autumn leaves just beginning to turn color.
The huge Dodge pickup transported the motorized wheelchair with ease, and its roomy back seat accommodated House and his unyielding leg almost comfortably. Twice now, they'd all gone on short excursions to local eateries. Wilson was gratified to take note that his austere, uncompromising friend had actually allowed himself to enjoy a laugh from time to time. It had been music to his ears.
"Are you ready to get back on the couch?" Wilson asked conversationally.
Gregg nodded. "Yeah."
Wilson dropped the tea towel onto the piano bench and walked over to guide his tired friend to the old leather couch. Baxter jumped down to the floor and stood watching with rapt interest. James helped turn the walker around with care, and then eased Gregg down, lifting his leg carefully onto the pillow that rested permanently atop the coffee table. "Okay?"
Force of habit made him squat at his friend's side and place the backs of his fingers on the crippled leg; forever checking for any difference in temperature or any sign of infection. The leg was cool to the touch and showed no new redness around the most recent scar. He patted House's bare knee gently and stood up.
"Yeah," House said. "I'm fine." He snapped his fingers for the dog, and Baxter was at his side in an instant.
"Lunch is about ready," Wilson said. "I'll bring it in here."
Wilson started to walk away, but felt his hand being captured by House's own. He halted and turned, puzzled; eyebrows on the rise.
"Hey …" Gregg's voice was soft and a little hesitant.
"I've been meaning to tell you …"
Wilson waited. What now?
"Thank you." His friend's voice was so low it was barely audible. "And thanks for seeing me through this … and taking care of me when I couldn't take care of myself. I just … well … thanks." House averted his eyes and looked down at his lap.
Wilson's heart skipped a beat. What kind of answer could he possibly give that wouldn't sound patronizing? He took a deep breath.
"You'd do the same for me …"
"Would I?" Anguished. Uncertain.
Wilson nodded, sandwiching the hesitant hand between both of his own. "Yeah, House, you really would … beyond the shadow of a doubt." They lingered there for a few moments and then Wilson dropped House's hand regretfully. "If you don't turn me loose, you won't get any lunch!" He picked up the tea towel from the piano bench and walked slowly into the kitchen.
House looked after him and smiled. Barely. "Can't have that, can we, Bax?"
The moment was over.
Baxter dug his cold, wet snoot beneath House's left elbow and nudged upward.
Hey! I'm here! Pay attention to me! Wanna play?
House had turned on QVC with the sound muted. They were hawking sound systems and MP3 players and the latest iPod technology. He wasn't much interested in anything they had to offer. He already owned most of that stuff … without paying any of their damned outrageous shipping charges.
What he was doing, in reality, was distracting himself from another bout of creeping pain, and attempting to divert his mind from the fact that he had to pee like a race horse! He did not want to disturb Wilson. Or the leg.
"You bored, Bax? Don't blame you. I'm sick of counting nail holes in the woodwork and reciting nursery rhymes in Japanese! Wanna go out and toss the ball around, boy? Huh?"
Yeah-yeah-yeah … let's go!
"Wish I could. Christ … what I wouldn't give …"
In the kitchen, Wilson finished lunch cleanup and listened to the one-sided conversation with deep regret. He unwrapped a large beef roast and placed it in the big roaster with crushed garlic and some sliced onions. He turned the oven to 350, ran an inch of water in the roaster and then slid it onto the bottom rack. Three hours, tops, and he could add carrots, and then potatoes.
Five o'clock: Voila!
John and Blythe were coming over for supper tonight, and for House's sake he wanted everything to be just right. Gregg's parents were leaving for home early tomorrow morning, and probably wouldn't get back again until late fall or early winter. He double checked the room and, satisfied, removed the tea towel from his shoulder and walked to the utility room with it; tossed it into the laundry hamper.
House was still carrying on a silly one-sided conversation with Baxter when James returned to the living room. The dog sat in front of the couch like an attentive kindergartener listening to his teacher read a story. Depending on how one looked at the two of them, the imaginary "conversation" actually looked a little like an exchange of words between them. Wilson wrinkled his nose and crossed over to sit down beside House.
"When's the last time you took your meds?"
"An hour ago, Mother," Gregg said sarcastically. "But I do have to go pee, and it's gonna be a bitch because my leg hurts like hell."
"Overdid it with the walker today, didn't you?"
"Yeah, probably. But 'overdid it' sounds like a contradiction in terms. It's a little difficult to 'overdo' something with a leg whose foot doesn't even touch the floor!"
"Day at a time, House. Day at a time."
"Don't remind me!"
The dinner did, indeed, go as planned. James and Blythe ate the carefully prepared meal seated on stools at the kitchen counter. House, in the wheelchair, sat with his Dad in animated conversation, pulled up to the little table by the window nearby.
They kept the conversation light and funny and sarcastic and steered purposely away from the heavier aspects of injury and pain and difficult months of recovery. That was the one thing that was uppermost in all their minds.
After the excellent meal, James said his goodbyes and gave his handshakes and hugs, and then discreetly disappeared into the laundry room to sort the wash and start up the washing machine. Families were families, after all.
In the living room, Gregg sat in the wheelchair and wished he could rise to his feet to give his mother a proper hug and kiss from the height of a man, rather than that of a compromised cripple. Blythe didn't mind. Sitting or standing, she would have cried at their parting either way.
John "Blackjack" House fumbled with his truck keys, wondering if something he might inadvertently say in parting with his son, might compromise all the ground they had gained during the past almost-a-month. He stood with a dry throat and shaky hands, unable to put thoughts to words.
Gregg did it for him.
"I love you, Dad. I didn't know that before. I know it now. Mom, you already know how much you mean to me …"
At his side, Baxter voiced agreement.
John House went to his knees, holding back tears, and put his arms gently around his son's shoulders.
"I am very proud," he said shakily, "very proud … to be your father!"
By Hallowe'en, Gregory House was able to walk with crutches. He wore a sock on his foot, and was able to slide the foot gingerly across the floor. Wilson brought him sweat suits with the sleeves and pantlegs intact.
The Ali-Medic walker and the big motorized wheelchair had been dispatched to the rehab center to be used by someone who was too "crippled" to walk as well as House could.
His hand had healed well and completely. He could play "Nola" again, and even "The Minute Waltz", but he still had not mastered the intricate fingerings of "Flight of the Bumble Bee" in concert tempo, and he was reminded of Norm Lyons' sarcastic teasing every time he tried it.
Gregg returned to work right after Thanksgiving, and did not bitch about clinic duty until the week before Christmas. He had graduated to wearing both shoes! Cuddy and the kids were so happy to see him back that they did not complain about the return of his sarcastic tongue for at least the first week. After that, things were back to normal except for the crutches, but Gregg was continually working on it.
Wilson had moved out of House's apartment again, and back to his own, although he still drove Gregg to work every day.
Baxter, regrettably, had to return to Lisa Cuddy's fenced-in yard and a new dog bed on her enclosed back porch. Baxter was not very happy with that arrangement, and neither was Gregg, but until a solution could be found, neither of them had any other choice.
Baxter spent weekends with House and, usually, Wilson. Since House's knee was now in bendable condition, and he was able to bear a little weight, they spent many of their Sundays on country excursions and quiet rural getaways on these cold, sharp winter days; contingent, of course, within Gregg's range of comfort. Sometimes the pain came back to rock him on his heels, and they would have to return home. Other times he was good to go for a leisurely afternoon of careful prowling around with his best friend and his dog in comfortable outdoor pursuits.
House and Wilson were spending more and more time together, simply because they chose to.
John and Blythe arrived at the Peacock Inn early Christmas week. It was a pleasant surprise. They had just flown in from a month of visiting with very old friends in Iwakuni, Japan.
Their son had a surprise of his own. When they arrived at his apartment, Gregg met them at the door, accompanied by an enthusiastic Baxter and a smiling Wilson. He was actually walking; very gingerly, very carefully … but he was walking with his cane!
There was not a dry eye in the place.
House and Wilson were both on extended Christmas vacations, and spent most of their time catching up with Blythe and John, hearing of their adventures in Japan. Even Gregg was extremely open about his gradual transition back to "almost rehabilitated" territory.
They all had Christmas dinner at the Peacock's four-star dining room, one of the few places in town that was open on Christmas Day. Grinning with silly delight, Wilson became a Gentile for the day. No one had to cook; no one had to clean up. They and a select group of other patrons enjoyed cocktails and Christmas lights, and even a melodic string quartet after dinner. The day ended up in a comfortable haze of relaxed holiday enjoyment.
At the end of the evening, as John and Blythe got ready to return to their room and James prepared to take Gregg home, John took his son off to the side.
"What are you going to do with Bax?" John wanted to know.
"I'm still not sure, Dad. I keep putting off finding him a home. I spend too much time at work to justify keeping him, even though I pretty much owe him my life. It really isn't fair to him because a big dog like Baxter needs lots of attention … and a place to run." Suddenly Gregg frowned. "You have an idea?"
"Yeah," John said. "Maybe. What would you think about him spending some time in Ithaca, New York?"
Gregg's frown deepened. "Your place?'
"But … we never had a dog from the time I was a little kid!"
"That was a pretty long time ago."
"Don't remind me!"
John laughed. "Well, whaddaya think? I like the mutt, the mutt seems to like me, okay? He'll miss you … but it's not like he's gone forever … and Ithaca's not that far away! It's a pleasant drive. You and Jimmy can drive on up there …"
"Yeah … you and Jimmy! What's the matter? Jesus Christ, Gregg … we're not blind!"
Blythe, listening from a few feet away, walked up and placed a loving hand on her son's cheek. "We'll take good care of Baxter, darling. And you boys can come up to visit him … and us … anytime you want. You'll both be most welcome." She smiled sweetly, knowingly, in her own inimitable way.
John House grinned and waggled his eyebrows.
For one time in his life, Gregory House was speechless.
Across the large dining room, James Wilson was walking back from paying their dinner bill. Gregg's eyes drilled into his with an icy look that froze him to the spot.
Blythe and John were smiling at him with sweet innocence … or as "sweet" as Blackjack House ever allowed himself to become!
Wilson's face turned scarlet. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped open. Gregg wasn't the only one caught without words.
They left two mornings later: Wednesday. They stopped by Gregg's place to pick up Baxter and all his paraphernalia and his food dishes and his toys.
Bax licked Gregg's face first, and then he walked over and licked James's face.
Just before he jumped into the back seat of the big Dodge, his once-and-forever domain, as of that minute, he stopped in his tracks and looked back over his shoulder. Gregg saw the doggie grin on Baxter's face and knew at once what he was saying:
Been a good ride, Dude! Thanks for all the Meaty Bones! You're pretty cool for a crippled guy. Your sidekick's okay too. But I'm off to see The Wizard. Gotta check out the next parking meter … the next fireplug. I'll be seein' ya around!
(He just couldn't help being a dog! It came with the territory.)
Smiling, House and Wilson watched the big silver pickup truck pull out and gain speed toward the highway, red tail lights flashing in the winter twilight.
They watched it out of sight, hands touching lightly at their sides.
"Smart folks, you got there …" Wilson mused.
Gregory House had to agree.
- The End -
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