The wooden box had belonged to his grandfather and to his great-grandfather before that.
His grandfather gave it to him just before he turned 11 when they were packing yet again, for yet another base assignment.
"A boy needs a place to keep all of his special things," Grandpa said when he placed it on the table.
Greg ran his hands over the dark wood. He opened the lid and saw the initials carved there: S.T. for his mother's grandfather, Sam Thompson, and J.T. for Joseph Thompson. There was a fresh set of initials next to them: G.H.
"That's a pretty big box, Joe," Dad said, and Greg held his breath, already sure that the next words would be to tell him that the box would have to stay behind, with the bicycle and the collection of used Hardy Boys books he'd bought at a church rummage sale.
"Not really," Grandpa said. "Every man should be able to hold onto a few special things in his life. It seems to me this is pretty small for a lifetime of memories."
Dad finally nodded and Grandpa put his hand on Greg's head, running his fingers through his hair. "You take care of that now," he said. "I don't want to hear that you've lost it."
"Never," Greg said.
Grandpa told him once about how his father had made the box from his own tools, then used it to carry those tools to his carpentry jobs. Grandpa used the same box and the same tools when he went to teacher's college, using the skills he'd learned from his father to earn cash doing odd jobs around campus.
Greg carried the box to his bedroom, his grandfather walking behind him. He set it on his bed.
"You should have this too," Grandpa said, and Greg turned to see him holding out a screwdriver. It was short, with a blunt metal blade and a chipped wooden handle that had grown dark from the hands that held it for generations. "In case the hinges get loose, and you need to tighten them."
The few belongings he put into it before leaving Florida rattled against the bare boards as he carried it, and his mother taught him how to fill the empty space with crumpled-up newspapers to keep the shells and the snow globe from cracking against the wood.
"You can use the comics," she said, "then when we unpack, you can read them again."
His mother once told him that she finally felt at home once she had unpacked her grandmother's quilt. "Wherever we are, I've got something familiar," she said. "When I open my eyes in the morning, I see the quilt, and know that I'm home."
Greg placed the box on top of the dresser at the end of the bed, where he could see it every morning and every night.
The box became the neutral ground on everything he owned until he left home. He could buy whatever he wanted, Dad told him, as long as it fit in the box come moving time. The secondhand microscope didn't fit, but a few select chemicals did in their small glass vials.
By the time they packed for the base in Japan, Greg had switched from the comics to the sports pages. He used the box scores to check the players' and team's averages and tried to predict how they'd done in the week of games he'd missed – checking who had pulled out of a slump and who had entered a downward spiral.
By high school, there was no longer need for extra padding. Instead Greg was faced with new decisions at every move, shedding pieces of the boy he once was to make room for the man he was becoming. The shells never made it past San Diego, left behind to make space for sheet music. The snow globe was abandoned in South Carolina.
Other families -- even Marine families -- held onto more. Greg had seen them filling trucks with their things: furniture, books, lamps. John preferred to travel light.
"Don't want to get weighed down," John would say whenever Greg slowed down in front of a store window.
Greg never expected to hold onto anything for long. Friends left. He left. Dad even left for weeks and months at a time, out on deployment.
He learned the code before he started kindergarten: TDY for a temporary assignment, PCS for a permanent change of station. When a PCS came through, it was time to start packing.
John House had a reputation as a top troubleshooter for the Marines, able to shape up troubled units. He had an ability to step in, figure out what was wrong, fix it and then move on. And they were always moving on.
Blythe made the arrangements with each transfer -- calling to have the rental furniture collected from one base house, to have another rental company deliver another assortment of beds and chairs someplace else across the country or across the ocean or across the globe. She kept copies of Greg's transcripts and was able to get him enrolled within minutes.
Enrollment never took long. She'd sign the papers, collect the original copies of his transcripts and vaccination records, then would be off, headed out to get the phone connected or register to vote or do battle with some other utility or government agency. Greg would follow some secretary or vice principal down the halls, being shown the building's layout, pretending he cared as he was introduced.
Once he left home, he shed the Corps, dropping its slang, its abbreviations and its uniform way of life.
The box traveled with him to college, where he put it onto the closet shelf in the small dorm room. The rest of his belongings -- clothes, towels, sheets, a blanket -- fit into one duffle bag and an old suitcase.
Dad nodded in approval when he saw the bags next to the door. "Traveling light," he said. "It's always the easiest way to move."
Mom offered to fly out with him, but Greg insisted he would be fine on his own. He checked the duffle and the suitcase and carried the box onto the plane with him.
He spent two days alone in the dorm room, watching other students trickle in with their parents, car trunks and luggage racks filled with bags and boxes. His roommate finally showed up with a foot locker, three suitcases, two boxes and a claim he would bring more after the next trip home.
The roommate had his own stereo and dozens of albums – most of them crap, House thought as he looked them over. House only had a handful of 45s and two Led Zeppelin albums he'd hidden with his school books during the last transfer.
The roommate hung a Star Wars poster on one wall and a New York skyline photo on another.
"You ever been there?" he asked as he nodded toward the lines of the Chrysler building in the photo. House shook his head. "Then you've never been anywhere." House mentally replaced the roommate's name with "Moron" and soon forgot whatever his real name was.
House rarely talked about the cities he'd seen, the places he'd lived. If anyone asked where he was from, he'd just shrug. If pushed, he'd say his parents lived in Arizona and leave it there. It was none of their damn business anyway.
Let them think what they wanted. His lack of discernible accent -- with speech patterns picked up from nearly a dozen towns -- frustrated one professor who thought he could place anyone's hometown from just their voice.
It was easier to say nothing at all or just shrug and let them try and figure it out for themselves. While everyone else talked about their high schools, their homecoming dances, their cousins, aunts and uncles, he tried to let his own past fade into nothing and become something new.
At the end of the first semester, when everyone else sold their textbooks back to the bookstore, House held onto his.
"Why do you want to keep them?" Moron asked.
"Because I can." House didn't bother with an explanation. He'd already told Moron too much.
The books stayed with him long after Moron left. The same with Idiot Something-Or-Other the next year and Hey You the year after that.
By the end of that first year, he'd bought a used stereo and another dozen albums to keep Led Zeppelin company. He boxed them up along with the books and talked the dorm director into letting him store it in an empty room, claiming that his folks would be moving that summer.
It wasn't a lie.
House took the train south, watching the scenery change from concrete to small suburban lawns and back to concrete until it finally pulled into Quantico. He took the box from the empty seat next to him, and headed for the door.
Mom was there waiting for him. There was more gray in her hair when she reached up to pull him down for a hug.
Dad had arranged for a summer job with the base maintenance department. "Unless you think you're too important to mow the grass," he said.
The next summer, House got a job on campus and told his mother that he wanted to get a head start on the reading for next year's classes.
"There's a lot a work in pre-med," he said. "A lot. Really."
"You're just worried that your father will get you a job cleaning the latrines this summer," she said, and House wondered how she could read him so well even from a phone call. "I'll talk to him."
"I don't need you to fight my battles for me, Mom," he said.
"Of course you don't, dear," she said. "But that's in my job description."
By the next summer, he had moved in with Marie, sharing a small one-bedroom apartment in an old house off campus. They signed a year's lease -- cheaper than the normal nine-month student contract -- and she kept talking about what they'd do after graduation, how she could find work wherever he ended up for med school.
By August she was calling him a selfish bastard and packing her things.
He ducked when she threw her key at him, and didn't say anything as the door slammed shut behind her.
House sat on the couch and heard the sound of her car starting in the parking lot beyond the open kitchen window, her engine revving as she put it into drive and hit the gas.
He should have known it wouldn't last long. He wondered if he was supposed to feel something different. He'd heard all about lost love, but wasn't sure if this was the way it was supposed to feel. He put on a blues album and listened to Howlin' Wolf shouting out for a the woman who had done him wrong. All House felt was resigned.
People never stayed. The only thing you could hang onto for long were books and records and anything else you could squeeze into a box or a bag.
During the next few weeks, he kept finding some of Marie's things that slipped between her fingers in her rush to leave: hair clips, photos, socks, a dirty t-shirt, a teddy bear.
He leafed through her high school yearbook from tenth grade. There were notes from friends and teachers on nearly every page. House called one of her friends offering to bring Marie her things, but she hung up on him.
Labor Day weekend he took the yearbook and the hair clips and the photos and the clothes and everything else out to the woods and built a bonfire. He knew he should have felt guilty as he tossed each item into the flames. He didn't. He smiled as the pages of the yearbook crumbled into ash. He laughed when the synthetic fur of the bear ignited in blue chemical flame and he shed the final traces of Marie in the fire.
By spring he could mark the changes in his life by the piles of books on the shelves, the closets filled with tennis rackets, lacrosse sticks, softball gloves and coats and the TV on its rickety metal table. He felt like he had it all.
When his parents showed up for graduation, he remembered what he had left behind.
"God damn, Greg, what the hell does one kid need with all this junk?" Dad stood in the middle of the apartment, wearing a Class B dress uniform, despite House's request he stick to civilian clothes.
House pointed out that he was staying in Baltimore for med school. There was no reason to move this year, and his mother smiled.
"It's always nice to stay in one place for a little while, isn't it?" She cleared a spot on the couch and sat. "And it's a nice place, don't you think so John?" Dad just shook his head slightly and stood near the window.
House was barely at home once classes began again. Instead he spent his hours at the library, in class or at the hospital.
He'd work through the night, through the day and into the next night. He fell asleep over his books one night and dreamed that he would be reading biochem for the rest of his life, trapped in some never-ending time loop.
He started forcing himself to look up, to step away, to see more than just what was on the page.
Some students carried their past proudly, with varsity letter jackets proclaiming their school and sport. Some ignored who they had been, and instead mimicked the person they wanted to be, wearing red leather coats or lace or old Army coats covered with the symbols of punk heroes already dead -- as if imitation could turn them into someone they would never be.
Some people were forced to deal with the present. He'd catch sight of someone on crutches, and taught himself to notice if the problem was at the foot, the ankle or the knee or involved the whole leg, then checked his orthopedics texts to see if they could help him decipher to underlying cause.
And some of those passing by were already facing a dismal future. There was the reference librarian hunched over by osteoporosis and the janitor whose shaking hands were a clear sign of Parkinson's.
House began to wonder if his own past, present and future were just as visible, if all that work into erasing his own history had been for nothing.
When Mom came to visit one weekend during med school, she told some of the other students all about the different places they'd lived, bragging on his language skills and ignoring his attempts to shut her up.
"You know, that explains everything," one of the idiots currently on psych rotation said. "If you'd had a stable home life, you probably would be better with people."
"And if you actually listened to anyone but yourself, you might realize there's a pool going about how long it's going to be until you kill your first patient," House said. "I'm down for February 14 -- Valentine's Day -- when you're all weepy about being alone again."
House finally cleared things out two days before he left for Michigan. He had rented a U-Haul trailer -- the smallest one available because his piece of crap Chevette would be lucky to make it through Pennsylvania at all, let alone hauling extra weight.
Crandall was back in town, claiming he had a lead on a new band, but with no money. Again. He'd spent the past week crashed on House's couch.
"Why the hell is it you keep showing up anyway?" House asked.
Crandall had his back to him, rooting through the box of things House had marked to throw out. "Because you 'd be lost without your only friend. Face it, G-man, you just can't live without me."
"I'd like to try," House muttered.
"You're going to get rid of this?" Crandall stood and held up the bong, the green glass reflecting in the late afternoon sun coming through the windows.
"But it's a thing of beauty," he said. "Doesn't it work anymore?"
House took it from Crandall's hand and put it back in the box. "Of course it works," he said. "I made it. And if I want another one, I can make another one."
Crandall took it out of the box again. "How about you give it to me, for old time's sake?"
House waved his hand in Crandall's general direction. "Fine." He turned back toward the closet and pulled another bag off the shelf, feeling the heft of something solid inside the paper.
"Cool. I don't suppose you have any ... you know. Just to test it out?"
"You going to help me out here or were you planning on finding someone else to sponge a bed off of tonight?"
"Keep it up and I won't come visit you in Michigan."
"I should be so lucky."
He ended up renting a room in Ann Arbor. He felt like he was back where he started -- four walls painted a dingy white, a sagging twin bed and a used dresser. The other residents in the house moved in and out so often, it seemed like there was always a new face coming out of the bathroom or passing him in the hallways late at night.
And then he was gone. Again. Matched with a hospital in Pittsburgh for residency. He picked up some boxes from behind the Big 10 Party Store on his way home one night and filled them the next day. There were only a couple of new things this time: a sweatshirt, a new CD player and some CDs. The needle broke on his turntable three months earlier, but he still packed it along with the LPs in case he could find a replacement some day.
He never did find the needle, and turntable fell apart and was left behind when he left Pennsylvania. He kept the albums, though.
House lost track of Crandall sometime after Providence -- or Crandall lost track of him. Didn't matter. He was gone just like everyone else. But he found the dobro at a pawn shop. It wasn't from National's heyday, but did come from Dopyera himself, made during his California days, not one of the knockoffs.
He polished the wood and metal and taught himself how to play. The guitar felt out of place laying across his knees, the bar in his left hand, his right finger picking at the strings. Jessie always begged him to play it for her, and he always told her later. She was gone by the time he could pick out anything more than a few notes.
Women never stayed for long. Only a few made it past the second date. He could count on one hand those who stuck it out past the first two weeks.
Most were like Marie and decided he wasn't good enough to breathe the same air they did. A few got tired of his rotating schedule.
He told himself he didn't mind. He wasn't looking for a relationship, just sex. And no ties made it that much easier to move when the time came.
And the time always came.
After he was fired from the Cleveland Clinic ...
"Let's not call it 'fired,'" the department head, Powers, had told him. "If anyone calls, I'll just say that we decided not to extend the terms of your contract."
... House found himself a new fellowship in Chicago and called to reserve a trailer. He sorted through his things, knowing that everything he owned would still fit inside the smallest U-Haul on the market. He realized he'd traded the dimensions of his grandfather's box for the dimensions of a U-Haul.
He wondered if that should mean something, then remembered he hated psychology and started packing.
When he first moved to Princeton, House rented the usual crap apartment near the hospital, one with walls so thin he could hear the sounds of the newlyweds next door having sex. He took off for a walk one Sunday rather than listening to them having a quickie and ended up at the condos.
House could never say what made him sign the mortgage. It made no sense. He knew he'd be gone again soon -- and there was no guarantee he'd ever get his down payment back. But something about the place felt comfortable, right. He felt like he belonged there.
It wasn't until he unpacked that he realized the floorboards were nearly the same color as the box. He shook his head slightly and put the box on the dresser.
The new piano fit perfectly. So did the new leather sofa.
House added bookcases to his belongings and began to fill each shelf.
Once Stacy moved in, he moved the box to the closet to open up space on the dresser for her jewelry.
For a few years, it was good. Their belongings mixed together -- her blouses next to his dress shirts, his stereo playing her opera CDs, her Kandinsky print next to his Altamont poster.
He should have known it wouldn't last. Nothing did. Everyone left, sooner or later. At least Stacy did a better job of taking her things than Marie did. The only things she left were the things they had bought together, the things they had shared.
The new condo he bought after Stacy left was smaller, but everything still fit, and the floors were the same dark wood as the box again.
Some of his things migrated the few miles over to the hospital, filling the corners of the office and conference room he was given once PPTH created the diagnostics department. He had picked up the old textbooks, with their mention of pre-pencillan cures, at a flea market in Baltimore. He had swiped the mortar and pestle from a chem lab shelf in Ann Arbor. He found the light at an estate sale.
He'd seen the Eames chair and stool advertised at an auction shortly after he'd been issued the office and conference room.
"Why not get a couch?" Wilson asked when it was delivered. "That's going to be more comfortable when you pull an all nighter."
"You're faced with a modern design masterpiece and you want to talk about comfort?" House pulled the last of the protective plastic off from the stool. "Did you lose custody of your sense of taste in the last divorce?"
Comfort came in small doses now: the amount of time before he needed to take another pill, the number of minutes he could sit in one chair, the number of uninterrupted hours of sleep.
House tried not to take too much comfort from having Wilson around. It would just make it harder when Wilson left. Wilson kept saying he wasn't going anywhere, but House knew better.
Sooner or later, everyone leaves.
And sooner or later, all the secrets escape.
House hated that other people could judge him on sight. He could dress in the best suits, he could wear the lab coat, he could clip on the ID tag. It doesn't matter. People saw the cane, and thought they know all about him.
They were wrong. He was more than what he held in his hand. Sometimes what we keep, he told himself, is merely what we were left with when everything else went away.
A week after moving into his new apartment, Wilson collected his boxes from the rental storage unit. House watched him haul them in -- one and two at a time dumped onto the floor making a pile along one wall and onto the table.
Wilson was the one who managed to escape every simple description House tried to give him. Nothing met House's expectations. What Wilson owned -- what he wore -- was never who he was. Wilson had a disguise that House envied, with a wicked, caustic wit that hid just behind the boyish smile, waiting for release. Wilson always seemed able to hide himself behind his coat, his profession, his position, his marriages.
His houses had nothing to do with the real Wilson. They were just another part of the facade that came with every marriage.
What was really Wilson was here, in these boxes. The fishing trophies and the illustrated history of the America's Cup race. Wilson drew out each item, dusted it off and looked for the best place to put it.
From the bottom of one box, he pulled out a photo in a cheap bronze frame. He looked at it for a moment, then put it on an empty shelf under the window. House picked it up and studied it.
There were three boys posed around a tree. Wilson looked nearly the same then as now. House recognized another boy as Wilson's youngest brother. They both had the same slender build, the same dark hair. The third boy was blond, with a huskier build.
"Jack always took after Dad's side of the family," Wilson said. "The high school football coach loved him because he could run, but tackle too. His senior year they put him at running back. No one could pull him down."
House looked at the photo, then at Wilson. Wilson shrugged in response to the silent question.
"I figured it was time to take it out from the bottom of the box."
Wilson took out the garbage after dinner, saying that the chicken skins would stink up the place if he left them.
"You could have left them on, you know. Then your chicken wouldn't have been so dry."
"Oh, would you have four pieces then, rather than three?"
House waited until he heard the outer door to the building close. He reached into one of the boxes that Wilson had opened, then closed again and set aside. There was a wedding album on top from Wilson's first marriage, the one that happened during med school. Wilson looked only a little older in the first photo than he had in the one with his brothers. His bride was on his arm and their parents smiled at the camera from either side of the couple.
House dug down deeper. There was more in this box, he knew, more about the Wilson he had never known. His hand touched metal and he pulled out a matchbox car. A Mustang. Early 1970s vintage. Bright red. It looked nothing like the Volvo parked outside.
He reached in again, his fingers finding loose sheets of paper, an envelope, the binding of a book. His fingers touched on a soft piece of cotton, a bag of some kind, and inside it something hard and round. He pulled it out just as the door opened.
"Find anything interesting?" Wilson tossed his keys onto the table. House opened the bag and reached inside. He held up the latest prize between his fingers.
"Why do you have marbles in the bottom of the box?"
"Why do you care?"
"I've explained about the whole anomaly thing before, right?" House held the marble between his thumb and index finger, holding it out to catch the light. "Pots, pans, books -- those I can see you moving from place to place. But a catseye marble?"
Wilson reached out to take the marble. He let it sit cupped in the palm of his hand and stared down at it.
"It was my brother's favorite," he said. His voice was soft, and House wondered what he was seeing: the marble or his brother. "I won it off him when I was ten." Wilson smiled slightly. "First time I ever beat him at anything."
He put the marble next to the photo.
"But why keep this?" House held out the wedding album this time. "And why doesn't What's-Her-Name have it?"
Wilson took the album and put it back in the box. "She left it behind. It seemed, I don't know, important that someone keep it." He folded one of the cardboard flaps over the top of the box. "And what difference does it make to you?"
"To me, nothing," House moved Wilson's hand aside and opened the box again. "But it must mean something to you. Everything we own tells a story about who we are, about what's important to us."
House took the album back out again and put it on the table. "So does what we leave behind," he said. "You leave wives, but you keep the photos." He looked down into the box again. "You never tell anyone about your brother, but you keep his toys."
"Hate to break it to you House," Wilson said, "but you're not going to find Rosebud in there, no matter how hard you look."
"I already know all about Charles Foster Kane."
"You want to know something about me, maybe you could just ask rather than rooting through my belongings," Wilson said.
"Oh, then I'd just have to figure out if you're lying. Again." House began pulling the envelope out from the bottom of the box. He studied the sheaf of papers inside it with a smile. "Besides, these report cards from elementary school promise to be much more entertaining."
"I've got an idea. Why don't we go to your place and dig out your things instead?"
"Nah. Too much sex in my history. I wouldn't want you getting all jealous." House sat in one chair and then patted the one next to him. "Have a seat," he said.
Wilson shook his head. "Thanks for the invitation, but I think I'll keep unpacking in the other room where it's easier to ignore you."
"I can't be ignored," House called out toward the living room.
"You're the one always complaining that I'm an optimist," Wilson said and opened another box. "I'm just living up to your expectations."
"Oooh, but not here." Wilson heard a flutter of paper and the sound of triumph in House's voice. "Pay dirt already. Is this really a note of 'needs improvement' from your third grade teacher?"
Wilson took a handful of books out of the box. "Think of it as an anomaly," he said. "You love those."
"And a 'Poor' for 'demonstrates initiative,'" House said. "My, my."
"You know, I'm pretty sure your Mom would be more than happy to send me a copy of your school records." Wilson put the books on the new bookshelf. "I'd love to see your grade for: "Respects the rights and properties of others.'"
"One of the advantages of moving a lot as a kid is that you leave very little paper trail."
Wilson crossed his arms over his chest and looked at House. "Come on. I'll bet your Mom still has every art project you did in kindergarten. One call, and they're all mine."
"Not if I call her first."
House glanced over at Wilson, then studied the papers for another moment. Finally he shook his head and folded them again. He put them back in the envelope and slid the envelope back into the box. Maybe there was some hidden secret to Wilson in there. He picked up the wedding album and put it back inside and folded the cardboard down to close the box. Or maybe it was just a Wilson that used to be, a part that he had shed a long time ago.
House stood and turned toward the living room. Wilson had gone back to unpacking his books. Maybe someday House would find the one thing that could finally explain everything about Wilson.
But right now Wilson wasn't going anywhere.
And neither was he.