Crack-smoking crossover with willful violation of multiple canons ahead. Okay, maybe not outright violation, maybe just a little gratuitous molestation. All recognizable characters contained herein are the property of various individuals and corporations, none of whom are me, and none of which I represent in any way, shape or form.
Drawing ER duty on Halloween means one of two things. Either you have shit for seniority, or you've really pissed somebody off. In his case, Greg House knows it's the latter. For pranking the hospital administrator, he's been rewarded by the chore of directing paranoid parents to radiology to x-ray their kids' candy, pumping the stomach of a toddler who eaten something from the flower pot on somebody's porch, breaking up a fight between two drunks, one of whom is on the verge of alcohol poisoning, and dealing with the complaints of assorted idiots milling around the waiting room in costume, including, get this, a Grim Reaper. And that's just the first three hours...
He sneaks out for a breather around ten-thirty, ducking out to the private courtyard where hospital personnel gather to smoke and snark. There he finds a representative of the shit-for-seniority persuasion sitting on one of the picnic tables, sipping a can of soda. "How's it going?" Eddie Marcase greets House, tipping his head back and rotating his neck from side to side with a series of crackling sounds.
"Youre gonna give yourself whiplash," House points out helpfully, settling onto the table beside his colleague. "Give."
The other doctor extends the can, resigned to his friend's habit of what's-yours-is-mine. "I've got a better chance of dying from your germs, House."
House snorts as he chugs the sweet liquid. "You're such a cheerful son-of-a-bitch, Marcase. It's one of the things I love about you."
"Give me a break. Since I got here at 2 o'clock, I had to lance a pilonidal cyst---that was pretty rank---some drunk upchucked on my favorite lab coat, and I had five---five!---hysterical mothers insisting their kids be admitted. I had to tell 'em no, junior's got a tummyache from too much candy, give him some hydroloperidimine, he'll be fine, and that's food coloring on his tongue, not some exotic poison. If he's a little warm, its probably from all the excitement. Not to mention an extra layer of clothes under his costume. I mean, come on, some of these suburban dames are so over-protective! And there was a guy---"
House tunes out his companion, enjoying the break. He's thirty now, and his childhood was spent following his dad's postings to various military bases, so tonight's festivities don't evoke joyful nostalgia, just tired resignation. Pulling assignments like this is what he doesn't like about working at Falls Church Medical Center. He's a specialist, damn it. They were all hot to get their hands on him and his shiny new certification in nephrology when they hired him a year and a half ago...he thought medical school was the last time he'd have to deal with idiots off the street.
Marcase gets to his feet. The lab coat he's squeezed into is a size too small, emphasizing how broad-shouldered he is. He gestures to the can on the table beside House. "Kill that, if you want. I need to get back to the fun and games. It's nearly eleven...maybe all the crazy mommies will put their little devils to bed and leave us alone." He shakes his head; his parents were Project HOPE doctors, and he'd spent most of his first ten years in Africa, another refugee from the suburban American experience. "Thank God I'm outta here at midnight."
"So all we have to deal with is the drunks and the other crazies?" House asks wryly. He's on duty til 6 a.m.; it's gonna be a long night.
"Yeah. Fun." Eddie Marcase ambles toward the door. He's the only colleague House hangs out with on a social basis, usually to shoot some one-on-one hoops.
The younger doctor is a couple years younger than House; he's been out of med school less than a year, and he wants to specialize after he's put away a little money. He's been trying to talk House into jumping ship and joining him at Walter Reed to study infectious disease, which sounds more intriguing than hanging around the snake pit that's FCMC...
When he's finished his friend's beverage, House stands, stretching. Nearly eleven? Three hours down, seven to go. If he's lucky...nah, who's he trying to fool? It's gonna be crap and more crap, but maybe, if he's lucky, some of it might be interesting crap.
The six-and-a-half-year old in the homemade scarecrow costume is whimpering in the backseat of the family car, and his older brother wraps a too-small jacket around him. There's an unpleasant smell in the car; vomit stains the old shirt the smaller boy is wearing, and he's done something in the patched pants, too. "Nooo!" the little boy cries out. "Don't go in the cellar! There's something bad down there!"
Tires squeal as his father follows an arrow pointing the way to Falls Church Medical Center. "Dad, he won't stop shivering," the other boy says turning a thin, serious face to the driver. He's only a few years older than his gap-toothed brother, but he isn't dressed for trick-or-treating.
Their dad says Dean's getting too old for that silliness now. He probably wouldn't've let Sammy go, either, but it's one way to get a closer look at the target's house without arousing suspicion. Two kids on Halloween, nothing less sneaky than going up to the front door and ringing the bell, right?
"No! No! It wants to eat you! Make it stop!" He's bent double, clutching his stomach and screaming; it's worse than when he wakes up from one of his nightmares, and Sammy's always had terrifying dreams. Dean tries to reassure him, but he can't get through to his brother, who is wailing about a basement, and it's a bad place...
As the old black Impala spins into the hospital parking lot, Dean clutches his brother to keep him from sliding on the seat. Heat emanates from the younger boy; the red patches of color on his cheeks aren't from face-paint. Sammy may only be six-and-a-half, but he's not a cry-baby. The little mewling noises he makes between his panicked protests aren't like him at all, and his big brother is scared in spite of himself.
Jolting to a stop as close to the door of the ER as he can get, John Winchester is out of the car before its shocks have stopped protesting. Moving swiftly, he yanks open the back door, bending to place a big hand on his youngest son's forehead. His brown eyes darken with concern. Less than an hour ago, the boy was fine---a fever like this, something so sudden, can't be natural, and inwardly, he curses the idea of using his sons' activities to get a glimpse through the front door of something he had his suspicions about. God only knows what's been attracted to his boy.
"Come on, Sammy," he says, drawing the sick boy up effortlessly and wrapping him in the heavy black peacoat with surprising gentleness. "We'll find a doctor and get you better. Grab the keys and lock up," he adds to Dean, who's gotten out on the other side and stands looking up at him, anxiety clear in the harsh lighting of the parking lot.
He bursts through the door into the waiting room, scanning the area and---there's a tall man wearing a lab coat near the check-in desk, and John heads that way, fast, holding close to his struggling bundle. "Doctor!"
"Hey! I was next!" a young woman says indignantly. She's dressed in a skimpy Playboy Bunny costume, wearing heels you could stake a vampire with. From the looks of her skinned knees and swollen ankle, she'd be better off in bunny slippers. He's not in the habit of hitting women, but if this one doesn't get out from between his son and that doctor, John Winchester might make an exception. He scowls at her, and she flinches.
The doctor glances from the Bunny's cleavage to him, to the little that can be seen of Sammy, enveloped in the old coat. He extends a hand, lightly brushing the back of his palm against the boy's forehead, and eyebrows lift over his bright blue eyes.
"He was fine an hour ago," John states, inspecting the doctor. A hospital badge with a picture the size of a postage stamp dangles from a lanyard around his neck and identifies him as Dr. House. Looking him over, John is reassured that this isn't some nutjob pulling a fast one in a Halloween costume.
"In here," says Dr. House, and ushers him into an exam room. He moves with grace for such a big guy---John's over six feet tall himself, and this guy has an inch or two on him. In seconds, he's got a digital thermometer in hand, and John holds Sammy still while House sticks it into his mouth.
Children commonly spike fevers; their bodies' thermoregulatory systems are volatile. Most of the time, they're fine again within 24 hours, as if nothing's ever happened. House knows this, but this kid is almost 104F, and he's on the verge of convulsions. His pulse is extremely rapid. That, plus vomiting and diarrhea concerns House.
"Do something!" commands Dad. He fills out a worn plaid flannel shirt with shoulders as broad as a bull's. He's used to being obeyed; the Bunny in the lobby got out of his way with one glare---but House's father was Marine Corps all the way. House doesn't jump when his dad says so, he isn't going to do tricks for this guy either, just his job. "It'll be okay, Sammy," Plaid Flannel says in a completely different tone. "The doctor knows what to do." The Look he turns on House clearly says, Do something, now.
Okay, he's a tough customer---it could be that he's done something to his kid. Stripped for the exam, the boy is thin, but not obviously malnourished. There are no bruises to suggest internal bleeding. House turns on the cold water tap and soaks towels. The first thing he does is roll one up and insert it under the boy's neck. Another one covers the child's groin: not surprisingly, this prompts further kicking and screaming from his young patient. He's clutching his belly; palpitating his abdomen makes him scream. House makes a mental note that appendicitis is a possiblility.
The exam room curtain slides back; House catches the flurry out of the corner of his eye, then bites back what he's about to say, which would've been along the lines of "Get the hell out of here, kid." The boy who just came in completes the set, no question. There's a story here to be read. He has Daddy, whose couture is definitely on the ragged side, this kid, who he guesses is ten or eleven and getting ready to grow out of the shirt that'll get passed down to fever-child who's the shabbiest of the bunch.
As he wipes the writhing, muttering patient down with cold compresses in a fast attempt to bring his temp down, he notices something about the clothes the boy had on. The work shirt was enormous and in tatters. One of Daddy's old shirts, puffed up with crumpled newspaper, wrists secured with rubber bands. Pants are big-brother sized, also baggy and shredded. Bits of grass still cling to the thin neck and wrists. An improvised scarecrow costume, the doctor thinks. No Mommy at home to make it for him, he'd bet money on it.
"Is Sammy gonna be okay?" the older boy asks his dad in a hushed voice. Kid wants Daddy to make everything better... Plaid Flannel drapes and arm across the boy's shoulders but doesn't answer. Watching them covertly, House tries to remember his dad ever making such a gesture.
"He was fine an hour ago," the other man says, sounding angry. "He was laughing and talking and---what's doing this to him?"
Grrabbing the thermometer again, House takes another reading. Fuck, it's gone up. It's 104.1, and that, ladies and germs, is not good news. "Kids pick up a lot of bugs," he temporizes, then something occurs to him. "I'm going to get one of my colleagues to come in and take a look. I'll be back in a minute. Can you keep wiping him down? That helps."
Where the hell is Eddie Marcase? He wants to go into infectious disease as a specialty, maybe he knows something that'll spike a sudden fever like this. And it wouldn't hurt to have another warm body around in case Big Daddy get violent.
"Go home and sleep it off," he hears Eddie's voice saying to a patient. One of the curtains parts, and a leather-studded metalhead sways out, grinning.
"Rock on, man!" the head-banger says over his shoulder to Marcase.
"I need you for a consult," House says before his colleague can get sandbagged with another patient. "I've got a six-and-a-half year old male, presenting with a high-grade fever of unknown origin, sudden onset. It went up from 103.8 to 104.1 in the space of ten minutes while I was treating him with cold wet towels."
"Borderline. And his father keeps saying he was fine an hour ago."
"Let's go take a look."
Dean can't stand still. He's too worried about Sammy. So, while Dad wrings out the towel in the sink and wets it with cold water again, he picks up the clothes lying on the floor. His dad's coat and brother's jacket he sets on the back of a chair in the corner. The stinking rags that were their last-minute attempts at dress-up he bundles into the trash. He still has the keys to the Impala in his pocket; he can go get clean clothes for Sammy when the doctor gets ready to let him go.
But what if...he slams the door on that thought, fast. No "what ifs". Sammy's going to be okay. He's got to be.
The thought is planted. Bad things happen, like when Mom died, Dean knows. That's why Dad hunts the evil nasties; Dad tells him very seriously about his adventures, because some day, Dean will have to hunt them, too. He's already learned to shoot, knows how to load a gun and where the bullets are kept, in case something bad comes around while Dad's out hunting.
Whatever this is, though, it isn't something that a bullet can fight. Even Dad looks worried. Sammy's hollering about a man with yellow eyes, and Dean bites his lip.
The first doctor comes back in with another guy in a white coat, and Dean steps back out of their way. "I'm Dr. Marcase," the new guy says to his dad. He does the thing with the thermometer, nods, then stops. He's looking in Sammy's mouth, a little notch between his eyebrows. "House, take a look at this," he says to the first doctor.
"So? It's black food coloring. You said yourself---"
"It can't be," John Winchester interrupts. "He hasn't had anything like that. Dean, what did you boys have for supper?"
"Spaghetti-O's, sir." Heated in the microwave of the little efficiency unit they're in while Dad tracks his latest quarry...
"You're not feeling sick?" asks Dr Marcase. He's nicer than the other doctor, or maybe it's just that he reminds Dean a bit of Dad, the way he used to be before Mom died. "Here, let me take your temp." He slides a little plastic sleeve over the tip of the thermometer, and Dean opens his mouth. "Perfectly normal," he says a moment later. "Stick out your tongue for me...nope. Whatever is making him sick, this one hasn't had it." He grins at Dean, who tries to smile back.
"Think it's a virus?" House asks him.
"I don't think so. Not if it just blew up like this, and nobody else is showing symptoms. He isn't wheezing, so I don't think it's an allergen. Probably a toxin."
"I'm going to draw some blood," Dr. House announces. He takes some stuff out of one of the drawers. "Could be his appendix."
"And just in case he got into something you don't know about, I'm going to give him some Actidose. That's activated charcoal," Dr. Marcase explains to them. "It'll keep his digestive system from absorbing any more toxins, if that's part of the problem." He goes out through the curtain, leaving them at the mercy of Dr. House, who sticks Sammy with a needle while Dad holds him down.
Theyre so matter-of-fact that Dean wants to believe them, that it's not some weird curse on Sammy, which he knows is what his dad is thinking. He's probably having a shit-fit that Sammy's babbling about demons and monsters---but it is Halloween, so maybe they won't think about it too much.
House disappears with the vial of blood he's drawn, leaving Edward Marcase to cope with the patient and his family. This doesn't surprise him; House has often complained about being on ER rotation---he'd expected 9 to 5 hours insulated in an office when he was hired, and the occasional consult. Nope, no such luck, but as much as House pisses and moans, he's usually on top of things. The guy's a brainiac.
Administering activated charcoal to an uncooperative six-year old isn't easy, but the patient's father helps him, and all the while, his older brother hovers nearby watchfully. Marcase remembers with longing what it's like to have a family. He was only a couple of years older than little Sammy when Ebola killed his parents and almost took him. This doesn't act like a virus, but that doesn't mean it may not be just as deadly.
There's nothing resembling a medical history in the room, so he asks a few standard questions, learns the family's name is Winchester. No, they're not local, they're just passing through. Yes, it's just John and the boys. The boys' mother is dead. A house fire, six years ago. No, no history of seizure disorders, Sammy isn't on any meds, never had an allergic reaction to anything, has no history of asthma...
The man is cooperative with the questions, but Marcase senses barely-concealed impatience. Like he should pull out a wonder drug and heal the kid in the next five minutes. Not that he blames the guy. The boy is curled up and moaning, pained noises interspersed with ramblings like he's been watching too many monster movies while Daddy's out doing...whatever it is the man does for a living.
They're transient; that bothers him. Not because it ruins the white-picket fence picture that's taken root of the little family, with a workshop in the garage and games of touch football on the lawn, but because it doesn't fit in with the other cases he's seen today. Those kids were mildly warm, not dangerously febrile. They had bellyaches, but without vomiting or diarrhea. And the thing that's really weird---their tongues. The other kids had slightly black tongues, more greenish, really. Sammy's isn't green, though, it's definitely black. There are black lines outlining his teeth---missing front teeth aside---even his gums and the insides of his cheeks are darkened.
It isn't because he's cyanotic---because his skin---is cooler. Marcase checks his temp; it's down to 102.6, which is an improvement. "That's better," he murmurs, donning his stethoscope. Uh-oh. Sammy's heart rate is arrhythmic, where it was rapid before, it's now erratic, and this concerns the young doctor more than the fever did.
"You go get your coat, Dean," John Winchester says firmly. "I don't need you to get sick, too." He waits a few seconds after the older boy has left the area, then asks, "What's really wrong, Doc? I heard you say 'Better', but you don't look happy."
"A little while ago, his heart was racing. Now, it's uneven. Is there any family history of thyroid problems?"
Winchester nods, apprehensive. "My wife's uncle died of thyroid cancer about the time Dean was born. That's who he's named for."
"I'll call the lab and make sure they check his T/3 and T/4 levels." Marcase picks up the phone and relays the request. "It could be hyperthyroidism. If it is thyroid, that's more likely than anything else."
"My boys are all I have." John Winchester looks haunted. "Is it---does he need a donor or something? I'll do whatever it takes, just don't let him---"
"No! Don't do it! Don't do it! It wants to eat you!" The kid's pupils are blown, and that really seems more like a toxic effect. Marcase is disturbed. Maybe the bloodwork will point to something.
"It's okay, I'm right here," Winchester promises his son. He lifts the child up from the exam table and cradles him like a baby. "Everything's okay..."
Edward Marcase feels a lump in his throat. He doesn't even have photos of his parents, and after twenty years, their images are starting to blur in his memory. Does he have his dad's dark hair, the way his patient's matches his father's? Are these his mother's hazel eyes, great-granddaddy's chin? He isn't sure any more, all because a virus on the other side of the world gobbled them up like little Sammy's monsters..
Coming back downstairs from the lab, House passes a very pregnant pumpkin being wheeled to Delivery. In the ER, a babe in a harem costume chats with a lanky Wookie over by the snack machines, while Dracula shows Andrea at check-in how he bit through his lip with a fake fang.
Andrea tries to catch his eye, but he's already got Fever Boy, he doesn't want to deal with the Transylvanian Twerp. As he starts to tell her he's got a case, thanks, the outer door bursts open, and Fever Boy's older brother dashes in like there's a werewolf after him. Kid comes through a door just like his old man, thinks House, aiming to intercept him before he barges into the exam room and sends his dad into cardiac arrest. That's all they need.
"Slow down there, Scooter," he says, catching up to the frantic kid, who's now wearing a navy blue windbreaker, unzipped, one white flannel pocket flapping as he walks. "What's wrong?"
"They're trying to tow the Impala! I've got to tell my dad!"
"Hang on, hang on!" The kid is clutching a set of keys in one hand. "They probably just want it moved. We can do that, no need to bother your dad." He heads for the door, and the older boy follows him.
Security has a tow truck there, which isn't surprising. Daddy parked squarely in the "Off-loading Only" zone. What's his name...Dan? Dave? something like that...the kid hands him the keys, and he convinces everyone that you can't blame the guy for parking there; in his medical opinion---see, he's a doctor!---it really was an emergency, he'll move the car. Right now.
Didn't his family have a car like this when he was growing up? Back when Dad was stationed in...was it Georgia or North Carolina? Except Master Sergeant House's Impala had been gold, his son remembers, with a black vinyl top. This bad boy is solid black, glossy under a thin film of road dust that doesn't look like it's been there long.
Climbing behind the wheel, long-legged House doesn't have to adjust the seat. Glancing around, it's obvious the old car has been meticulously maintained. There's no trash underfoot, the upholstery isn't cracked or torn---for a car that's more than twenty years old, it's in damn near cherry. It starts up with a throaty rumble, perfectly tuned, and there's no hesitation in the drivetrain as he puts it into gear. Fleetingly, he thinks about making an offer on it. It would be fun to drive something with this kind of power.
"See? Not a scratch, Dan," House says to the kid as he finds a parking spot in the last row.
"Dean," the boy corrects him. "Dean Winchester. Is Sammy going to be okay?" Too old for his age; it's in his tone, like he's already braced to hear the worst. And he'll smell a lie, House is positive.
"It depends on what's wrong with him," he says, turning off the engine. "That's what we're trying to find out."
"I need to get him some clean clothes," Dean says, reaching over and taking the keys from the ignition. "So he'll have something to wear when you let him out." A note of defiance, like he's daring House to contradict him, to say not any time soon, or even...never.
"Sure," he agrees, but he unlocks the back door before he gets out, and takes a closer look at where his patient has been most recently. There's vomit on the floorboards and the back of the front seat, and House inspects it, nose wrinkled. There are chunks of semi-digested limp pasta, but the congealing liquid they're embedded in is more brown than red-orange. The smell...phew! "Dean, does your brother like licorice? Black licorice?"
The trunk lid closes, and Dean comes closer, a little bundle in his arms. "Yeah, he does," he answers, his demeanor making it clear that he doesn't share the love.
House has a hunch, checks the ashtray. Waxed paper and two smooth wooden sticks reward his exploration. Fishing them out, he holds one wrapper up to the light. There's a green Tinkerbell knock-off centered on the wrinkled square House deciphers the jagged green lettering: "Bad Fairy..." A sniff answers his other question. "Licorice."
"Shit," says Dean, sounding like a normal kid for a minute. An expression of panic crosses his face, come and gone that fast, and House knows from looking at the mask that replaces it that he's not going to get anything more out of the kid.
As soon as Dean walks in, John can tells something's spooked him. That doctor from the ER, House, is with him, looking pleased with himself.
"We moved your car so it wouldn't get towed," House says casually, and before John can protest that no one drives the Impala but him, he holds up a square of ratty white paper with a green design on it. "Found this in the ashtray in the backseat."
He recognizes the logo, and for a moment, his mind goes blank with fear for his son. It explains why Dean's looking so pale. What it doesn't explain is how Sammy could've gotten ahold of that. If he wasn't stuck here, he'd go throttle that demon bastard...its what he should be doing right this minute, not standing helpless while his son fights for his life. How many more kids are going to suffer Sammy's fate? Why didn't he get here just one day sooner?
"Dean...?" he asks, and gets the message in eyeball code that Dean doesn't want to talk about it in front of these two.
"I guess he swiped them when we were at that convenience store," says his oldest son, fibbing with a panache that almost makes John smile in spite of himself. "I'm sorry, Dad, I should've kept a better eye on him."
Just then, a diversion---someone else in a white coat comes in, hands a folder to House, and leaves again . "Hah! Will you look at that white count?" He nudges Marcase. "It is his appendix. We get that out of him, he's home free." He smiles at John Winchester, looking triumphant. "Let me get him admitted and I'll see who's on call for surgery tonight." House glances at the clock. "Looks like you're going into overtime, Eddie. It's after midnight."
He's gone with a swirl of the curtain, and John's nerves settle slightly. Appendix? Is it really something so mundane? He still isn't convinced that Sammy's illness isn't the work of that abomination, wants to tear it apart with his bare hands...but there's not a damn thing he can do besides what he's doing now. If he goes haring out of here, sure as Hell the hospital will have a dog pile of social workers on him the minute he walks back through their door.
Marcase has taken the wrappers House tossed on the counter and is studying them. "That's weird...this logo looks like it's been stamped on. Disney would probably go bat-shit over copyright infringement...ingredients, sugar, flavor, artificial coloring...what store did you stop at?"
John shrugs, embroiled in his son's lie. "I'm not from around here, remember? Some mom and pop place."
"When's the last time you saw a wooden lollipop stick?" the doctor asks, holding up the little skewers. They're each about four inches long, with a faint discoloring showing along the last inch. The guy is smart, John decides, but he doesn't make a production out of it the way House does. But can he be trusted?
House is back, with a stretcher and orderlies. John watches with renewed anxiety as they load Sammy onto it. "Talk to Andrea, she's the gal behind the desk out front," says the doctor. "Get the paperwork filled out and they'll prep him for surgery. Good luck." And he's gone.
The man doesn't give a damn, thinks John Winchester, furious at the glib dismissal. Dean looks stricken at his brother's sudden disappearance.
Marcase doesn't seem to be in any hurry to run off. He's taken one of the lollipop sticks and is gingerly tasting the non-dyed end of it. "What the hell are you doing?" John asks him.
"This...is not orange wood." The doctor goes over to the sink, fills a plastic cup with water, rinses and spits. "Orange wood is what they usually make popsicle sticks from, but this is something else."
John Winchester weighs his options. They've covered their tracks with a fair amount of bullshit. If the authorities get involved, the first thing they're going to look for is a convenience store, not his target, with his classy house in a fancy suburb. "You think there's some chemical or something on it that made Sammy sick?"
"Maybe. Look at that business with Tylenol a few years ago. There are some sick people out there."
There's enough honest loathing in his voice that John decides to trust him, at least halfway. He retrieves his coat from the chair where Dean put it, and reaches into the pocket. He pulls out the other sucker, the one Sammy got from the target. "Can you test this one, find out if it's bad?" The doctor's eyebrows raise. "I was going to give it to him later...I didn't know he'd already gotten his hands on some." The last phrase is said with emphasis; as soon as he can, he means to find out from his other son just where that candy came from.
"Just a chemistry project on the side, Tawanda," says Marcase as he ushers the Winchesters into the hospital lab.
"At this hour?" the technician mumbles sleepily. "Great. Can you keep an eye on things while I grab dinner? I'm pulling a double shift, and I've been on for twelve hours---" a massive yawn "---straight."
"No problem," he assures her. He gives his companions a wide smile. Technically, he shouldn't be bringing unauthorized personnel in here, but with Sammy going into surgery shortly, it'll keep them occupied instead of worrying. A mini-science lecture for their edification, although pitching it to this audience could be tough. Dean's onl a sixth grader, and his dad isn't exactly a rocket scientist. If there's anything weird in the third lollipop, he can call the TV stations, get them to announce it on the news. Might make Eddie Marcase some points with admin and get him out of ER duty next time...wouldn't that just piss Greg House off all to hell?
A chip of the hard candy is a noxious shade of green. The analysis shows ordinary sucrose and a helluva lot of tartrazine. That's interesting. He knows the food dye is a coal-tar derivative and can cause reactions, but not with Sammy Winchester's symptoms. Wait, tartrazine is yellow. Not black? Marcase holds it up to the light. It's like the center is dark, with a green halo. So there's yellow dye, and blue or green, and something else. He splits the sucker open, sampling the darkness within.
Figuring out what the "something else" is takes him forty minutes, and if Eddie hadn't mastered speed-reading in med school, he'd be there til dawn. Then his jaw drops. "Thujone? You've got to be kidding me." He compares the formula in the book with the printout from the mass spectrometer. "I'll be damned."
"What is it?" demands John Winchester.
"Have you ever heard of absinthe? It's a liquor---they don't sell it in America because it contains thujone. It's a plant extract, usually found in---"
"---wormwood," Winchester growls like it's a curse.
"How'd you know that?" Marcase asks in surprise.
The other man blinks. "I saw it on Jeopardy," he says, in bland contrast to his tone of a second ago.
"Even that doesn't explain the rest of Sammy's symptoms, though," Marcase frowns. "We can attribute the fever and abdominal pain to the appendicitis. But even if he had two of those things, the dose shouldn't be high enough to make him as sick as he was."
"You said the wood was wrong," Dean reminds him, the first time he's spoken since they got to the lab. He's been observing the process, not asking a lot of questions, but patient in a way that suggests he's spent plenty of time fading into the background in the company of adults.
"Good point, Dean," says Eddie cheerfully. Some of it is giddiness from lack of sleep. "Let's take a look at that." He runs a sample of it, and that's when things get juicy. "Oleander!" he exclaims, and whistles through his teeth. "Seriously toxic stuff. That accounts for the rest of it---vomiting, diarrhea and cardiac irregularities."
"The charcoal should take it out of his system. If it was going to kill him, it would have---" he breaks off. "I'm sorry, that must've sounded---I've had a long day." It's lame, but true---it's going on three a.m., and his body is starting to realize how tired it is.
"So, it's not his thyroid, either?" The relief in John Winchester's voice makes Marcase feel even more ashamed of his insensitivity.
"No, it's some damn sick bastard who needs to be put under the jail." He prints out results of the tests, carefully labels the samples and remaining evidence as Tawanda returns. "Come on, I'll show you to the lounge. Sammy's surgery should be almost done by now; appendectomies are fairly routine. You probably won't have long to wait. I need to get ahold of the local TV stations so they can run this on the morning news. And the other local hospitals, in case they run across any cases."
Eddie herds the Winchesters to the waiting area nearest Recovery and leaves them there, a unit of two, torn by concern for a third. "Who in Hell would do that to kids?" he asks no one in particular, and hurries off to find a phone.
There's no one else in the bland pink and grey lounge. John prowls the mauve carpet like a panther, releasing pent-up energy he's been saving for a hunt that's clearly not going to happen tonight. "Dean, I want some answers."
"Daddy, I'm sorry." He hasn't called John 'Daddy' in a couple of years, but now it just slips out. "When we went up to that guy's door, after he gave that pop to Sammy, he asked me why I wasn't trick-or-treating, and I said I was just keeping an eye on my brother because my dad thought I was too old. Then he kind of winked at me, and said you're never too old for candy...and he gave me two pops. I stuck them in my jacket...Sammy was already halfway down the steps, I didn't think he saw it!"
John sighs and rubs his forehead. "Why the hell didn't you give them to me? I know you've got enough brains that you weren't gonna eat them---hell, you dont even like licorice!"
"I was going to, only..." His voice trails off, but Dad's waiting for an answer. "I got distracted...this Firebird drove past right when I got back to the car. It was candy-apple red, it was sweet, Dad..." Dean looks away from the expression of disgusted disbelief on his father's face. "Then I took my jacket off because it was warm in the car, and I left it there when I went into the hardware store with you." Sammy had stayed in the car, playing with a tile puzzle.
"And while we were in there, your little brother got into your pockets." It's not so much an accusation as a statement, but Dean is hot with guilt and shame.
"Yes, sir," he mutters. "It's my fault."
The room is silence except for the humming of the soft drink machine in the corner. "Nothing you could do about his appendix, though. I'm gonna have to have a little talk with your brother, too. Doesn't he have any more sense than to eat something that came from somebody I'm hunting?"
Dean nods, the lump in his throat shrinking to a manageable size. "What are we gonna do about---" he glanced around furtively. "---that guy."
"Wormwood." The word emerges from between his father's clenched teeth. "I've almost had him a couple times now, but this time, we actually got to see his face. You and Sammy looked a demon in the eye this afternoon, Dean, and took his candy. As soon as we know Sammy's okay, I'll drop you at the unit and go nail his scaly hide to the wall once and for all."
"I can help," Dean offers. "Distract him or something. Please, Dad!"
"We'll see," John says as a man in scrubs enters the room. For the surgeon's benefit, he adds, "You'd probably fall asleep in school today, anyway. How's my boy, Doc?"
"You're Mr. Winchester?" the doctor asks. "Your son's appendix was badly inflamed, but we caught it before it ruptured. Textbook surgery, no problems at all."
"Thank you." His father's voice is choked with emotion, and Dean is dizzy with gratitude. "How long before we can see him? How long will he be in here?"
"They should have him transferred down to Unit Three any time now," the other man replies. "He'll be on clear liquids for the first day, and we'll have him up and walking around by this afternoon. He should be home in a day or two."
"You know what that means, don't you?" John asks his oldest son with a relieved grin once the doctor's exited the room. "Means before we can get him, we'll have to clean out the car." Dean throws his arms around his dad, holds on for all he's worth. It's been a long, stressful night, so John gives him just a minute before shrugging him off. "Let's go see your brother."
By the time they get back to the rental, Dean is staggering with fatigue, and John isn't much better. He's gonna go get that demon bastard, though...until Dean, who's tearing himself up about this whole situation with Sammy, breaks down in tears and begs him not to go. "You're too tired, Dad, you'll get hurt! Don't go, please don't go!" He can't remember the last time he's seen Dean cry.
To calm the boy down, John gets into the double bed with him, promising he'll take a nap right there with Dean. Then they'll both go get the bastard and then visit Sammy. He plans to get up and take care of the demon as soon as Dean nods off, but the next thing he knows, it's noon and he's furious with himself. Turning on the TV and catching a news story trumpeting tainted candy makes him grimace, but at least they're talking about convenience stores and saying throw it out instead of talking about having a suspect. Dean comes awake when he hears the TV, so John is pretty much stuck bringing him along on this snipe-hunt.
They don't get to neighborhoods like this often; John Winchester looks around at the suburban houses with their well-kept yards, some of them sporting elaborate playsets, and he'd bet that the kids around here don't have Spaghetti-O's for dinner much. Their dads have white collar jobs and they're saving up to send their offspring to college. The kids that live in these houses are in school right now, sharing peanut butter sandwiches with kids they've been friends with most of their lives. For damn sure, these kids haven't been dragged around half the country looking for monsters. Hell, they don't even know for sure that there are monsters.
They don't know that the guy in that house right over there is a lesser demon named Wormwood. Their parents know him by the name on the mailbox, C.S. Artemesia, and they're probably just glad that he keeps his yard neat so their property values will stay up.
It's a really big yard; the target's house is on a corner, with the front of the house facing one street and the driveway emerging onto another one. The Impala is parked blocking the exit, and John looks around the quiet street. This time, he's going to take this abomination out. Time to lock and load...
He straps his watch onto Dean's wrist, the dark brown cuff looking huge on the boy's slender arm. "You go around the corner, and give me two minutes, then ring his doorbell. Ask him where he got the candy so you can buy some more. Keep him talking, but whatever you do, don't go inside. Understood?"
Yes, sir!" Dean promises. There's a fierce determination on his young face, and John Winchester smiles in spite of himself. The boy is going to turn into a helluva hunter one of these days.
Wormwood has an attached greenhouse, or maybe he's la-di-da and calls it a conservatory. John calls it the weakest point in his defenses, and lopes across the yard toward the fanciful glass and wrought-iron structure. He recognizes one of the bushes in an ornamental pot: oleander, with some stubs where the bastard cut his lollipop sticks. From the information in Marcase's reference book, it won't survive a northern winter. Wormwood probably moves it into the greenhouse when frost threatens.
When he notices that the back door to the greenhouse is ajar, John slows. He reaches under his peacoat for the sawed-off, instincts alarmed. He enters the big glass box with caution. The only other exit is a back door to the house itself, which has a shade pulled down, but there are windows in the house that overlook the glass annex. There's no real cover here, unless it's the shallow rim of on of the raised beds. The beds are all empty, contents uprooted, and John Winchester knows with bitter certainty what was growing there: the other wormwood.
There's a sound of running feet outside, and Dean sprints around the side of the house, clutching something white. What the hell has gotten into his kids? Don't they have any brains at all? Back-tracking to the outer door, he's ready to chew his son a new one for deviating from his orders, when Dean thrusts a sheet of paper in his face and blurts: "He's gone! This was on the welcome mat." Not again, damn it---the bastard must've seen one of the news broadcasts and beat feet.
The paper is folded in equal thirds, and his name is written on one of the outer folds in green ink. The sheer brazen gall of it makes him growl low in his throat. Unfolding it, he finds a familiar-looking lollipop taped neatly to the middle third. At the top of the page, in what's practically calligraphy, is more ornate green penmanship, "Sorry to have missed you. I'm relocating for my health. Better luck next time."
He sees the lollipop, the cute cartoon fairy kicking her pom-pom'ed feet...and then, "You're never too old for candy, John."
Hospitals are totally boring, Sammy Winchester decides by three o'clock. The only thing on TV is a bunch of stupid soap operas, and if that kid in the next bed doesn't shut up about the freaking Power Rangers, already, Sammy's gonna throw him out the window. Geez, he's got Power Ranger action figures by his bed, a coloring book---even pajamas! And he's been whining that he didn't get to go trick-or-treating as the Blue Ranger because his jet-pack failed and he broke his leg in four places.
Sammy rolls his eyes and wishes it had been his head. A dumb ass, that's what Dad would call him if he ever tried to fly out of a window with a costume from K-Mart and Dean would kick his butt call him a doofus. He'd hear about it forever. Not that he's ever in his life had a costume from K-Mart---but if he did, he wouldn't want something lame like Power Rangers. Batman would be kind cool, though...
His stomach hurts, but not like it did last night. Last night, was like giants' fists were squeezing his guts. Now, it's sore where they cut into him, but mostly, he's hungry! Maybe they should give him some food, for crying out loud! All Sammy's had today was some kind of chicken soup---without any noodles!---and two cups of jello, because the Blue Ranger over there doesn't like green jello. Right now, all he can think about is wondering if he can con flyboy into giving him one of those candy bars his mom brought in when she came to visit.
A doctor comes into their room and looks him over. He's got red-brown hair and blue eyes, and he's tall and thin. Sammy looks up at him. "I need something to eat!" he says plaintively with his best feel-sorry-for-me look. "Or I'm gonna starve to death, right here!"
"Maybe later," the doctor says, pulling aside the sheet. He works loose the tape holding the bandage in place, and inspects where Sammy was cut open.
A caterpillar of black stitches three inches long marches along his belly, and Sammy stares in fascination. His dad's had to have stitches lots of times, and one time when they were out in the woods somewhere, Dad sewed up a bad cut on Dean's arm, but this is the first time Sammy's ever had any, and he grins with pride. "That is so cool!" he breathes. "Am I gonna have a scar?"
When he says this, the doctor gives him a funny look, but says, "Yeah. You won't be able to wear a bikini." Huh?
That's a crazy thing for him to say, and Sammy is about to ask him what he's talking about, when Dean bounds into the room, and Dad enters a few seconds later. "Wow!" is his older brother's reaction when he takes a look at the incision. Dad looks mad about something, probably because he's here and that means people might start asking questions about their family, and his son knows that's a Bad Thing. Dean's got a paper bag in his hand, and Sammy allows himself to hope that there's something good in there like a burger or some ribs.
"Dr. House," his dad says, with a nod to Sammy, "how's my boy doing?"
"So far, so good. There's no bleeding, no sign of infection, and it doesn't look like any of that other crap did any damage. He's on clear liquids for now. At dinnertime, we'll try him on simple solids, like applesauce. Your guts aren't ready for cheeseburgers yet, sport." Applesauce? Yuck. He'd rather have jello. "We'll keep him for another day as a precaution, but he's a tough little guy."
Hey, who are you calling little? Sammy wants to say as Dr. House replaces the dressing with a clean one. I'm six-and-a-half, and I'm gonna have a scar! But he doesn't, because Dad's in a mood, he can tell.
"You can take a hike. Get up and walk around with your brother for a few minutes. But don't run!" he cautions as Sammy does his best to wriggle out of bed without making his almost-scar hurt. He definitely wants to go with Dean; partly to get away from Blue Ranger, but mostly so he can find out what's going on and why Dad is pissed. They're at the door when the doctor asks, "Mr. Winchester, I was wondering, would you consider selling your car?"
Dean stops dead in his tracks and Sammy's jaw drops. Sell the Impala? "It's not for sale," their father says, and both boys relax at the finality in John Winchester's reply. Dr. House starts trying to talk him out of it, but his sons know that tone and don't look back as they exit the room.
A minute later, he and Dean are in the men's room on that floor, and Dean is pulling his clothes out of the paper bag and telling him to get dressed, they're not sticking around. The impatient patient is good with that; applesauce for dinner? How lame is that? "Why's Dad so mad?" he asks as he gingerly pulls his jeans on.
"Dude, those pops you swiped out of my jacket---"
"You don't like licorice!" Sammy protests. It hurts to bend over and fix the Velcro on his sneakers, but he manages.
"Yo, doofus! They were poisoned! Hasn't anybody ever told you, don't take candy from demons? I was gonna give them to Dad or throw them out. And, we went back there today, and the guy is gone! History! Left a nasty note for dad and took off. One of the neighbors said we missed him by, like, a half-hour."
Oh man, he's in for it. This makes jumping out a window in a costume from K-Mart look brilliant in comparison. "But they told me I had my 'pendix out!" he defends himself.
"You did. And you were poisoned! You know what they gave you for the poison? Charcoal! The doctor said it soaks up stuff like drugs and poison like kitty litter."
"Yeah, well, that's doctor's crazy," mutters Sammy, buttoning his shirt.
"Come on, I''ve got the keys, Dad's gonna meet us at the car."
The Impala is a glistening black presence in the parking lot. Freshly washed, Sammy can tell, and the interior smells like pine. He's learned that the cleaner the car is, the more tense his dad is; he takes his mad out on every speck of mud and dirt. When he clambers into the backseat, only a few still-damp patches show where last night's indignities occurred. Gone, but Sammy knows it's going to be a very long time before this incident is forgotten.
"Three thousand, that's my final offer," House says firmly. That Impala isn't the right car for a family man; Winchester should get himself a station wagon, or something a little easier on gas. What does he need all that horsepower for?
"That's your final offer?" the burly father of two replies. Does that mean he's softening up? They're standing in the hallway just past the door to Sammy's room, and House wants that glossy black beauty so badly he can taste it.
"It's a damn good offer," he cajoles.
"Final offer, meaning are you gonna shut up about it?" Winchester's jaw tightens. "I'd as soon cut off my left arm."
House thinks of Dean's flimsy windbreaker. Daddy might do it if it was for his kids. "Hey, for that kind of cash, you could get another car AND get some winter clothes for those boys of yours."
That earns a black scowl. "I don't need you throwing your money at me to take care of my kids," the other man snaps. Despite the worn-out clothing, he's got backbone. "You've got so damn much money, go find yourself another car."
Damn. Briefly, House considers raising his offer to thirty-five hundred, then rejects the idea. It's become a point of pride, now. Winchester dug in his heels like a mule at the mere suggestion that he's neglecting his kids. As far as the doctor can tell, he isn't. There was nothing alarming in the bloodwork for the younger boy; he's a little skinny, but there were no bruises or anything else suspicious. Although the older one looked anxious when House found those wrappers. Afraid he'd get a beating for not watching his brother? From what he's seen, though, neither of them has acted afraid of the man, even though he's built like a bull and is just as direct.
"Okay, have it your way." House raises his hands in the universal gesture of surrender. "It's a great car. My dad had one almost like it when I was a kid. I thought it was worth asking."
"Too bad he traded it in, huh?" Still that undertone of belligerence.
He doesn't smell booze on the other man, and there's nothing to suggest that he's a chronic drinker, but House's instincts tell him that Winchester is looking for an excuse to hit someone, and he wouldn't want to take John Winchester on in a fight on a good day. And definitely not today. After being on duty all night, he got called to Pediatrics for a nephrology consult an hour ago and conned into looking in on last night's appendectomy patient. He's tired, and almost tired of arguing.
"It wasn't his idea. He got shipped out and it was sell it or garage it."
For the first time, Winchester actually looks like he's heard something interesting. "Yeah? What branch?"
That's when House really sees the man's faded surplus pants, and involuntarily, says, "Oh, Christ. I should've known. Corps?" That bark of authority, kids saying yes, sir, no, sir, his car spit-and-polish---
"That's right," Winchester says, eyeing him. "Matter of fact I was. Let me guess, your daddy was a career man?"
"I know your type," House says, abandoning tact. "I might as well argue with a rock."
"You're catching on," his patient's father says, white teeth flashing. "I'm gonna go find my boys."
He flashes back to the man hugging his son last night, and for some reason, that makes him even angrier. "Damn stubborn son-of-a-bitch!" he says, more loudly than he intended.
"Who, you or your daddy?" John Winchester shoots back, and while House is trying to find his voice, he strides away down the corridor wearing a rare smile.
With a soda in one hand, and his lunch in the other, Eddie Marcase walks out into the courtyard on the afternoon of November 2nd. Greg House is already there, sitting on the table and reading a newspaper.
"Too bad you were off yesterday, you missed all the fun," House greets him.
Marcase pulls his arm to get a closer look at the headlines. Tainted Candy Kills Two, More Ill. Recall ordered. "Fun? Greg, you've got a damn strange idea of what's fun."
"Not that," his friend says dismissively, tugging the paper back. "When the Winchester kid went missing."
Eddie's dark head comes up from the newsprint, and he stares at House. "What are you talking about?"
"Papa and big brother came to visit, right? And he's post-op long enough to get up and walk around, so the kid wanders off, and come dinnertime, somebody notices he's not in his bed, and while they're searching, they find his gown in one of the restrooms, stuffed in a trash can."
"You're kidding. They didn't get him discharged, just walked out?"
"Like any sane doctor would've discharged him twelve hours after surgery? And it gets better---it turns out he wasn't even registered. Things were such a zoo the other night that everybody assumed the paperwork was there. Hauptman did the surgery, said he wasn't sorry, either, because he thought the appendix would've ruptured if he'd waited even another hour. And whoever who wrote up the case history---" He rolls his eyes at Marcase "---didn't get any of the demographic information. So, we don't have the kid's address---there's no way to follow up and make sure the little bastard doesn't get infected, hemorrhage, or any of that other fun stuff."
"Oh, hell," sighs Eddie. "So much for jogging his memory to find out which store the candy came from."
House rustles the paper and looks smug. "That's another thing that's out of whack. They turned up boxes of those suckers at two service stations and a mini market from Southside to the interstate, but none of the people at any of the stores has any idea where it came from. It's like someone put the boxes on the shelves when no one was looking. Plus, the four-year old who died---his mother swears the candy was something the kid got while trick-or-treating because she remembered seeing it in his bucket." House pauses, sounding grim. "She's blaming herself, says she didn't think anybody could do anything to a sucker, so she thought it would be safe for him to have while she inspected the other stuff for tampering. And of course, she doesn't remember which house he got it at."
"Somebody went to a lot of time and trouble to do this," says Marcase, pulling an egg salad sandwich from his bag and unwrapping it. "They made those things from scratch. The part with the wormwood was at the center, and there was a shell of plain boiled sugar around that, a two-step process. And they had to mill the oleander wood. That's concentrated malice." He bites into half the sandwich.
"That explains why some kids were sicker than others," House says thoughtfully. "A lot of kids would've gotten down to the wormwood part and went 'yuck', and didn't you say there was too much food coloring in them? That probably contributed to the nastiness factor. The ones that liked licorice, though, would've been sucking on that oleander all the way to the stick. The sticks the Winchester kid had were splintered, like he'd been chewing on them."
"And he had two of them," Eddie points out, popping the tab on his soda and making sure it's parked safely on the side farthest away from House. "Good thing I gave him that charcoal, huh?"
"The appendicitis was a blessing in disguise; otherwise his symptoms might not have been enough to get that stubborn jarhead father of his to bring him in. The fever and chills got his attention. Then the oleander kicked in and brought his fever down and started the arrhythmia."
House's hand strays toward the other half of the sandwich, and Marcase bats it away. "Mooch."
"Why do you two have to sit on the tables?" a passing nurse demands. "Why can't you sit on the benches like everybody else?"
"Because the view is so much better from up here!" House calls back. To Marcase, he adds, "I'd hate like hell to be one of those boys, with a dad like that."
Marcase remembers John Winchester's reaction when they'd talked about a possible thyroid problem, the big man holding his child so protectively... "Speak for yourself. He seemed like a decent guy to me."
"And besides," House calls over to the guy, who's settling down at one of the other tables, "it's a lot easier if I have to leave in a hurry!" He demonstrates by leaping up and bolting a half-dozen steps away with the other half of Eddie's sandwich. The other doctor bites into his trophy, curls his lip. "Too much mustard!"
Good thing House doesn't know he's got another sandwich in his bag. "House, you are such a punk."
"Yeah, well, I'll tell you something else, Eddie," House says as he steps through the door back into the hospital. "That Winchester may not be a bad father, but he needs to get his kids some decent clothes and not let them watch so many horror movies." The door swings closed behind him, and the other doctor resumes consuming what's left of his lunch.
Eddie shakes his head, thinking back to his own devastated childhood. Sometimes, life is a horror movie.