Chase let the word echo through his mind, memorized the shape of it, the sharp edges that sliced their way through every emotion, the rough nuances that left its traces in every memory.
He has learned how to use it as a verb: he was orphaned when his father died. He can use it in a metaphor: the orphan diseases. He can turn it into a noun: he is an orphan.
He hasn't said the word out loud yet. Somehow saying it would make it real -- would mean that he really is alone.
"You're not alone, Robert." His aunt's voice came over the line with a slight delay, another reminder of the distance between where he had been, and where he is now -- what he is now. Aunt Liz has his mother's voice, and he woke from a dream with a shudder to hear her when she called early one Sunday. "You have family here," she said. "You should come home."
Chase sat in the dark in his bedroom and muttered an excuse about jet lag, and how hard it is to travel so far for just a short visit.
"Maybe you can come at Christmas," she said. "You can get time off then, right? We could all go to midnight mass. It'll be just like it used to be."
Chase didn't bother pointing out that it could never be like it was, that everything had changed. Maybe it was never that special in the first place, but he can conjure up the image in his mind of standing between his parents, singing carols in a voice that hadn't yet changed. His mother stood to his right, her hand resting loosely on his shoulder. His father to his left, staring up at the front of the church and singing in his strong baritone, slipping from English to Czech as they begin singing "Silent Night."
"Ticha noc, svata noc." Rowan looked at his son. "It sounds better his way," he whispered, and winked. Chase can remember glancing up at his mother, and seeing her smile at Rowan.
It's the last clear, happy memory he has of the three of them.
"We miss you." His aunt's voice brought him back to reality, to the way his life is now, sitting alone in the dark in his New Jersey apartment.
"I know," Chase said. He didn't say that he missed her too. He didn't want to lie, and he's not certain if he really does. Somewhere deep inside, he knows that he loves her. He can remember that his mother was always happy when Aunt Liz was there, the two of them sitting on the couch, their hands wrapped around delicate tea cups as they gossiped and laughed.
But then Dad left, and Aunt Liz moved away. And she could never understand that everything was going so bad, so fast. She never believed him when he called, and asked her for help.
"I can't come just now, Robert," she'd always said whenever he'd called. "I'm sure things aren't as bad as you think."
When Mom died, Aunt Liz tried to convince him to move to Adelaide.
"You have family there," she'd said.
Chase shook his head. "I have family here."
"Your father? He wasn't there for you when you needed him."
Chase didn't bother pointing out that she hadn't been there either.
Now he listened to her voice from the other side of the world as she tried again to tell him to come home.
"I'm not alone," he told her. "I've got friends."
After she hung up, Chase turned off the light and lay awake in the dark, telling himself that he wasn't lying to himself -- that he had friends and a reason to stay in Princeton. He told himself that he wasn't missing anything at home.
Instead, he misses what he can't have -- either there or in New Jersey.
"Hi Mom." He remembered the call Cameron answered one weekend. She'd held the cell phone to her ear and walked into another room. Chase waited on the couch. He didn't ask her about what he overheard, he doesn't ask why she told her mother she won't be home for her grandmother's birthday, or why she lied and said that doesn't have any time off coming up.
In the office two days later, Chase flips through a magazine, pretending to read the article, but all he can think about is Aunt Liz's call, Chase has told himself again and again that it doesn't matter -- that he's worked his way through emotions, that he's accepted the way things are now -- that he's moved on.
He knows that's a lie.
All it takes is the right word or two to set off the twist of sorrow in his throat, in his chest -- the feelings he thought he'd buried coming back again, the edges somehow grown sharper than he'd remembered.
"No, Dad, you don't understand." Chase took a drink of his coffee and tried to ignore Foreman as Foreman hunched over the phone at the corner of the room. "It isn't that I don't want to see Mom." Foreman turned his back to the rest of the room. House passed through, and paused long enough to stir more sugar into his coffee and get the gist of the conversation.
"It's complicated," Foreman said.
No it's not, Chase wanted to tell him. But he didn't. He wasn't sure if Foreman would ever understand how lucky he was, no more than he could convince Cameron to go home, to hug her mother, to kiss her grandmother.
Things could be worse. Chase shook his head and took another drink of his coffee. Someday, they'd understand that.
Foreman stared at the cards on the rack. He reached out and grabbed one. There was a flower on the front, a stylized iris in dark blue, and a Bible verse inside. "Her children arise, and call her blessed."
He didn't have to look to know it came from Proverbs. His father used to quote the passage to Mom on her birthday each year, and then coach him and Marcus each Mother's Day to repeat the words to her.
"Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all," Foreman whispered. He ran his finger along the edges of the card, then over the embossed figure of the flower.
He wondered if Mom could remember that Marcus is in prison, then wondered if it's better if she doesn't remember that -- if she's happier living at some point when Marcus was getting clean. Maybe she's living in a time when Marcus was still at home. Still safe.
Now nothing is safe. Not for her. She's living in a world she can't recognize, and even with his Dad around, Foreman knew she wouldn't be able to live on her own for much longer.
He sighed and reached into his pocket for his wallet. He took out a five dollar bill and headed to the front of the store. He waited in line behind two other men and a teenaged girl, each holding some version of a Mother's Day card in their hands.
Foreman told himself to be happy if Mom remembered it was Mother's Day at all. If she remembered who he was, that would be a bonus.
"You've got to focus on the good things," Dad told him the night before he and Mom left Princeton just a few weeks ago. "If you just think about what's wrong, you'll make yourself crazy."
"Dad, she didn't know who I was," Foreman said as they stood in the hallway just outside the hotel room. Mom was inside, just behind the closed door, unpacking her suitcase, confused about whether they'd just arrived for a visit or were getting ready to leave.
"Just for a few minutes," Dad insisted. "She remembered later. That's a good thing."
But with every visit, with every phone call, it was getting harder to find something to feel good about. And it wasn't just about Mom.
Dad looked older every time Foreman saw him. Sometimes it seemed like Rodney was caught up in some reverse version of the illness that was carrying Mom's mind further into the past, only this one was aging him faster and faster with each month, and each year. Caring full time for Mom was wearing him down, but Rodney refused to admit that.
"We'll be fine," Dad said.
Foreman shook his head. "No, you won't. You may be fine now, but six months from now? A year from now?"
"We'll deal with that day when it comes," Dad said. "I'm not going to steal away what she has now by putting her away just in case something happens some day."
"Whether you want to admit it or not, Dad, she's going to get worse. You need ... we all need to be ready for that."
Foreman had just leaned back against the wall. He was too tired to fight with Dad then, not after screwing up and killing a patient, after sitting up with her all night, after the paperwork, after House ... after Mom. He wasn't sure if he could take anything else.
Both men had stood quietly for a few moments. Foreman could hear something heavy moving inside the hotel room, and thought maybe he should go inside and check, but Dad didn't react, so he decided to trust his judgment that there wasn't anything to worry about -- at least for now.
"Does this mean that you'll be home more?" Dad finally asked, "that you'll actually come home long enough to help her?"
"Because it's important that you know what she's like now -- really know."
Foreman took a deep breath. He doesn't want to go. He doesn't want to see her like this. He doesn't want to hear his father beg him for help. He began to wish he'd taken Chase's advice and gone out for a drink.
Foreman used to wonder what is like for Chase, to be without both parents, but now he almost feels something like jealousy, though he wants to deny it.
Chase wasn't there when his father died. He never had to sit and watch the man grow older, grow weaker, grow further and further away from him. Foreman doesn't know exactly what happened to Chase's mother, but can guess that she was sick for just a few years. He can guess that it was tough, but not as long as the years -- maybe a decade or longer that stretches out in front of him and his father now as Mom drifts further and further away.
And Cameron, he shook his head, Cameron probably doesn't even know how good she's had it -- two parents who still look out for her, rather than depending on her. Sure, she had a few tough months with her husband, but that was nothing -- a sprint compared to what his mother his going through -- and his father -- and him.
Foreman looked up.
"She needs you," Dad said. "I need you. Are you going to be there for us?"
Foreman took a deep breath. He nodded. "Mother's Day is coming up," he said. "We can talk more then."
Dad smiled. "She'll like that. We'll see you then."
Cameron held the phone close and lowered her voice. She leaned to the right to see Chase still sitting on the couch, reading a magazine. He didn't seem to be paying any attention to her, but she wasn't quite sure.
"It's not that I don't want to come, Mom," she said, "it's just that things are busy right now."
"I know, honey, but I was hoping that you could get away for just a few days. It'd mean a lot to Grandma."
Cameron sat back in the kitchen chair. Two years ago -- maybe even last year -- she would have gone. She would have had her flight booked before she even got off the phone.
But this year is different.
"Grandma wanted to introduce you to some of her friends." Cameron heard song birds on the other side of the line, and knew Mom was sitting outside on the deck near the bird feeder. "She's very proud of you," Mom said.
Cameron nodded. She'd always been the one who did everything Grandma wanted -- everything her parents wanted. She was the good girl, while Jamie was the disappointment.
"Why can't you be more like your sister?" Mom used to ask whenever Jamie came in late, or handed over another bad report card.
"It's only one lousy C," her sister would say. "Don't worry."
But Mom did, and Cameron would see her shake her head and reach for the aspirin after every fight. She'd make her mother's favorite tea and bring it to her.
"At least I don't have to worry about you, Allison," Mom would say, and smile.
Cameron smiled a little to think that if Jamie had been in Foreman's family, she would have been the golden child -- the perfect one -- the one everyone else should look up to. It would have been so much easier growing up without that pressure to be the best, she thought, then reminded herself that Foreman had eventually pressured himself even more than her parents ever had.
She heard a footstep and looked up to see Chase standing at the doorway, looking down at her. He nodded toward the door.
"Want me to come back later?"
Mom heard him over the connection. "You've got company?" she asked. "I can call back."
"No, wait, Mom, it's ... it's just someone from work." Cameron nodded to Chase. "He was just leaving."
She looked up at Chase and thought she saw a flash of disappointment on his face, but then he smiled and turned toward the door.
"Are you sure?" Mom asked, and Cameron heard the door close behind Chase.
Cameron wondered if her mother would still be proud of her if she knew about Chase. She'd been worried when Cameron married Brad, but still pleased with her daughter's decision.
"This is a good thing you're doing," Mom had said the night before the wedding. "It's important that we help others."
Cameron still believed that when she came to Princeton. She believed it when she met House. Now ... now she still thinks she can help people, but sometimes helping someone means you have to hurt them. Sometimes it means that you dig up every secret they ever had, and lay it out in front of them.
Sometimes, helping someone means drawing poison into a needle, injecting it into an IV port, and sitting with them as they die.
Mom and Dad wouldn't understand that. She still isn't sure if she does.
"Your father and I were talking about coming for a visit there sometime," he mother said, and Cameron was surprised to find that her eyes were wet. She blinked and wiped them dry.
"That might not be such a good idea," Cameron said.
Mom laughed. "What's the matter, aren't you proud of us? Are you afraid we'll embarrass you?"
"It's not that that," Cameron said.
She can't bring herself to tell Mom that she's afraid that she'll only disappoint them -- that every image they've ever had of her would be shattered when they see who she is now. She doesn't think they'd be proud of her. She's not even sure if they'd like the person she's become.
And if they came ... Cameron sighed. She could just hear House now, pushing at them and at her, bringing up her every flaw, laying out the story of her and Chase just to see how they'd react -- how she'd react.
For a moment she thought that Chase was lucky to not have to answer to anyone's expectations, then realized that moment of jealousy was just another sign of how much she's changed, and how sad her parents would be if they found out.
"Are you sure you can't make it home?" Mom asked again. "We can always have the birthday party a few days later."
Cameron looked up at the calendar on the wall. Maybe if she went now to see them, they'd forget about visiting Princeton. Maybe at home she could pretend to be the person she once was, the one they're all so proud of. Maybe, for a few days, she can even convince herself that she is still that person.
"I'll see what I can do," she promised. "I'll see you soon."
"Good." Mom sounded happy, and Cameron tried to be happy too. "I love you."
Cameron nodded, though she knew no one could see her now. "I love you too."