It started out as one of those days where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Apparently sometime during the night the power cut out just long enough to screw up the alarm clock. Greg and I didn't notice, of course, and ended up being forty-five minutes late to the hospital. He had a new patient: a five-year-old girl with a laundry list of strange symptoms. My own patients were coming out of the woodwork. We barely saw each other over the next two days. But stories, anecdotes and gossip travel through a hospital just like any other place. I found out what had happened from Cuddy.
It's called Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, which involves the exaggeration of illnesses or fabrication of illness by the primary caretaker, usually the mother. Basically, it's a rather wicked form of child abuse. The little girl and her mother had moved to New Jersey a week ago. She died thirty-six hours after being admitted. Turns she had been hospitalized nearly one hundred times during her short life. When confronted with the mountain of evidence that Greg and his team dug up, the endless hospitalizations, the myriad of supposed illnesses, the mother's insatiable need for attention, mom broke down and confessed. She had injected window cleaner into her daughter's IV tube that morning. Either the mother accidently injected too much or the girl's little body just couldn't take the abuse anymore. Not that it really mattered in the end. The girl was still dead.
Greg blew up and had to be restrained by all three members his team from attacking the mother. After the police came and hauled her away, Cuddy sent him home to cool off. Then she came to my office to give me fair warning.
I was buried in work and didn't get a chance to breath and look at the clock until way after dark. I finally got back to 221B at nine.
He was standing by the sink, staring out the window and slurping down a glass of bourbon.
"I heard about what happened," I said, hanging my suit jacket over the back of a chair.
He ignored me, finished off his drink and poured another.
"I'm sorry," I said.
The next drink was gone and he poured another.
"Do you want to talk about it, Greg?"
"No," he finally answered.
I walked over and put my hand and his shoulder. He twisted out of my grip and muttered, "Don't." Up close I could hear the slur in his voice. Evidently he had been standing there, staring at nothing and throwing back the bourbons for quite a while.
Quietly, I said, "You really should talk about this."
"About what?" He looked at me for the first time since I stepped into the apartment. Flat, tired, bloodshot blue eyes stared back at me. "About how I failed a five-year-old? About how I let her mother kill her? Do you really want to hear all about that? I can yak about it all night if you want me to."
"You couldn't have known the mother was capable of that."
"I should have. The kid kept getting sicker whenever her mother was with her."
"You did what you could with what you had. Nobody is blaming you."
"Oh, when you put it that way it makes me feel so much better," he sneered. "I did everything I could to save that girl and the cause of it all was right in front of my face, literally. That conniving mother of hers was there every second, asking endless questions, pretending to be the concerned parent. The second I let my guard down and turn my back, she pulls out a fucking syringe..." Greg sighed heavily and closed his tired eyes. He turned and muttered, "I'm going to bed," and he did just that, even it was about five hours before his usual bedtime.
Obviously, he needed some breathing room and I was going to let him have some for the time being. It wasn't often that Greg House expressed such regret at losing a patient. He was probably as flustered about showing his emotions as I was. Anyway, there wasn't anything I could do for him except honor his wishes. Leave him alone, let him collect his thoughts, give him a shoulder to cry on if he wants one. Give him all the time he needs to work it out.
I made myself dinner from leftover spaghetti, stayed in the living room, and watched various reruns until I was so tired that my eyelids felt like sandpaper scraping across my corneas.
The bedside lamp was still on, casting a faint golden glow over the bed. Greg had his arm thrown over his eyes and gave no sign that he'd heard me come in. I took off my clothes and threw them in the laundry basket, then pulled out some pajama bottoms and a tee-shirt. I pulled them on, turned around to go to the lamp and turn off, and found Greg wide awake, staring at me.
Neither of us said anything. I just stood at the end looking back at him. His emotions were threatening to carry him away, to drown him, and he didn't know what to do with himself. He needed something to anchor him down, something to hold on to. So he was looking to me. He wanted something else from me as well, but he wasn't sure what it was. If I did or said the wrong thing, I would never hear the end of it. If I did the right thing, he would be eternally grateful. Just like always I wanted to do the right thing for him. So I blindly took the plunge.
"You should be asleep," I said pointedly, pretending everything was normal and doing a pretty good job considering the circumstances.
"I was waiting for you," Greg replied.
"Why didn't you say anything? I would have come to bed earlier."
"Because I didn't."
Typical Greg House answer. But I wasn't expecting it this time around. I was expecting some with a little more sincerity and a little less sarcasm. He was upset at losing an innocent young patient. Maybe I expected too much out of him. Maybe he was testing me again. Maybe he was just being himself. Either way I swallowed my disappointment and moved to switch off the lamp.
"Leave it on," he ordered.
I puzzled at that. "Why?"
"Because I want to look at you."
"Why don't you shut the fuck up and find out?" His glare hardened into a sheet of ice.
I shut up and climbed into bed.
We lay side by side, staring at the ceiling. Only the sounds of passing cars broke the heavy silence that hung over the room like a thick fog. I heard the faint sound of the pillowcase rasping against his skin. He was looking at me.
I turned and met his gaze, which had melted back into sadness. Without taking my eyes off him I propped up on my elbow.
"You ready to talk about it?" I asked.
He shook his head. He was done talking. His next words were hours away.
"Just let me know when you're ready. I'll listen," I informed him. That earned me a low, humorless chuckle. "Even if someone is crazy enough to blame you, Greg, I never will. You hear me? I never will."
A quick nod of his head, then he grabbed my hand and pressed it against his cheek, the scruffy beard whispering against my palm. This was what he wanted, something simple and straightforward. He wanted my comfort but he wanted it on his terms. The kitchen wasn't the right place for it.
I pulled him to me and he curled up against my chest. His breath hitched.
"You're going to be okay," I said. It wasn't a question.