A/N: Thanks to betas Niicelaady and Timbereads, who sent me comments and notes from France, where she's on sabbatical with her parents. And thanks to AThousandSmiles and Kate J. for encouragement. This story is a work in progress and more will be forthcoming next week. I dedicate this one to my friend Sharp2799.
The first thing you hear is Patsy Cline.
The smell of baking bread fills the air and you sniff, picturing a perfect loaf, round with a browned crust, the kind Mom used to make when you were a boy.
Mom used to call you in from outside on chilled, rainy days when the asswipe otherwise known as "Dad" was stationed in the Pacific Northwest. Her voice lingers in your memory, but the name she called is just beyond your grasp. Your name.
You try opening your eyes, but your lids are stitched together like a surgeon's signature. That's what it feels like, anyway. You turn toward the music and pain sears your skull at the movement. A groan escapes your cracked, dry lips.
I fall to pieces.
The sweet heartbreak of Patsy's voice holds a note and then moves on.
Strumming an imaginary guitar along with the song, your fingertips brush against cool cotton sheets. Melody finds the holes in your fabric, elicits feelings.
Nothing good ever comes of this.
It's a random thought, a stray. It's a non sequitur. You hate it when you get this way.
You're emotion in motion.
Nothing makes sense as The Stones launch into Wild Horses. You don't want it to. Keith Richards' guitar riffs defy analysis.
Your mind wanders.
Music scratches an itch. It touches down somewhere deeper than the intellect and restores a part of you no one knows. It ignites old passions and lights the fire under possibility. And then it returns like a wave to cool you down to blue.
Words are not enough. There is so much that is unsayable. This you know, despite your propensity for bluster.
It's a man's voice. The particular timbre clues you in: he's black. Then again, a lot of honkies sound like brothers. The band Chicago featured the soulful vocals of Terry Kath, who was white as the sheets worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Cognition hurts, but not as much as the man's voice, raised and directed into your eardrum.
"Can you open your eyes?"
"I'm not deaf," you rasp, eyes still shut. "But you're definitely dumb. By which I mean you're an idiot. Clearly you can talk. Unfortunately."
It wasn't a bad question, but you're feeling ornery and incompliant.
Light footsteps, and then a soft, feminine tone.
"Is he going to be all right?"
"You kidding?" It's Snoop Dogg again. "His head bounced off the pavement. Could be awhile."
"He's acting like an ass. Seems like a good sign," the soothing voice continues reasonably.
A slim warm hand closes around yours. On their own, it seems, your fingers flex and respond. It feels right, somehow, your hand in hers, whoever the hell she is.
Curiosity wins and your lids slowly rise. At first, there's too much light, and they close, but you try, try again.
She's the first thing you see. A slender woman dressed in a blue-green sweater and low-rise trousers, chestnut hair long and loose around an arrestingly beautiful face. She's young, relatively. No more than thirty. The expression she wears is affection with a dash of compassion and an excess of worry.
The way she clutches your paw, you'd think she was your wife. You'd think you were all she had to hold onto in a world where pain and loneliness and fear prevailed.
But you've never seen her before in your life.
More's the pity.
"Handle with care," you say, snatching your hand from hers. "I've got delicate metacarpals."
Standing behind her, wearing a white lab coat and dress clothes, is a striking Negro with a smug, skeptical face. Arms folded across his chest, he wears his superiority like a crown, unable to disguise his irritation at the way she hovers by your side.
Shit flies out of your mouth like trash from a hole in a garbage bag. It's a gag reflex:
"Didn't know a doctor's coat was the new hip hop fashion accessory."
It's not vintage jackassery, but for a guy who just awoke from a major concussion, you could do worse.
The doctor looks over at the woman with raised brows. "I think he's going to be fine."
You want to look around the room, but when you try to turn your head, the pain begs to differ.
"Lay still," she cautions you, this benevolent beauty who may or may not be your wife. She places a cool palm on your brow. At her touch, you want her in your bed. You want to wrap yourself around her. "You've been in an … accident. Your head touched down pretty hard."
"Who made the bread?" A steaming loaf wrapped in what appears to be a damp cloth rests on a bedside table.
"Your mom," she replies with a gentle smile. "She thought the smell of it might help to rouse you."
"Are they here?" Your eyes dart around the room, hoping the God you've forsaken is merciful.
"Not anymore. They left a little while ago. They came when they heard."
You tolerate her hand as it moves to stroke the side of your face, itchy from unshaven stubble. Truth be told, you welcome the human contact. It feels like you've been underground, wandering through dank catacombs, in shadows and fog. You're off your game and then some.
"Because you called them," you guess.
Never mind that she could be anyone, there's something familiar about her.
"Yes … they did. Your mom wanted to stay …"
"But my dad …" You know what's coming.
"He reasoned that there was nothing they could do to help you out of a coma."
"This is so General Hospital. A coma?"
You say it with an incredulous smile while it dawns on you: There's the little problem of remembering your name, remembering these people who obviously know you. Amnesia would make it a bona fide soap opera storyline.
"A serious concussion is what I'd say." Snoop steps forward with index finger raised. "Follow my finger," he commands. You cross your eyes at him because he's such an arrogant ass, and then comply.
"What's your name?" he asks, pulling a small light from his lab coat pocket and checking your pupils for reaction.
"What's yours?" you retort, reflexively.
Snoop and the 'wife' exchange a meaningful glance. Before you can sneak a look at the hospital ID bracelet on your wrist, she places her hand on top of yours.
"Who am I?" she questions quietly, sitting on the edge of the bed.
Her voice could be bottled into a healing salve. From the crown of her head to her high-heeled ankle boots, she could be a model, if models had subtext.
"If you don't know, then maybe you should be admitted. Meanwhile, let's start with all the people you're not. Your breasts are real, so that rules out Carmen Electra. You're skinny as an adolescent boy, but not as bony as Angelina Jolie, so we can check her off, too. Your complexion is a shade shy of Beyonce. It's a real whodunit."
She ignores the fun at her expense as if it's an everyday occurrence. "Do you know what day it is?"
"Nope." It hurts to move your head, but you track the room with your eyes, noting the sliding glass doors and an IV drip and, most importantly, a television set. A radio is placed near your bed, which explains the tinny Patsy Cline. Now it's Badfinger, "Day After Day." Paul McCartney should have given them the finger instead of a leg up on the Apple label. Outside the room, nurses and doctors scurry about holding clipboards and occasionally sipping from paper cups of coffee. "From the medical personnel on staff, it's a week day. Hand me that remote."
She hesitates, sharing a glance with the doctor, and then hands you the device with a shrug. General Hospital's theme fills the room as you find the right network.
Just as the Baldwin formerly known as "Scotty" turns toward the window to tell his new girlfriend about his dead wife,
Snoop grabs the remote from your hand, switching off your favorite show.
"What's your name?" he demands again, peeved.
Get off of my cloud, you think, stabbing him with a glare.
The question is a curve ball. Your name is the ring around Saturn, the meaning that hovers above a Wallace Stevens poem. It's just out of bounds.
"First the remote," you barter, buying time. Scratching your head, your fingers touch gauze. An itch has settled under the bandages.
Blacky rolls his eyes. It must be his go-to move.
As you reach for the device, her face hovers like an angel above you. You lift your head off the pillow and pass out from the pain.
You don't see it coming.
Not the Dodge Dart in the hospital parking lot bearing down on you or the boy behind the wheel as he loses control of the vehicle, or the girl in the passenger seat, covered in blood.
You and House, after lunch at Olive's on Witherspoon, cross the lot. It's a slow day. He's between cases and you're on call. Each of you holds a gigantic lollypop, the kind with swirls, and you taste his, looking up at him while he tells you a joke leftover from his grandfather.
"What's the Dutch word for bra?" He asks, smiling down at you as he snatches his lollypop back.
"I don't know, but I'm pretty sure you'd have to hawk up some phlegm to pronounce it," you say.
"Holdsemfromfloppin." He runs the words together in a staccato stream.
A fit of giggles overtakes you.
You drank too much coke at the deli, and then you ate that cream cheese Danish, dipping your finger in the center of the pastry and extending it to House, who sucked it off suggestively. You imagine your toes in his mouth as his tongue swirls around them, and a rush of heat descends between your legs.
He looks at his watch, grabbing your hand and dragging it under the table until you feel beneath your fingers his hardness expand. With his other hand, he motions for the check, pointing at you.
"It's on her," he says to the waitress while the blood creeps up your face. His voice goes low as he strokes the inside of your thigh. "You up for this?"
The memory of the kiss falls over you like new skin.
"In half an hour, I'm covering for Cuddy at the clinic. The carnival starts tonight. Let's go. They have a Monster Trucks ride. I'll buy you a corn dog. You can have me for dessert."
"You're giving in after only eight dates? You're a pushover," he jokes. "With Chase you fucked first and floundered later."
"Take it or leave it."
No one knows about the two of you.
The first time it happens, you're still a blonde, your pink scrubs flecked with red from a shift in the ER.
It's a hardly a date at all, just drinks and sandwiches, House having polished off his standard pickup line:
"I drink, you drink. We could do it at the same time, same table. Do you eat? We could do that too."
And so it starts.
He takes you to see Knocked Up, and you wonder if he wants children, but keep the question to yourself. The thought of him holding a baby turns you to jelly. Afterwards, you climb on the back of his Repsol and motor off into the night, leaving the city and speeding along country roads under the stars. Your arms circle his waist and neither of you say much as between your legs the engine thrums.
At the hospital it's back to the way it used to be. It's weird in that way that works for him. He likes you … and you've never stopped liking him. You've taken a position in the Immunology department, working the cases with kids. He tracks you down whenever the department head is in the clinic. When he approaches you from behind, peering over your shoulder at paperwork or gels your nipples stand on end and you can almost feel his hand, moving your shirt up and his fingers, brushing the soft, sensitive skin of your belly.
Otherwise, things are as ever. House toys with his team, deflects Cuddy with the skill of a bullfighter waving away an angry beast, and baits Wilson and Amber.
Side by side on his leather couch, you sit racing each other with Rubik's cubes. The instant he finishes, he turns to you, stilling your hands on the game and staring at your naked throat. You stare back as his faces closes in. He stops when his forehead touches yours to catch his breath.
You take it slow.
You don't see it coming, the car lurching toward you as you throw back your head and laugh at his joke. It's lame, like him. You love it.
But you feel what happens next as House's cane clatters and he throws himself onto the cement, dragging you with him. His body absorbs your fall.
The crack of his head against pavement is lost in the grumbling of the engine and the smell of exhaust. The car misses the two of you by an inch.
When you stop shaking enough to sit, you see the blood, and how still and pale he is.
By then, someone is calling for help.
When nothing can be done, they discharge you.
Clothes have been brought, and you dress in a pair of faded blue jeans and a soft blue button-down shirt. Lacing up some tasty Nike sneakers, you grab your cane, finishing the ensemble with a black pea coat.
You refuse a wheelchair. In truth, you'd love one, but they insist on the chair so strenuously, you just have to fuck with them.
Before you go, they insist on a grand tour. Ironic, isn't it? You've worked there, lived there mostly, but Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital is like a movie set to you.
An oncologist does the honors.
"Gregory House." You read the name on the office door, noting that you're the head of the Department of Diagnostic Medicine.
"That's what's on your birth certificate. You also answer to arrogant ass," says the man at your side. He's a handsome, slender man with a sensitive, boyish face and eyes like melted chocolate.
His name is James Wilson and if he's to be believed, he heads up the hospital's oncology department.
Then again, Wilson might be delusional. Since you 'met' him yesterday, he has hardly left your side, filling the awkward silences with bits and pieces of your life, things that you're not sure you want to know.
A blank slate has an upside. There is peace in existing primarily in the present, without the fuss of personal and professional relationships. To operate on pure instinct and the knowledge accumulated as a doctor isn't a bad gig. Not having to be 'yourself,' with whatever baggage being 'you' entails, is an added perk.
Wilson taps you on the shoulder.
He's standing too close and you aim your cane at his chest and push him away.
The movie Stuck on You comes to mind. That, and the lyrics to "Me and My Shadow." Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. soulfully singing to each other like a couple of homos.
Like the wallpaper sticks to the wall; Like the seashore clings to the sea; Like you'll never get rid of your shadow; You'll never get rid of me ...
"Want to sleep over tonight?" The question is out of left field. His buttons are clearly yours for the pushing and you suppress the shit-eating grin that lies behind the inquiry.
Wilson's face brightens and a boyish enthusiasm colors his response. "Only if I get dibs on the remote. There's a Buffy marathon on tonight. Should I plan on cooking? You've always liked my macadamia nut pancakes…"
His voice trails off as he sees your tight smile. His face recomposes itself.
"I had you," you say, waggling a finger in his face.
"It's … uncanny. You've lost your memory and you're still a jerk."
You make a big deal out of an exaggerated shrug.
"So … what is the nature of our relationship again?" Asking is like throwing him a bone.
"To put it in terms you can understand, I'm Chong to your Cheech. Or maybe Cheech to your Chong. You get the idea."
You hand goes to your chin as you consider.
"So … we smoke fat ones on the balcony? You score me dime bags?"
"No … but when it comes to Vicodin, I'm your guy."
You push open the door to your office and Wilson follows at your heels like the younger of the Hardy Boys.
"I … made you something," Wilson ventures. He produces a manila envelope, spreading its contents out on the desk.
Your leg hurts more than your head, at this point, and you dry-swallow a couple of Vicodin. The vial of pills feels at home in your hand.
"I've … made a diagram of the people in your life. As you can see, there aren't many," Wilson says, pointing out a handful of names and descriptions scribbled on the paper. Photos of each person accompany the text.
"I can navigate my own life." For emphasis, you thump your cane a few times.
"No, you can't. Really. Trust me on this. I know you better than anyone." Wilson points to the top of the page. A man and a woman sit together on a park bench, tight smiles on their faces.
"Yeah, yeah. Blythe and John. My parents. I remember them."
"Okay. What about her?"
The woman is striking and fun shines from her intelligent eyes. It's one of those photo booth strip of shots, and in each frame, your arm is around her shoulders as you clown for the camera.
You shake your head, no.
"That's Stacy. She was the love of your life." It seems to give Wilson a perverse pleasure to act as tour guide in your own past.
"Was? That's pessimistic. Are you familiar with the phrase, 'the best is yet to come'?"
"Yes. But I didn't know you were."
You finger touches down on the next image. There's something familiar about her.
The woman in the photograph looks down into a microscope. She wears a lab coat and her long hair is pulled back with a tortoise shell comb. Perched on her nose are reading glasses. Her face is obscured. Still, there's something about her. You know you've seen her before.
Wilson lets a bunch of air out in a whoosh. "That's Dr. Cameron. It was the best picture I could find. You …" his voice trails off. "You used to … like her, like her, but I'm not sure if you still do. You're … complicated."
"And you're pathetic. You always this annoying?"
Wilson offers a tight smile. "Comes with the territory."
"Of being my only friend," you finish his thought for him. That's what friends are for.
"Once upon a time, she …"
You cut him off.
"I don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Pretty sure that as a world renown diagnostician – your words, not mine – I can deduce the ins and outs of my personal life all by my lonesome." You level him with a look. "You may know more about me than I do right now, but don't forget. It's still my life to fuck up as I see fit."
There's an awkward silence. Your hands curl around an oversized ball, and you toss it at the glass, catching it as it bounces back.
"House. You know you haven't even asked." Wilson has been waiting for this.
"Don't you want to know what happened? How you hit your head?"
You have theories about it, and in a way, you want details, broad strokes, the 'who, what, where, when, and why.' Just … not quite yet. Plus the fact that it's eating away at Wilson offers free amusement.
It works for you.
"Nope. Not interested."
Wilson clears his throat. "It is medically relevant. You … usually are interested if it's medically relevant."
"But is it medically interesting? Because if, due to, oh pick the circumstances, my head collided with concrete, that kind of says it all, don't you think?"
"What's interesting is why …"
You interrupt Wilson, using your Bugs Bunny voice. "What's really, really interesting, is why you so badly want to tell me."
"Sooner or later, you'll find out."
"Okay … later, then. I just want to go home, wherever that is." Suddenly, you're tired.
On the way out, there is one more encounter. This time, it's with your boss whom you recognize from Wilson's chart. As the elevator doors open on the main floor and you limp with Wilson past the nurses' station, she clacks over on a pair of Jimmy Choos.
Turning to Wilson, she says, "I go to one lousy endocrinology conference and this is what I come back to?"
"I'm not paid to baby sit. What he did was, well, it was heroic," Wilson protests.
"And completely out of character. Did Foreman check for neurological phenomena that might have caused him to act chivalrous?"
"He did at CT scan, and MRI – you name it, he ran it. All clean. Maybe he's human after all."
"Hello," you say, and wave at the two of them. "Standing right here."
"You really don't remember me?" she asks, narrowing her eyes at you. "This isn't some elaborate game you've concocted to piss me off and keep yourself amused?"
"Nope," you retort. "But you seem pissed, and I'm amused, so as far as I'm concerned, that's a consolation prize."
Carefully, she tries on a smile as she sticks her hand out like an activities director for a cruise ship.
"Dr. House. I'm Lisa Cuddy. I'm the dean of medicine. My job is to make sure you do your job. Your job is to do whatever the hell I say."
Forty has come and gone for the strong-featured woman with the exhibitionist nature. Her breasts are corseted by a scalloped lace pushup in black and the perky pair peeks from a snug-fitting wool blazer. A crepe skirt hugs her hips and ass. No plastic surgery, but she gets facials, you observe. Botox injections are not far behind. Studying her shape, still trim for her age, you deduce yoga.
"Had you pegged for a high-class call girl," you say, "if only those two things were mutually exclusive."
Her eyes widen and her jaw drops and she turns from you to Wilson.
"Scary stuff," Wilson editorializes.
Oh, for crying out loud.
You size her up. "I'd say you missed the baby train. No woman's breasts are that perky after they've had a bun in the proverbial oven. Don't worry. There was a woman in … oh, somewhere … that gave birth at 65. Wide hips. Anyway. I'm late. Today is the first day of the rest of my life." You smile at her and walk as fast as you can toward the parking lot.
Wilson's footsteps are audible as he hurries to catch up.
In front of you, parked in the handicapped spot, is a thing of beauty. This crotch rocket, courtesy of Honda, is built for the kind of speed that some might consider criminal. Circling the motorcycle, you trail your fingers over the saddle, and place your hands on the throttle.
"She's yours," Wilson says, shoving his hands into the pockets of his lab coat.
"Yup. The cane holder clued me in, along with its parking spot." You look at him. "I have a head injury. I'm not a moron."
"Why can't both be true?"
This earns the oncologist a smile.
You leave him with that as you climb on your ride, revving it up and pealing out of the parking lot. You use his directions to find your home.