Stress, that ancient and very rational response to real and immediate danger that morphed into a chronic condition and Everyman's affliction in the mid-20th century, is widely believed to be caused by excessive demands on the human body and/or mind. It is rarely attributed to a lack of engrossing activity. Yet to a certain kind of person, boredom can be every bit as stressful as having too much to do. For some, over-stimulation might even be relaxing. A victim of boredom-related stress might not recognize it as the source of his problem.
Certainly, stress was not on the mind of Gregory House, MD, PhD, as he loaded an oversized red-and-gray tennis ball onto a makeshift slingshot—a strip of TheraBand that a gullible physical therapist had given him in the innocent belief that it would be used to reinvigorate the atrophied muscles of his right thigh—and took aim. What he was thinking, as he zeroed in on the crudely sketched outline of a female form as seen from behind, drawn in red and black on a portable whiteboard, was that if his boss walked through the door at that moment, he would turn his weapon on her instead. He had long ago determined that she was the source of most if not all of his problems, and recent events had added fresh evidence to the case he had spent almost a decade compiling against her.
Sadly, he had already released the ball when Dr. Lisa Cuddy, Dean of Medicine and Adminstrator of Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, did enter his office. She arrived just in time to see the it hit the caricature's outsized buttocks, bounce to the floor, and roll back towards House. It veered off-course at the last moment, but House scooped it up with the handle of a garishly decorated cane, popped it into the air, and caught it just before it bounced off Cuddy's head.
"Pretty slick," he bragged. "Of course, with a target like that you'd have to be a blind one-armed granny with the DTs not to hit it."
Years of dealing with House in just this mood had taught Cuddy that it was useless to ignore the bad behavior in the hope that it would go away. But she gave it another try just in case.
"You missed Employee Appreciation Day," she said pleasantly.
"I can't honestly say I missed it at all," House assured her. "And anyway, I was busy then, cleaning up after another one of your 'Let's play doctor' sessions."
He could almost see a thought bubble with the words "Don't take the bait" form above Cuddy's head. But he had hit a tender spot. Cuddy hesitated for less than an eyeblink before swallowing the worm, hook and all.
"He needed a cardiologist's care, not an endocrinologist, and not, I repeat, NOT interference by a nephrologist-slash-infectious disease specialist," Cuddy said, with a little too much heat. "You were not invited to the party."
"Good thing I gate-crashed, or the guy would be the main attraction at Amigone's Funeral Home right now, brand-new pacemaker and all."
"Like you cared," Cuddy snorted. "You just wanted a fresh body to try your new toy on."
"A 150,000 wide-screen high-definition surgical imaging monitor is not a toy," House chided.
"Spare me. You were playing around, throwing out one weird diagnosis after another, scaring his family half to death, and you stumbled across an actual disease. Good for you—but you don't get points for lucky breaks. Or exemptions from mandatory workplace enhancement activities."
"How about this: You relax your sphincter about when and how I use the equipment around here, and I'll take a swing at the feel-good stuff."
"You'll do the feel-good stuff anyway, or it's an extra two hours in the clinic for every day you're late. Starting today. And no assigning your team to do them for you." Cuddy looked around the suite, suddenly noticing that they were alone. "Where is your team?"
"At Krish's place, watching videos."
Cuddy did not take the news well. "What kind of videos? What are they supposed to be doing?"
"Looking for irregularities," House said airily. "Abnormalities, incipient conditions. Waldo," he added. In fact, he had swept up the piles of DVDs and VHS tapes that doctors from around the world had sent him in hopes of interesting him in their cases, piled them in a box, and handed it to Krishna Ramakrishnan, his new favorite fellow, with a solemn expression.
"Watch these," he intoned, "and tell me what you think. I want a full report from each of you."
Krish was too polite to point out that House had just emptied his In Box in full view of all three of them and the exercise was therefore suspect. "Is there anything in particular we should watch for?" he asked.
"You tell me," House said cryptically, and shooed them away.
Cuddy did not stifle an exasperated sigh. "Are you supposed to be in the clinic right now?"
"I put in my time this morning," House said quickly and, for once, truthfully.
"Then go home." The astonishment on House's face made her laugh. "I mean it. Take the afternoon off. Go home. There's nothing for you here right now, and if you're going to work off your boredom with childish tricks, I'd rather you did it at your apartment. Or Carolyn's place. Or wherever you live these days."
"Home is where I hang my cane," he said lazily, while moving smartly to pack his knapsack and leave before she could change her mind. Where was the DVD with the bootleg MP4 of Young Frankenstein he'd downloaded that morning? It had been right next to his monitor, and now it was gone. House realized he had scooped it into the box with the endoscopies, laparoscopies, CT scans, and fMRIs he'd given his fellows, and smiled. Dutiful, painfully earnest, and much too new to the Gregory House Experience to protest, they would no doubt watch every minute of Mel Brook's masterpiece with close attention, trying to discern the teaching purpose behind such phrases as "He would have to have an enormous schvanschtocker." Tomorrow's staff meeting was going to be great.
In homage to the film, House hobbled to the door in the manner of Igor (EYE-gor), his knapsack an ungainly bulge under his raincoat. Cuddy was instantly on alert.
"Is your leg bothering you?" she asked, worry sharpening her voice.
House rolled his eyes a la Marty Feldman and shifted the knapsack to his other shoulder. "What hump?" he asked, and hinched away, once again leaving his boss with one foot in sympathetic concern and the other in perplexed exasperation.
House got as far as the door to the next office when he slowed and halted. The office belonged to the eminent oncologist James Wilson, a friend who had seen him through some of the bleakest periods of his life. Now Wilson was facing a downturn in his own fortunes: early-stage Parkinson's Disease. House liked to keep an eye on Wilson, to judge for himself whether the current remission was holding or likely to turn to relapse, but according to the complicated and constantly shifting rules that governed their friendship, it was unthinkable to visit Wilson out of overt concern for his wellbeing.
So he poked his head in the door without knocking and, ignoring the distressed couple on the couch, announced, "The principal sent me home. Wanna play hookey?"
Wilson didn't look around. "Mom's gonna kill you this time for sure."
"So you're not gonna skip gym and smoke cigarettes behind the auditorium with me," House guessed. "You always were a puss—"
"—If you have any other questions, please don't ever hesitate to call me," Wilson told the couple, who were looking at House as if he were something they had almost stepped in. They thanked Wilson and filed out, carefully avoiding contact with the maniac in the doorway.
House watched them go. "Prostate?" he ventured.
"What makes you think that?"
"He's walking like you might run up behind him with a glove on one hand."
Wilson sighed. "Cuddy sent you home?"
"She feels guilty for not sharing her toys."
"She's worried that you're plotting revenge. So you have the afternoon off. Any plans, or are you just going home? Where is home, by the way?"
"Why is everyone so interested in my living arrangements all of a sudden?" House wondered. "I lived under a bridge for seven months once, and no one said a word."
"Which bridge?" asked Wilson.
"See what I mean?"
"I'm just trying, subtley and without giving offense, to find out if Carolyn has come to her senses yet."
"Now, why would I take offense at that?"
"It's so easy to offend someone as sensitive as you," Wilson explained. "So have you officially moved in? Did you give up your apartment?"
"Not in the sense of no longer paying rent on it, no."
"But you spend every night at Carolyn's," Wilson pointed out. "I deduced this from the sprinkling of dog hairs on your black t-shirt and the quality of the coffee in your travel mug, and also because you are almost in a good mood almost every morning. So why keep paying rent on a place you don't use?"
"A crib in town can come in handy," House said cryptically. "What if I save JLo's life, and she can only think of one way to thank me? Plus Carolyn won't let me hold my poker game at the farmhouse."
"I can't imagine why not."
"She has this rule about knowing people before you let them into your house for four hours of gambling and alcohol." House shrugged. "The cigar smell is an issue, too."
"What a bitch."
"She's got her good points," House admitted. "Last night, she made lasagna."
Wilson's phone rang. He picked up with one hand and held the other out at eye level.
"Yeah, I'll take the call," he said into the receiver. To House, he mouthed, "Steady as a rock."
"Yeah, but this is the hand I shoot with," House said loudly, causing his own hand to shake and jump. Wilson flapped his free hand vigorously at House.
"Go home, go...just go away," he hissed, then sat up straight. "Mrs. Wentworth! No, I'm sorry, I was talking to someone else—"
His work done, House moseyed out the door and headed for the exits, cutting through the clinic so the nurse on duty—a treacherous female named Brenda, one of Cuddy's spies—got a good look at him leaving three hours early.
In the parking lot he stopped for a moment to admire the motorcycle parked in the handicapped spot closest to the entrance. He never thought he'd own a bike like the Repsol, and he wouldn't, if its previous owner hadn't scraped all the paint off its right side and most of the skin off his right leg. The left side gleamed like new. The right side still looked like hell. Wilson found this distressing: "People will think that's how you hurt your leg!" But House preferred the misconception to the truth, which is that he was basically fucked by the fickle flying finger of fate—a blood clot had shut off circulation to the sartorius muscle in his thigh, and by the time he and the medical community managed to figure that out, most of the muscle had died. It was a stupid, senseless calamity all around, and it had taken years before House could think of it without being overcome by a rush of bitterness and anger that was all the fiercer for having no clear target.
Right now he was thinking about the bike. There was a piece of paper fluttering on the handlebars. Hedidn't really need to look at it—these notes all said the same thing—but sometimes the language was colorful enough to reward a close reading.
"I hope you are in the hospitel for somthing realy painfull, you jerk. To take a paking spot from a handicaped peerson when yoo obveously well enuff to rid a bike. YOU SUCK."
It was unsigned.
House slid his cane into the special holder he'd crafted for it and started the engine. He grinned. He couldn't help it. He rode the bike almost every day, but its throaty roar never failed to delight him. House revved the engine a couple of times in hopes that Cuddy could hear—probably not, her office faced into a courtyard on the other side of the building, but maybe someone would complain to her, and that was just as good—and took off out of the parking lot as if he were late for the motorized barstool races in Sturges.