On Easter Monday, Wilson delivered a death sentence to Alfred Clement, a retired teacher who was suffering the secular retribution of a lifelong two-pack-a-day habit. The test results only confirmed what they'd both feared since the first examination, but Wilson still hated to see the last flicker of hope fade from Mr. Clement's eyes.
"I guess I knew you were going to say that," he said, his voice too loud in the quiet office. "I want to thank you, Dr. Wilson. No one could have done more than you. It's just God's will."
Wilson wanted nothing to do with a god that willed stage-three lung cancer on a 78-year-old great-grandfather. He hadn't understood it as a child, listening to the rabbi's cryptic explanations for the inexplicable, and he understood it even less now. He had never been good at hiding his emotions, however, and Mr. Clement smiled kindly at him.
"I've had a good life," he said. "A wonderful family I loved and who loved me back, a chance to make a difference in my career. I've been blessed with more years than most men have the right to expect, so if it's time to go, then I'll be ready." He grinned, and Wilson could see the shadow of a mischievous boy in the softening planes of his face. "I don't quite know if I'll be going to a better place, but I expect it will be interesting."
Wilson could only smile back. "If you're there, it's bound to be a better place." He touched Mr. Clement on the shoulder and then stood and returned to his desk, giving him space to collect himself.
But Mr. Clement leaned forward. "I know you're a man of science, Dr. Wilson, but I'd appreciate it if you'd pray with me a moment. It would be a comfort."
Wilson nodded. It wasn't an unusual request. He often arranged an appointment with the hospital chaplain for his patients after he broke the news of a terminal diagnosis. The most important part of his job now was making his patient comfortable in whatever way he needed. Wilson had taken away his hope. All he could do now was support him in his faith. He was relieved, though, when Mr. Clement smiled and closed his eyes, his lips moving in silent prayer. Wilson had never been comfortable expressing aloud a faith he neither followed nor felt.
He bowed his head and clasped his hands together, trying to cast positive thoughts into the universe. But his suspicion that there was no God was only strengthened when he noticed movement on the balcony in his peripheral vision. He turned his head slightly to confirm what he already feared. House was hopping over the dividing wall, intent on interrupting yet another of Wilson's consults.
Wilson gestured for House to back off and deliberately looked away, bowing his head lower in the vain hope that House would get the hint. To his surprise, when he glanced sideways again, House was disappearing back into his office. His relief was short-lived, however, when House re-emerged holding his iPod dock. He straightened up, alarmed, and shook his head violently, but House just smiled and turned on the iPod.
The music was muffled by the glass door, but it was still loud enough to be clearly audible. Wilson recognized the voice first and wondered what had sparked House's sudden interest in Dionne Warwick. Then House loudly sang, "I say a little prayer for you," and Wilson made the connection.
Wilson glanced at Mr. Clement, but his eyes were still closed. For once Wilson was glad of the near deafness that occasionally turned their appointments into an Abbott and Costello routine. He looked at the balcony door and thought about pulling the blinds to dampen the sound further, but the movement would disturb Mr. Clement more than the noise, so he closed his eyes and tried not to listen to the song.
Mr. Clement sighed heavily and murmured, "Amen" just as the song changed to a Madonna hit that under other circumstances would have brought back fond memories of Wilson's clubbing days in Montreal. But it was hard to feel nostalgic when his supposed best friend had apparently created a playlist of songs containing the word "prayer" just to ridicule one of his patients. Wilson could forgive House's spontaneous acts of insanity, but this kind of premeditated contempt infuriated him.
He managed to tamp back his anger long enough to lead Mr. Clement to the door and bid him farewell, but as soon as he was safely away, Wilson crossed the room and slammed the sliding door open. He stalked across the balcony, hopped over the wall, and pulled the iPod from its dock, breaking the connection.
"I was listening to that," House protested, trying to reclaim the iPod from Wilson.
Wilson dropped the player in his pocket, though he was tempted to drop it over the side of the balcony. "Not any more, you're not," he retorted. "And you weren't listening; you were mocking my patient."
"That's not true," House said, pretending to pout. "That touching display of faith moved me to song."
"Next time keep your movements to yourself," Wilson snapped. "You can have it back after I've finished my appointments for the day."
"Why? Are you planning on praying with all your patients today? Have you abandoned medicine and taken up faith healing?"
"If my patients ask me to pray with them, I'm not going to refuse."
"You're a hypocrite," House said. "You don't believe in a divine being any more than I do, but you pretend you do to make yourself more socially acceptable." House was an evangelical atheist, as zealous in his insistence that there was no higher power as a Pentecostal preacher holding sway over a revival meeting. But his blind spot when it came to religion was as vast as the universe.
"What I believe isn't important," Wilson snapped. "If prayer is what they need to help them survive cancer or come to terms with dying, then I'm not going to take that away, and I'm not going to undermine their beliefs. You know damn well that state of mind is an important part of healing. You just don't like it, because then you'd have to share the credit."
"Whatever you say." House curled his lip dismissively. "Better get back to the tent before the next crowd gathers. I'd limp up the aisle and throw away my cane to help the cause, but unfortunately state of mind can't regenerate nerves and replace missing muscle."
At that, all the anger washed away and Wilson sagged, as if anger had been the only thing keeping him upright. "Here," he said, handing back the iPod. "My next patient is a big Clay Aiken fan. See what you can find for her."
Fortunately, he'd had good news to share with the 12-year-old Clay Aiken fan, but later that afternoon he'd stood in the corner of a palliative care room and watched as Mary Nicholls slipped away, surrounded by friends and family. It was a good death, as deaths from cancer went, relatively pain-free and peaceful, but the comfort of that only came in the remembering. The family had asked him to join them in the hospital chapel and he couldn't bring himself to refuse. He sat in the back pew long after they filed away, too tired to return to his office, where the forms making her death official awaited his completion.
Wilson had never considered himself a religious man. His family observed the holy days and holidays, and at 13 he'd recited the blessings and read from the Torah to become a man, but Judaism had always been more about who he was than what he believed.
His father's father had been a Methodist and they had gone to Christmas Eve services with him until his death. Wilson had loved the carols and the stories, and he'd been captivated by the ritual of communion, even though – or because – he couldn't participate. As he grew older he'd learned about other religions and attended other services, but the more he'd understood, the less he'd believed in any specific sense of the divine.
Still, if he couldn't find enlightenment, he might at least find some peace. The silence in the chapel was oppressive, though, and he tensed when the chapel door opened, certain that anyone who walked in could tell he didn't belong. Then he tensed for a different reason, any hope of peace gone.
Wilson didn't need to hear the light tap of a cane to know that it was House who had opened the chapel door. The air changed when House entered a room. Wilson suspected it was the same phenomenon that caused small forest creatures to flee from danger.
He bowed his head again, because he knew it would annoy House, though he had no words for any divine being. He wasn't sure he had any words for a human being either, so he kept his head lowered when House slid into the pew next to him.
"Does God hate you or is he just a really crappy listener?"
"Does it matter?" One patient was dead and another one was dying, and three prayers a day or three hundred wouldn't change that.
"Well, I was going to suggest that you could try being a little firmer – something like, 'Hey God, stop killing my patients,' – but if God already hates you that'll probably just piss him off even more."
Most days, House's irreverence was a strange balm to Wilson's soul, but the wounds were still too fresh for healing. "I realize that your spiritual development stalled sometime in the mid-'60s, but making demands isn't actually what prayer is about," he snapped.
"Now you're an expert on prayer? Does that mean that when you're huddled on my couch moaning in the morning, you're not really hung over, you're just praying and using the blanket as a makeshift tallit?"
Wilson rested his forehead on the back of the next pew. "Go away, House. Find some other victim to torment and leave me in peace."
"Is that what this is? It looks more like wallowing in self-pity." House grabbed Wilson by the collar and hauled him upright. "Your patient died. Boo hoo. You've got another dozen patients still alive who need a doctor, not a placebo-singer."
A fresh flush of anger re-energized Wilson, and he turned on House. "Who's the hypocrite now? You can obsess over Esther Doyle for a dozen years, but I'm not allowed to mourn a patient for a single day?"
"I obsess about everything," House pointed out. "You, on the other hand, aren't exactly known for displays of piety. I like anomalies. Two in one day doubles the fun."
"This isn't an anomaly. Patients and family members ask me to mourn or pray with them all the time. It's a by-product of actually establishing a human connection with them." Wilson didn't know why he was defending himself, as if he were doing something shameful. Proximity to House always skewed his moral compass. "I'm sorry it offends you, but it's none of your damn business."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk." House shook his head disapprovingly. "Swearing in a chapel. Bad form, Jimmy."
Wilson stood up quickly, pushing back a pang of guilt before House could see that he'd scored a point. "Then we'd better leave before I say anything else that offends your sensibilities." He sidestepped to the other end of the pew and headed for the door without bothering to see whether House would follow. God knows, there was no escaping him.
There was no escaping the chapel either, as House reached the door first and blocked the exit with his cane. "Do you know what really offends me?" he asked. "The fact that Easter is almost over and I haven't seen Life of Brian yet. Come on. I called the video store and they've got it on hold for me."
Wilson should have been used to House's abrupt changes of tack by now, but it still took a few seconds to refill his sails. "I have too much paperwork. Dead patients generate a lot of forms," he said bitterly.
"All done and waiting your signature. Your death reports are ridiculously easy to fill out. Cancer, cancer, cancer. Blah, blah, blah. You should set up a merge file on your computer."
And that's what it all boiled down to. A signature on a form and another file closed on a life. Sometimes Wilson longed for a higher faith, for the certainty that there was a greater mystery out there if he could just connect. The closest he came to transcendence was when he restarted a patient's heart or delivered a baby, and he understood why some doctors developed a god complex. He had watched too many patients die, though, to believe he had any powers other than knowledge and hard work.
But he worried about House. House played with life and death at a higher level than ordinary doctors, and he believed in nothing but himself. His successes and failures were more grandiose than Wilson's own brief victories and losses against mutating cells, but they existed in a vacuum, and Wilson was afraid of what might happen if it ever collapsed. And yet, he'd done more to destabilize that vacuum than any dead patient. Wilson didn't believe in hell, but he'd paved a road there anyway. The least he could do was go along for the ride.
"Let's pick up The Meaning of Life as well," he said, bowing to the inevitable. "I want to laugh at the Grim Reaper tonight."
"I am Death!" House intoned.
The words rang impressively in the chapel's acoustics, and Wilson pushed House out the door before he decided to recite the whole scene. "You're going to scare the patients," he hissed, looking around to make sure no one had heard.
"You're no fun," House complained, but waited until Wilson was opening his office door to murmur "wafer-thin." He grinned when Wilson couldn't suppress a snort of laughter. "I'll pick up the videos and meet you at my place. That'll give you ten minutes to finish with the files. If you're late, I'll start the first movie without you."
"Do you need any cash?" Wilson asked, reaching for his wallet. Financing House was second nature after all these years.
House shook his head. "I'll take it out of the ten dollars I owe you."
"How do you know you owe me ten dollars?" Wilson asked suspiciously. He imagined House with his ear pressed to a drinking glass against the wall between their offices. But that was ridiculous. House was only a credit card and Internet site away from far more sophisticated surveillance techniques.
House rolled his eyes theatrically. "The man's deaf as a post and his speaking voice is set to eleven. Half the hospital heard him thank you."
That put a different spin on House's impromptu concert. "You knew he wouldn't be able to hear the music clearly," he realized aloud. "That whole show was aimed at annoying me."
"And it worked," House observed brightly. "You're even more un-fun when you're brooding. At least when you're all self-righteous and indignant I can laugh at you." He pulled out his iPod and waved it at Wilson. "I was hoping Ludwig van Beethoven was settling in for a long prayer session. The next song would have made you burst a blood vessel."
"I'm sorry you were deprived of that sport," Wilson said dryly. "Though I'm sure you'll have plenty of opportunities to spring it on me another time." He could think of at least three appointments that might end in prayer that week alone. The prospect of dying tended to make people reach out to God.
"Oh, there's no need to wait," House replied. "I set the playlist up on your computer while you were conforming in the chapel. You can listen to it while you make sure I didn't put anything inappropriate in the death forms." On that reassuring note, he stumped down the hallway to his own office.
Wilson walked to his desk, eying his computer with a mixture of curiosity and caution. He wasn't concerned about the file; House was more interested in watching the movie than making Wilson's life difficult right now. But the playlist was a different matter. If House had taken the trouble to create it and then load it on his computer, he was expecting a bigger payoff than a short hissy fit on the balcony.
The prudent move would have been to turn off his computer and go over Mary Nicholls' file with a fine-tooth comb, but if Wilson were prudent, he wouldn't have been friends with House in the first place. Caution might be called for, but curiosity was far more powerful. He bumped the mouse and brought his computer out of power save.
The window for iTunes was open and set to House's selections. He'd erased the song titles, leaving only the name of the playlist as identification: iMpiety. Wilson listened to a few seconds of the first two tracks, shaking his head. He made a note to rent My Best Friend's Wedding for the next movie night; House would have to learn that his actions had consequences.
The third song didn't cause him to burst a blood vessel, though if he'd heard it earlier in the day he might really have dropped the iPod over the balcony. Now, he just rolled his eyes and opened the file. The forms were complete – only a few specifics left to fill in – and Wilson knew he could exact some revenge by showing Cuddy that House really was capable of doing paperwork. But as the music swelled, he reconsidered.
While Bon Jovi was no substitution for God, even in New Jersey, at least it filled the silence. And if Wilson hummed along as he filled in the final details of Mrs. Nicholl's death, there was no one to hear.