His first memory was color -- reds and oranges and yellows -- as his mother lifted him up into the air. Her sari was bright and it felt soft when she held him tight.
"Don't worry Lawrence," she said. "I've got you."
It was just a flash of something, a moment. He didn't know why he was crying, or what else she said that made him feel better. He wished he knew.
Everything from then -- from before -- was always hazy when he tried to remember, and they were always asking him to remember something. What he remembered were the smell of curry, the sound of the bell over the door whenever someone entered the shop, the maze of boxes on the store room shelf.
He remembered his mother wearing traditional clothing and traditional colors. His father wore plain white cotton shirts, with pens and a small notebook tucked into the front pocket so he could jot down notes whenever he thought of them. He remembered looking inside the notebook one time, and seeing a mixture of English and Hindi script there, lists of things he needed for the store, ideas for sales that would bring in new customers, the rough outline of a dream house somewhere that he'd never build.
But nothing was clear until that day -- until that moment -- as he stared at the blood spreading over his father's body. For some reason he worried that the notebook would be stained, and his father would be upset.
He remembered everything from that moment. He remembered that the man was taller than his father, and that had dirty hair that brushed his shoulders. He remembered looking up from the spot where he'd been sitting on the floor, neatly stacking cans of dog food on the bottom shelf. He remembered the gun, the flash of metal from the barrel as it pointed as his father, and how the man accused him of hiding the money.
"That's all we have," his father said. "It's been a slow day."
He remembered his father's hand reaching below the shelf to the spot where there was an alarm button, and how the man shouted at him not to move, and then the sound of the gun, and his mother's scream.
He remembered his mother's voice going silent, and how it seemed like all the air had been sucked out of the room.
He remembered the man's face as he turned toward him, staring, the gun shaking in his hand, cash from the till grasped in the other hand. His eyes were a light green, and shot through with red. There were dark circles under his eyes and his thin lips were pale. He was sweating, and he held the gun out, pointed it at Lawrence for a few moments, until Lawrence knew he was going to die.
He remembered that he wasn't scared, but then the man dropped the gun and the sound of it hitting the floor echoed through the store.
He remembered the sound of the bell tinkling overhead as the man ran out the door.
Lawrence wanted to forget the man, forget the face, forget standing there looking down at his father with his stained white shirt. He knelt beside his mother, and waited to hear her say that it would be all right, but she was silent, her eyes open and unseeing.
He doesn't remember how long he sat there, but remembers how loud everything else sounded in the silence that followed: the music coming from a passing car, the ticking of a clock, the high pitched ring of the telephone.
He didn't look up when the door swept open again. He heard voices this time -- a man calling for an ambulance and for backup, the polished leather of his shoes as he stepped closer to Lawrence, and an unfamiliar voice asking if he was all right.
Someone in a dark blue uniform picked him up and took him away, but he stared at his mother until they left the store behind, and he couldn't see her anymore. He couldn't remember if he cried until they put him in the back of a police car and a woman sat next to him. Her skin was darker than his mother's, but her hand felt soft against his face.
"You're all right now," she said. "You're safe. I've got you."
At the police station, he was never alone. They asked him questions: what happened, did he see the man, what did he look like, what did he say. They kept their voices quiet, but something about the sound of their voices told him that it was important, and that he needed to answer them. He didn't want to answer, didn't want to say anything. He wanted the images to go away, he wanted his ears to stop ringing, but it was important, so he answered them.
One woman came in with some clothes in a bag, and told him he should change, and when Lawrence looked down at himself, he saw blood on his shoes and his jeans were damp.
"I brought you some things from home, I hope that's all right," the woman said.
There was a clean pair of brown pants in the bag, and a t-shirt with Han Solo's face on it. His father used to watch Star Wars with him, and always bragged that he was Han, because he'd married the princess.
"Mama's not a princess," he'd argued.
"She is to me."
"I'll stay with you, if that's all right," the woman said. She said she was a doctor, but not the kind who gives you shots. "I know you must be scared," she said. "We'll take care of you."
She told the police that they should take a break, and asked him if he was hungry. Lawrence shook his head. She asked him if he was tired, and he shook his head again. She gave him crayons and paper, and asked him if he wanted to draw her a picture.
"Draw what?" he asked.
"Whatever you want," she said.
Lawrence usually drew dogs for his mother, because she promised they could get a dog when they were had their own house. He drew big houses with a fence and trees for his father.
He looked at the crayons. There was yellow and orange, like the colors of his mother's dress, and blue like the policeman's uniform. There was red.
He picked up the black crayon and began filling in the top of the paper. He didn't think about the man, or about the police. He couldn't smell anything but the wax of the crayon, couldn't see anything but the white page slowly turning dark.
"What's that?" the doctor asked after a few moments.
"Space," Lawrence said. "There's no color in space."
The house seemed too big, and Lawrence almost expected to hear his footsteps echo in the open space.
"Hi, Lawrence." Mrs. Kutner held out her hand, and he took it. At least she didn't go in for a hug, like the mother at his last foster home. She'd been nice enough, but tried too hard to make sure he liked her.
Mr. Kutner walked ahead of him, carrying Lawrence's suitcase. "Your room is this way," he said, and Lawrence released Mrs. Kutner's hand and followed him down the hall.
It was quiet there. He was used to foster homes filled with other children, and rooms filled with bunk beds. There was just a single bed in the room Mr. Kutner walked into. There was a plaid blanket on the bed and two pillows. There was a reading light on the nightstand, and a desk and book shelves on the far side of the wall.
"I hope you like it," Mrs. Kutner said.
"It's nice," Lawrence said.
"This was the way Peter liked it, but you can move things around if you want."
Lawrence just nodded. His case worker had told him that the Kutners had taken in a few children before, but only one at a time, and usually just for a few weeks at a time. He'd picked up the unspoken clues quickly. This wouldn't last for long. It never did.
"Don't worry, we'll find the right place for you soon," the caseworker had said.
She was always making that promise. She meant well, but it didn't take long for Lawrence to learn the truth. The other foster kids he met knew the same truth. They were too old to be adopted, too young to be on their own.
Some kids were lucky, and found a foster home where they spent years. Others moved from house to house. So far, he'd been one of them -- three months at one home, two months at another. He'd just managed to get comfortable with a teacher or make some new friend, and would end up moving again. He learned how to make friends quickly, because they never lasted for long.
"You'll like the Kutners," his caseworker had promised.
It didn't matter if he liked them, though. Lawrence had liked a lot of the foster parents he'd met, but it never lasted.
Mr. Kutner put Lawrence's suitcase on the bed, and reached for the zipper.
"I can do that," Lawrence said. The bag was his. It the only thing he had that was his alone. He didn't like other people messing with it.
Mr. Kutner stopped himself, and looked at him for a moment. He glanced at his wife, then back at Lawrence. He nodded. "OK." He crossed the room to stand near the door with Mrs. Kutner. "We should let you get settled," he said.
"We'll have dinner in about an hour," Mrs. Kutner said. "I hope you like spaghetti."
Lawrence nodded. The Kutners looked at him for a few more moments, then stepped out into the hallway. They left the door open.
Lawrence listened to their steps as they walked away, then turned back to the suitcase, and zipped it open.
It didn't hold much. There were some jeans, two pairs of dress pants, some t-shirts and a few button down shirts. He'd outgrown the few clothes he'd had with him in those first few weeks, and everything he owned now was purchased out of the money the state set aside for his clothing.
But he still held onto a few things: the Chewbacca t-shirt his father had bought for him, a model of the Millennium Falcon, one of his mother's scarves, his father's wallet -- empty except for the snapshot of Lawrence and his mother tucked into a plastic sleeve. Those things always stayed tucked safety inside a hidden pocket in the lining of the suitcase, safe from any of the other kids who might see them.
Lawrence put his clothes in the top two drawers of the dresser, and hung his shirts on hangars in the closet. It never took long to unpack. It didn't take long to pack either. He put the suitcase in a corner of the closet where he could reach it quickly when he needed it.
Then he sat on the bed. He could hear Mr. and Mrs. Kutner. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but was sure they were talking about him.
He wanted to sit back against the wall, but didn't want to get caught with his shoes on the bed, so instead he sat on the edge of the mattress. He couldn't keep still, though. His fingers traced the weave on the blanket, his feet swung back and forth over the floor. His mother used to try and get him to sit still, to be quiet, to listen, but his body didn't want him to be still. Now, the few times he managed to be still, his mind wouldn't let him rest.
Whenever it was quiet, he would imagine what life would have been like if the man had just taken the money and run away. He imagined that he would grow up to build a time machine and go back in time, lock the door before the man even came into the store.
Sometimes he imagined what it would have been like if his father's family had taken him in, and he tried to convince himself that it wasn't his fault that they didn't.
Sometimes he even imagined that the man had killed him too. He didn't like those thoughts, so he tried to keep busy, to stop himself from wondering what would have happened then.
He looked around the room again. The bookshelves are on the far side of the room, nearly hidden next to the closet. Lawrence got up and kneeled next to them. There were books in there, comic books with Batman and Robin and Wonder Woman. Coloring books too, but when he opened them he saw that most of the pages had already been filled.
On the next shelf up, there are books, paperbacks mostly. He recognized some of the them: R.L. Stine and Hardy Boys and choose your own adventure and Garfield cartoons.
On the bottom shelf, there's a jigsaw puzzle. It's an easy one, a map of the United States. He can put it together in just a few minutes, but for those few minutes, maybe it won't seem so quiet in the room.
He's practiced writing the name over and over again. Kutner. Lawrence Kutner. It looks strange in his handwriting, not as elegant as Mom's signature, nor as slanted and carefree as Dad's.
He'd wanted it, though, wanted to be in control of one thing in his life.
His mother and father had brought him into the world, the robber took them away. It was simple fate that brought him here -- the few weeks he expected to stay stretching out to the end of the school year; "Since you're doing so well," Mom had said, and then into the summer as Dad taught him how to putt on the mini-golf course.
As one month melted into another, then six, then a year, then two, they had been the ones to ask him -- over a birthday dinner of pizza and salad -- if he would ever think about being adopted.
"We don't want to replace your parents, Lawrence," Dad had said, "but we love you, and can't imagine our lives without you."
He'd hugged them, and told them he loved them too. A week later, he asked if that meant he'd change his name.
"Not unless you want to," Mom had said.
"I do," he said.
He told himself that Kutner was easier to spell, that it would be easier for all of them if he had the same name. But that wasn't the whole truth. Changing his name meant he was doing something for himself -- not for the police or the social worker or even Mom and Dad.
He'd start high school in just a few days, and it would be different this time. He'd be different. He wasn't Lawrence Baidwan anymore. He was Lawrence Kutner.
He wrote it out again on the paper. Lawrence Kutner. Larry Kutner -- maybe he'd change his first name too, he thought, then he crossed it off. Maybe he didn't need to change everything. Lawrence Kutner, he wrote again.
He put the pen down, and studied the page, held it up to the light.
"Changing your name won't mean anything."
The voice in his head was his own, but a younger one, the one he heard when he dreamed of the days before the shooting, the one that reminded him of what his real mother and father would have wanted, the one that told him how much he was hurting his real mother and father by agreeing to the adoption.
He hated that voice, and was jealous of it at the same time, it belonged to the part of him that had them, that was still happy, that had no idea how things would change.
"Everyone's still going to know who you are," the voice said again.
He put the paper down again, picked up the pen and concentrated harder. Lawrence Kutner, he wrote. He pushed down hard on the paper, tightened his grip. The paper tore slightly beneath the pen's tip.
He almost thought he heard the voice laugh.
He crumpled up the paper and took out a new sheet.
He paused with the pen over the paper, already expecting to hear the disappointment in the voice. He couldn't quiet the voice forever, but he'd learned how to drown it out.
He stopped and turned on the TV, flipped the channels past the cooking shows and movies until he saw cartoons. Scooby Doo. He turned up the volume and let Shaggy's voice drive the other one out of his mind.
He put the pen on the paper. Lawrence Kutner, he wrote.
A mile seemed a lot shorter when they were just talking about it. Of course, they'd been drinking at the time -- cheap beers after finishing the MCAT. The medical school entrance exam had been all he'd thought about for months -- all they ever seemed to talk about in the house, where three of them had pooled their money for a decent place off campus.
He'd spent nights awake reading and re-reading text books. He'd gone over his notes and checked his lab work and honed his writing so that every answer would be clear and concise.
"You're going to ace it," Franklin said. "I don't know why you're worried."
"I'm worried, because I don't want to end up at the same Caribbean med school you're at," Kutner had joked.
Franklin ignored him. "Besides, once they see you and get the whole life story, any med school will be begging you to come. You're a lock."
Kutner didn't want his history to be the reason he got into a top med school. The shooting was something that had happened to him. Being adopted had happened to him. He needed to make his own name mean something now.
He didn't bother telling anyone else though. He'd never hidden what had happened to him, but he didn't want to use it either. Instead he studied and crammed. They'd gone to the testing center together -- he and Franklin and Desai -- and he'd nodded a silent wish of good luck to each of them as the test began.
Kutner filled in each space quickly, moving from page to page. He'd learned a long time ago that if he took too long on the multiple choice questions, he'd second guess himself -- looking for trick questions that weren't there, his stomach clenching as he filled in one circle, only to come back, erase it and fill in a different answer.
He was the first of the three of them to finish. He took a few moments before he handed in the test though, feeling as if he was letting go of another part of his life. His legs were shaking when he walked out, and he had to sit on the bench just outside the door.
He'd paid for the case of beer, and Desai paid for the pizza.
"If we fail, we'll have to find back-up career plans," Franklin said, after the first beer. "I, myself, am exploring the world of exotic dancers."
"Then you better not finish that last piece of pizza," Desai said, snatching it out of Franklin's hand. "You have to watch your figure."
"I'm still waiting for my application to be a Jedi master, to go through," Kutner said. "That or the Klingon High Council."
By the second beer, Franklin had moved on to Mexican wrestling.
The world record attempt showed up on about the fourth beer. "Get your name in the record books," Desai said, "and you've really accomplished something."
Franklin had an old copy of a Guinness record book in his collection -- something he'd picked up in a box of paperbacks at a yard sale, he said, -- and went to dig it out.
They skipped past anything involving speed or strength.
"Too much work," Desai said.
Kutner didn't say anything, just listened to the categories -- eating hot dogs, doing jumping jacks, walking on stilts, accordion playing -- and wondered how it would feel, to have his name listed there. That would be something new, something he'd own for himself.
He didn't remember how they settled on crawling -- something about it being easy to measure out and confirm -- but once the idea came up, Kutner couldn't stop thinking about it, planning it. It filled the space that cramming for the MCAT had. It gave him something to think about when everything else went quiet at night, before darkness crept in.
Franklin got permission to use the track, Desai set up the video camera to record it for their submission.
Kutner's knees ached as he waited there on the starting line for the signal to start. The track looked longer than he'd remembered it, and he knew he'd have to circle it again and again and again.
But it would be worth it, he told himself. The pain wouldn't last. The record would -- at least for a while.
"Ready?" Franklin asked.
When Chase told them about the flu medicine, Kutner knew what that meant. He felt the impact of the words like blow, as if the sound waves themselves were made solid. He saw Taub rock back in his seat, and he wondered if he'd felt the same way. It was like an explosion, an IED like they used in Iraq, spreading shrapnel everywhere, like an asteroid tearing through metal and glass as a spaceship tries to pick its way through a debris field. Like a gunshot.
He almost wished for the shock he'd felt after his parents died to deaden himself, just for a while.
He didn't know what to say to her. Kutner remembered that he thought he hated her once, not too long ago. She was the enemy. She was the bitch -- the cutthroat bitch. He remembered how he'd smiled a little every time House called her that. She was just someone else to beat.
She wasn't like Cole. Kutner had actually liked him, liked the way he warned others about Amber, liked the way he'd stood up to House when he felt he needed to, but spoken up for the patients too.
When Kutner applied for the job, he had nothing to lose. Sports medicine was interesting enough. He loved seeing people through rehab, seeing what was wrong and knowing he could fix it. He'd watch them take their first steps without the wheelchair, without the crutches and know it was something he had done. He was good at it, but a lot of people were good at it.
House was something different. He could count on two hands the people who'd done a fellowship with House -- one hand if he just counted those who'd actually finished their full term. He'd sent off his CV imagining what it would be like just to meet him. House, he'd heard, would screw with your mind even during the interview.
House's game was even better than he'd imagined, Bring 'em on, he'd thought when House said he'd fired them all one by one.
Then House fired him.
Kutner had stepped outside the room, stared at the long hallway that led to the exit. He could go back to rehab work. He could work with the best athletes in the world. He could make his mark with every award they won, and still be able to tell the time that he met House.
But meeting House wasn't what he wanted.
He looked down at the number hanging from his neck. 6. He grinned and flipped it upside down.
Even once he was back inside, he told himself that everyone in that room was competition. Especially Amber.
But Cole was different, or at least he seemed like he was. He had a kid. He had family. He had responsibilities.
"Why'd you apply, anyway?" Kutner had asked him one day in the cafeteria. "You don't like the way he works, and you certainly don't like him."
"And you do?" Cole had asked.
"Sure." Kutner didn't even have to think about it.
Kutner had watched him with his son, and saw how gentle he could be. He'd told himself that if he couldn't make it, then at least Cole would find a spot. He imagined Cole's son having at least a taste of the life he'd lost.
What he didn't see was that Cole could be as cutthroat as Amber, under the right set of circumstances. He just hid it better.
Then, just earlier that day, in Amber's apartment, he saw photos of Amber with her family and friends. He saw how playful she'd been with Wilson in the few moments of video that Thirteen had let him see, and wondered if Amber could be just as gentle as Cole had seemed, in the right set of circumstances. But those were circumstance he'd never see how.
After he left Amber's room, Kutner lingered for a moment outside the windows, watching Amber and Wilson say goodbye. He couldn't hear what they said, but saw the way their fingers linked together, saw the way he caressed her cheek.
Long after he turned away, Kutner could still picture them, drawn together as if they were the only people in the world. He tried to shut out thoughts of his parents, of how they'd never had the chance to say goodbye. He wondered what went through his mother's mind in those last few seconds. Did she realize that her husband was dead? Did she think the man wouldn't pull the trigger? Did she think of her son? Did she wonder what would become of him?
He wished House would send him out on some mission, tell him to break into a house or lie to a patient or even run some damn test. Something. Anything. But House was in the ICU. He'd pushed himself harder than Kutner thought House could, harder than Kutner thought anyone would. Kutner didn't think he could ever do what House had done. Maybe that was why House would always be a legend, while he'd was someone who stood by and watched.
Kutner shook his head and pushed his way out the door of the hospital. His car was still on the far side of the lot, where he'd parked it two days ago, when he thought that they'd solved another case, saved another life. He should have known then that nothing was ever simple. Nothing was ever easy.
He unlocked the door and started the engine. The radio sprang to life, some stupid pop piece of hip hop that he hated, but he turned the music up loud, tried to let the beat drive every thought out of his mind.
He didn't go home. Not right away. Instead he cruised the strip of fast food joints near campus, looking for something that caught his eye. Tacos maybe, or pizza. Burgers. He wasn't hungry, but eating would give him something to do, some way to fill a few more hours until he could fall asleep.
When the restaurants started to thin out, he turned and drove back down the street, repeating the loop again and again until the neon lights were turned off at each spot.
He finally headed for home once the fuel gauge on his dashboard clicked on to warn him it was getting low. Filling the tank seemed like a waste of time. It would just run out again.
At home, he flicked on the overhead light at the front door, then turned it off. After spending so much time in the dark, the light was too strong. It reminded him of the harsh lights of the treatment room where Amber lay dying. He glanced at his watch, and corrected himself. She'd be dead by now.
Kutner fumbled his way to the lamp on the table near the TV. The light was softer there, spilling out over the couch and casting shadows into the kitchen. He tossed his bag on a chair, threw his jacket on top of it.
He still wasn't hungry, but opening the refrigerator was something to do. Staring at the contents gave him something to think about other than Amber and Wilson and House and Cole and ...
He reached for the milk.
Cereal was easy. Grab a bowl, grab a box, grab the sugar, grab a spoon.
He should know by now that life was fucked up, that there were no rules, no easy answers. He was just fooling himself thinking that he would be remembered, that what he did mattered. Nothing mattered -- who you were, what you accomplished, who you touched. It was there, and then it was gone.
He shook his head.
Maybe it did mean something, but he couldn't think about what it was supposed to mean, what anything was supposed to mean. Not now. He didn't want to think about anything. Thinking was too hard, it hurt too much.
He flicked on the TV and settled himself on the floor. He flicked the channel around until he landed on some crappy SciFi flick: people lost in time, trapped in a world they didn't understand.
He put the remote down, leaned back against the couch and started to eat.