The first day was nice. Really nice.
I wasn't terribly confident on the bike, but that only added to the fun of it. The sheer crazy, stupid fun. The kind I only had with House, if not the only kind I had with House. We rode for hours, our only goal to be out of the state before stopping for the night, but we made plenty of detours along the way. Anywhere either of us wanted to stop, that was the rule. And I don't know, maybe because it was our first day, maybe because I'd never, ever allowed myself this much freedom in my life (not even with him), I wanted to stop ... everywhere. Cafes, truck stops, quirky little 'mom & pop' shops, stupid kiddie attractions with goats and ducks (I've always been rather fond of ducks), even a sad, run down waffle house. I'd spot some faded billboard promising fun for the whole family, and honk my tinny motorcycle horn. We'd exit and just go. Go, and see, and do. God, I was living Rocky Horror with farm animals. Don't dream it, be-e it.
The first night we stopped at a cheap-ish motel. Upon his "demise", House left everything to me, and to her credit, Dominika didn't contest it. I felt a little stung how quickly the deposit appeared in my account. Efficient. Free money, minus taxes. Sorry for your loss. But between that and my savings, including what I anticipated getting for the condo (House asked me not to sell his apartment just yet), we could easily last my five months and still have plenty left for House to start a new life after. Well, as long as we didn't go hog wild. I wasn't feeling picky, and the motel really didn't look that bad. We got separate rooms.
I don't think I was asleep ten minutes before I half-woke in the grips of a full blown panic attack. You'd think I'd be familiar with these, what I've been through in my life, but this was my first. I couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't think. Something was on me, crushing me. I needed to scream ... you know the drill. After what was probably only a few seconds, but felt like hours, I managed to claw my way towards consciousness enough to break the hold of the sleep paralysis. I fumbled for several, horrible, worst of my life seconds before I found the strange lamp in the strange room and was rewarded with light. The most beautiful light I'd ever experienced. I bolted out of the bed so fast, my legs got tangled in the covers and I hit the floor with a thump loud enough to disturb nearby rooms, including House's. I struggled free, and really wasn't surprised to find him standing there when I'd managed to wrestle the door open.
You know how it is when you've known someone for so long that you can sort of read their mind? If you've never had the 'good fortune' of that, you've at least heard or read about it? Well, it's true. Not always, but often enough, and let me tell you: Sookie and Buffy and anyone else who ever had sex with a vampire got it 100% right: Mind reading sucks. I clung to the door frame to keep from falling over again, and House just stood there, looking at me. I was gasping, my heart was pounding, and I already knew I didn't have to explain. He knew. Not only that, but he was way ahead of me. The worry in his eyes said "symptom" loud and clear. The cancer was progressing faster than we thought, it was already triggering sleep disturbances. Five months was a pipe dream. Pretty soon I wouldn't even be able to ...
"No, House." I managed to gasp. "A nightmare. Just a nightmare." I turned around and stumbled back inside to sit on the edge of the bed. He followed me in, closing the door, then just stood a few feet away, and continued to just look at me.
"Come on, House!" I argued with the look. "Give me a break. Both our lives have been turned upside down. It's stressful!" He broke the look, or at least shielded it. Tried to shield it. The fact that he couldn't quite manage gave me a twinge of real fear. What if he was right? No. Nothing to gain down that road.
The adrenaline rush was fading, and I found myself already nodding off again. House turned back towards the door, and I felt the panic rush back, pushing at the edge of my mind. "Can you ..?" I hesitated.
He turned back. "What?" He sounded tense. Suspicious. I didn't want to focus on that. I didn't want to focus on what I was about to say, either, but desperation gave me just enough courage. "Would you stay until I fall asleep?" God, I must have sounded so pitiful. His eyes got that big, sad look he normally only pulls out when he wants me to do something for him. He just nodded, and without a word,limped to the small chair by the bed, and sat down.
I sighed, feeling (to my embarrassment) a bit better already. "Thanks, it shouldn't be long." I expected him to make a crack about warm milk or ask if I wanted my bankie, but he didn't say anything at all, just watched me untangle my thin blanket and thinner sheets, get myself settled, and then he reached over and turned off the light for me. I was oddly touched, but refrained from thanking him a second time. Once was pathetic enough.
I laid back and looked over at him, just visible in the gray glow of the street lights shining through the window behind him. I expected to find the sight comforting, but I didn't. It was House, I knew it was still House, and he was only a few feet from my bed, but it was suddenly like he wasn't really there at all. Just a ghost, a fading image, far away and faint. I closed my eyes tight against the sight, but that was worse. I opened them again, but suddenly the room was too dark, or my eyes were too tired, and I couldn't see him. I couldn't even sense that he was there. It was as if a veil had come down between us, and I was never going to see him again. Too late. Already too late ...
"WILSON!" The wonderful light was back, and the wonderful, wonderful sight of his face leaning over me. He was gripping my shoulder with one hand, and it felt like an anchor, keeping me from drifting out of the world forever. Then I blinked a few times, and realized I must have been having another bad dream, or ...
"Night terror," House finished my thought (another overrated buddy/couple thing). I wracked my brain for a mutually reassuring crumb of denial, when he suddenly pulled me forward and I found my face mushed against his chest, his arms around me tightly. I was so ... surprised. Whatever words were trying to form in my mind just came out in a sort of hiccup, and then all thought drifted away. I was still shaking, but already the fear was receding, fleeing from the warmth and the light, and I just relaxed.
I can only count three times my father ever held me. Twice when I was sick, the third time when my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Never again after that. I'd forgotten what it felt like, to be really hugged by someone who ... well, someone not female. Different. Very different. There's no urge to cup the hands around anything, or ... do things. There was no pressure, no expectation, it was just ... nice. He smelled of dust and leather and my aftershave (cheapskate). His body felt warm and firm, not 'squishy' in that way, but nice. He held on and rocked a little, and I just melted into it. I could feel our hearts both pounding, very much out of synch, and various pulse points where we were touching, his breathing deeper and slower than mine. Just a big, sad heap of scrambled vital signs.
It felt so good. The veil had lifted, and I was still here, and he was with me. My body was still trying to stay alive, still relatively strong. I was safe.
The second day we didn't make as many stops. I picked a steakhouse that was okay, and a place where they made apple cider that stank to high heaven. He picked a touristy-sounding cavern tour that turned out to be one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. That night we picked a slightly nicer motel and asked for one room with two beds. I'd been feeling so good the entire day, it was a disappointing shock when that suffocating dread swept over me as soon as the lights were out. What the hell? This time I immediately sat up and tried to calm my breathing rather than drift off into it and have a full blown attack. I could sense House watching me, but not getting up - maybe not sure if I'd be offended, or maybe just lazy. To hell with it. I got up, felt my way the two steps to his bed, physically shoved him to the other side (he laughed, but cooperated) and got in, pulling my own covers in after me. After a few moments confusion, we were situated comfortably, snuggled close but not clinging like the night before, and that's all I remember until the alarm went off, and we both just got up and prepared for the day. That night we didn't bother asking for separate beds, and the clerk didn't even blink.
The next couple of weeks quickly fell into routine. We didn't stop as often, just rode until we were hungry or tired. Sometimes we'd get food to go and find a reasonable place to pull over and wander a bit, then have a sort of quick picnic, until the bugs got too bad. There was no goal, no destination. "See the country" was all I'd come up with since we started. It wasn't like we could hop on a plane and head to Greece to hook up with Thirteen and her girlfriend, or even Canada or Mexico. We hadn't even gotten around to trying to obtain some fake ID for House, let alone a real identity with passports and what-not. We just ... rode, mostly. I was getting really good on the bike, if I do say so myself. But to be honest, I was growing bored just riding for hours, and while some of the scenery was truly amazing, it seemed like we were just killing time. I thought we'd grow adventuresome and carefree, maybe see a return of Kyle Calloway, but Kyle must have had better people to possess.
Around the middle of the third week, we pulled into a truck stop that had a small internet cafe attached. For the first time since we left, and feeling a tad guilty, I waited until House was visiting the little boy's room and quickly checked my e-mail. There was a lot of it, and at first I felt pretty good reading it. Family, co-workers, and even some patients sent me words of support, comfort, advice, jokes, and little newsy bits of gossip. However, the more I read, the more a darker feeling crept over me. Like a shot of morphine without the good parts, just cold and kind of numbing. And then something worse than numbing: Resentment. Alienation. They still had their busy lives, their work, their boring, mundane, everyday crap to fill their days. The veil came crashing back down, thick and impenetrable. They were miles away from me, and not just because of the physical distance between us. I used to feel so much warmth for these people, or I thought I did. I thought I loved them, but now all I felt was a sick, bitter almost-hatred for them. I shut down the e-mail and only just resisted picking up the keyboard and smashing the screen with it. I suddenly realized almost thirty minutes had passed, and I blinked and looked around, the room seeming to sputter to life around me, like an old fashioned TV warming up. House was standing nearby, watching me in silence. Still on my side of the veil, but for how long? I pointedly avoided reading his mind, and we left without a word.
The days passed in a blur, just something to get through to reach the nights when we could curl up together and I didn't have to feel so goddamned alone for awhile. Yeah, I know, self pity, and some nights I just wallowed and cried. He'd cradle my head and rub my back, like he did during the stupid-desperate chemo, only that was a lifetime ago, when there was life and time. Now I wasn't throwing-up sick, just heartbroken. One night, he cried too, his body convulsing, arms holding me so tight he just about crushed my ribs. I chided myself for putting him through that, and from that point on made a greater effort to contain my self-indulgence. I'd think, "Time enough to cry when you're dead," which was absurd enough to amuse me, and dissipate the urge for awhile.
At the end of the first month, I quietly activated the 3G on my phone, and suggested we shorten our drive times. We'd go for maybe four or five hours tops, then just settle in wherever we landed and hang out. He'd buy books or magazines and read, I made a halfhearted effort to answer my mails, then the night would come and we could both escape for awhile.
I know what you're thinking, and yes. Sometimes it got ... intense. Sometimes my body would react to the closeness and warmth of another human being. The first time I was mortified, but he just laughed and made 'wood' jokes the entire day, and then a couple days later it was his turn, and I returned the favor with cracks about 'hard feelings' between us (and damn, when I say hard ... I was oddly flattered and very jealous). And this is where I feel I should protest that it was never "like that" between us, and we didn't "do" anything, but it feels even more wrong to try to say all that. It's not important. We were cool with it, and it just became part of the routine. The occasional times it was necessary, we'd excuse ourselves to the bathroom for awhile, and the jokes faded away.
About a week into the second month, the pain started. I tried to hide it, but I'm a wimp and he'd have probably noticed even if I wasn't. I'd already managed to stock up an ample supply of Vicodin before starting out, and we managed to score some more along the way. Now, for the first time since we left home, we were 'sharing the stash', as House put it. Which wasn't all that unpleasant, just as it wasn't during the chemo. But it was at the back of our minds, mine especially ("cancer is boring" right?), that it was only a matter of time before the pills wouldn't be enough. Nothing would be enough, and then the final contest would begin. How much could I take, and for how long? I told myself House fought this battle for most of the twenty-plus years I'd known him, but when my own pain really started in, it didn't help. You can sympathize with other people's pain, or at least you think you can, but it's really a single file path, at best. And to be fair, mine would progress, his wouldn't. (Please, God, don't let me start resenting him, too).
Exactly ten days after the pain started (yes, I counted), I received an e-mail from one of my former colleagues who had gone into research while I went on to practice. Before I even opened it, I had a pretty good idea what it would say. I'd been half-expecting this sort of thing, and I had determined that the answer would be no. And yet ... I realized I was more than seriously doubting that determination, especially as the full heat of summer was setting in and our daily rides were down to an hour or two at the most, followed by a lot of hanging around, followed by nights that had started to take on a clingy, desperate feel, and I was way beyond the point of berating myself for dragged House into this with me.
I told myself that I was seeking House's opinion when I shared the e-mail with him, but of course that's bullshit. I knew what he'd say, and he knew I knew it. We were having one of those greasy, huge, heavenly truck stop breakfasts that we only indulged in once or twice a week. He didn't even bother pretending to ponder the e-mail, he just said, "Let's go." Of course, I tried to warn him: Million-to-one shot, I probably wouldn't even make it past the qualification tests, but it was too late. The empty, hollow look that had become his normal expression had a new spark of hope, and I just wanted to go outside and lie down under an eighteen wheeler and get it over with. But I didn't, and we 'mounted up', and for the first time since starting, we rode ten to twelve hours a day with minimal stops. We arrived at my colleague's research center in three days, and suddenly I was barefoot in a dim, cold room, wearing a paper gown. I was made to lie down on a gurney, and wheeled into a even colder, dimmer room. For the few moments it took my eyes to adjust, I felt the old terror pressing in. I had started to believe it was vanquished, but of course it had just been biding its time. Waiting. "I will outlast you."
The tests really didn't take long, and soon I was back in normal clothes, in the sunlight, and House was complaining about the heat or the traffic, but I couldn't seem to regain my focus. I remembered months ago, asking Thirteen if it ever stopped feeling surreal and I realized that for a while, it actually had, but I hadn't noticed. And now it was back. Time enough to cry when I'm dead.
We debated going back on the road for the two weeks before the test results, and we even sort of agreed to go, but neither of us seemed willing to start, so we gave it up and splurged on a nicer hotel. After a few days, House started staying up later and later at night, and pretty soon we were on completely opposite cycles: Him the night owl, me the lonely, wallowing bastard with no one to listen to me bitch that my best friend wasn't sleeping with me anymore. I'd never been so depressed, and I don't think he had, either. He lost weight and I gained it. God damn it!
I'm going to skip ahead here, as most of it is technical, and to be honest, it's all something of a blur, now. I passed the test and started the three month trail. Three months. I only had two left, at best, but that's what they said, and who were we to argue? We rented a small apartment. House bought more books, and I bought a shelf for them. My colleague hooked me up with some of the good stuff, and the pain became more manageable, which was a relief. The trial-drug I was taking was genetically targeted, very different from 'traditional' flood-the-body-with-poison-and-hope-it-kills-the-r ight-bits chemo. Side effects were minimal, and time just crawled, day by day.
At the end of the three months, my tumor had shrunk enough to be removed. Simple and anticlimactic as that. I was sitting in a hospital room recovering from surgery before either of us had fully registered what it really meant. On discharge, I was given a year's supply of the trial-drug and instructed to come in for monthly follow-up tests.
A year. That's when we finally let go and let ourselves really feel it. That night, we ... well, if it was intense before, let's just say this time I had bruises that lasted for over a week, and leave it at that.
Of course, my colleague gave me the statistics lecture. High chance of recurrence at this stage, but then again, the stats are practically moot since the treatment is experimental, blah-blah. A few months ago, I would have sweated every decimal point. But now ... a year! And maybe even more than one?
"'Nuff said," as House replied when I tried to explain it all to him, and he was right.
Continued next chapter ...