221B Baker Street
Princeton, New Jersey
He awakened with a jolt.
Shadows in stark definition drifting smoky trails toward the opposite wall, told him clouds were blowing across the moon and the weather was turning colder.He could always tell. He laid there, eyes closed, jaw set as the first shot of morning pain jabbed upward into his spine.
It was not going to be a good day. All-night bouts of hit-and-miss wakefulness were never a good sign.
The left side of his face and upper arm were burrowed in the pillow's depths. His right eye slitted open and he hoped it was still the middle of the night. It wasn't. Crap! His eyelashes parted just enough to create a fringe of perception through which he could make out the silent approach of daybreak. The clock's luminous display read: 7:03.
The joys of northeastern winters: you went to work in the dark and you came home in the dark.
He was tangled in bed covers so he must have tried to run some kind of marathon in his sleep. He remembered a feeling of tightness the evening before that should have warned him the weather was changing and it was going to snow. His leg was about to go into spasm.
He'd fortified himself with Vicodin and Scotch before retiring last night. That wasn't unusual, but after the passing of nighttime hours, it was worn off completely. He was trapped under a heap of sheets and blankets with no easy means of escape.
Even during intervals when his usual meds gave him relief, the return to pain always caught him off guard. When the burn slammed back to interrupt his sleep, it still came as a shock to his system. The slightest movement of his leg exacted extra effort, even after all this time. Especially after all this time.
He was wide-awake now and if he had indeed slept, it certainly didn't feel like it. He was nervous and twitchy and strung out. Was it the top sheet wrapped around his legs that added to the bite? Knotted bedclothes lay in hills and valleys around him, and the other bed pillow was shoved halfway under the rise of his hip. He must've run a hundred miles in his sleep.
He listened to the room's mood, familiar as his own heartbeat. Something was hitting against the windowpanes. Was it raining, for chrissake? In January? In New Jersey?
He thrust his right side slowly upward while strong fingers grasped the cratered muscle between hip and knee. Another night had passed, filled with wakefulness and useless efforts to return to sleep. A decent night's rest for Gregory House never came easy.
He gasped, struggling to keep from letting the sound out; refusing to allow his pain to force an outcry. Shrieking in agony was not in his makeup. He'd screamed like a three-year-old having a temper tantrum when he came out of the anesthetic at the time of the infarction. He'd been mortified when he realized that that shriek had come out of him. Never again! Not even in his own bedroom in this most private of all inner sanctums would he allow the pain to have a voice. Even after so long, isolation and denial remained his closest companions.
He pushed stiffly to a sitting position, still gasping, propping himself on his left arm while the fingers of his right hand endeavored to pull out the pain by the roots. He sat still for a few seconds, gathering resources, combating a momentary spate of dizziness. Carefully he disentangled the rope-like snarl of sheets and let his legs lay free.
The Vicodin bottle was out of reach on the opposite end of the nightstand. He knew he must now force himself to walk off the misery. Another major inconvenience.
His bladder was uncomfortably full and its urgency propelled himto step on it.
His cane lay hooked over the footboard where he could reach out and draw it toward him. That walking stick was as necessary to his existence as a drive shaft to a pickup truck. He seized its sturdy handle and curled his fingers around its crook with angry dependence.
Get up, old man! Get your sorry ass to the head before you hose down the whole bedroom!
The entrance to his bathroom was only ten feet away, but in the morning he measured the distance in miles. When he'd told Foreman a few years back that the anticipation of pain was sometimes worse than the pain itself, he'd been speaking from experience. In spite of the urgency, he still hesitated at the prospect of levering himself upward. Drops of rain noisily splattering the windowpanes upped his need to hurry.
He jammed the cane to the floor and thrust himself to his feet quickly, taking full weight on the left, letting the right leg unfold and follow. His truncated thigh muscle twitched and the damaged nerve endings drove sparks into his knee. But he was up, and the pain was less than the anticipation. He paused, adjusting his weight while the ripples slowly subsided.
He stemmed his bladder's insistence with effort and stumbled to the bathroom. He seated himself on the hopper and aimed his stream between his legs into the bowl. He sighed, letting go finally, staring at the snarled bed clothing through the open door as his urine sprayed into the small pocket of water below.Rain water into the storm drain …
He needed to go back to bed. The hell with work.
Memories of Two Funerals:
Dr. James Wilson, Head of Oncology, sat behind the big desk in his old familiar office, gazing absently through the rain to the rooftops of buildings across the street. Regrets, stemming from recent history, swam in his vision like leftover leaves in the rainstorm, intertwining with thoughts of the things he needed to accomplish today. He was uncertain at the moment which scenario was winning …
The death of Amber Volakis had been the straw that finally broke the back of a very
old and uncanny friendship. House, drunk as a skunk, had called Amber's land line from a bar, seeking Wilson and needing a ride home. Who better to provide it than good old faithful Wilson. But Wilson had been called in to work and could not respond. So Amber went to the bar in his place. She dragged House's sorry besotted ass onto a bus because the bartender would not release House's keys.
T-boned by a garbage truck in the wee hours, the bus was smashed to Kingdom Come with House and Amber both inside. For House, the lights went out. He regained consciousness, but not all of his memory.
House consented to deep brain stimulation in order to discover that which he could not recall of the accident, and where Amber might have been taken, for she had disappeared. When she was finally found, she was already dying.
And House lay barely conscious in a hospital bed, looking out from a narcotic-induced haze, wondering how he had gotten there. Why was his best friend standing outside the room gazing in at him with such an empty look on his face?
After the funeral James had walked away from this once-rewarding career with dark thoughts of despair, confusion and anger. He'd withdrawn into a shell from which he sometimes wondered if he could ever emerge. He was playing the blame game and he knew it, but he couldn't help himself. He could no longer stand the sight of Gregory House.
Wilson packed his personal belongings, walked away from Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital and his once-rewarding career and holed up at Amber's place. Hibernating there, he raised a beard that would have put Paul Bunyan to shame, and a body odor that followed him around the apartment like a hungry puppy. Day after unhappy day he mourned her loss and indulged himself with booze and Chinese takeout and resentful thoughts of his one-time best friend.
Some of his former colleagues visited. Each in their own preference touched him gently or made concerned eye contact, offering support and condolence.
He had shaken his head "no" when each pleaded with him to clean himself up and come back to PPTH where he belonged.
House had come by also. Without the touching. Or the eye contact. Only the sorrow and silence of a regret he could not express in words.
The last person in the world Wilson had wanted to see was House. He'd closed the door in House's face and said that if he returned again, Wilson would not even answer the door.
Now he wondered how he could possibly have been so callous as to place all the responsibility for Amber's death on this socially stunted, very old friend.
He guessed it was easy … if you were hurting badly enough in your heart.
He retreated further from their "stupid, screwed-up friendship" and left a physically and spiritually crippled man to fend for himself in confused and utter isolation.
"We're not friends anymore, House. I'm not sure we ever were …"
In his grief Wilson could not appreciate that House had put his own life on the line in an attempt to grant his friend's request: bring forth information which was still hidden deeply in his injured brain. House had undergone the deep brain stimulation reluctantly, revealing the puzzle of Amber's fate. In essence, he returned her to the man she loved so she would not have to die alone.
Wilson was not moved by House's sacrifice. Not then. Not later. He turned off Amber's life support machinery and lay beside her in sorrow as she slipped quietly away from him forever. Later, he'd stood drained of emotion outside the ICU where House languished in a twilight state, barely aware.
James looked in at the silent, forlorn figure, silently guarded by the one woman who could not help but love him. House looked back at Wilson with questions in his tired eyes; a silent stranger, suddenly old and alone. He had given up everything he had left to give. Wilson did not know then that House was not even aware of the woman at his side.
After a few silent moments in which he could think of nothing to do or say, Wilson turned and walked back down the hallway. His footfalls faded in the distance.
Gregory House looked after his friend's receding back in abject bewilderment.
At first Wilson's bitterness and sorrow had nearly strangled him. He locked House out
of the apartment and out of his life. He brooded. He walked around like a zombie in
an old bathrobe. Listlessly he filled out a few resumes and even accepted a job interview
in a city far away from Princeton, New Jersey. He made himself ready to leave forever.
Colonel John House changed everything by conveniently dying.
Lisa Cuddy called Wilson's cell phone, pleading.
House had refused to go to his father's funeral, she said. "Please, James … you're the only one who can help. He needs to go home!"
As always, Wilson consented to go where he was needed.
House needed him.
Truth be told, he needed House as well.
Wilson did not defy fate. He returned reluctantly to the only place where he'd ever really belonged. At Lisa Cuddy's urging, he drove a bottled hurricane named Gregory House to his father's funeral in Lexington, Kentucky.
Wilson sat like a rock by House's side at the viewing. He stood with a supporting hand on House's shoulder after House apparently choked up in the middle of his father's eulogy. He followed House to his father's coffin and discovered House's ulterior motive of collecting a fingernail clipper full of DNA.
Wilson walked out of the room behind House and entered an adjoining room where they could argue in private. James was so angry and frustrated that he threw a full bottle of wine through a stained glass window.
History repeating itself …
Somehow in the process, House came alive again, right before his eyes.
So did Wilson.
So did their friendship.
Wilson's former office had been recarpeted, repainted. He returned with his personal mementoes, his souvenirs and posters, his Teddy bears and trophies. He rearranged the books in the bookcase; his framed diplomas rehung on the wall. His movie posters were returned to their former positions. His professional world regrew again from the seeds of an empty office. All his boxes of patients' files were finding their places back in his file cabinet. He bought potted plants to brighten things up a little.
His desk lamp was the only light on in the room: one dim circle of illumination in acres of darkness. He sat in the early morning gloom with a stack of hard copy case files scattered across the desk in front of him. He'd never turned his caseload over to other oncologists as he should have done before he left; simply threw them into cartons. Now
he had to sort through everything and put it all back in order.
The day he and Dr. Cuddy conspired to drug Gregory House and drag him, angry and unresponsive, to the funeral home in Lexington, Kentucky, the experience had opened Wilson's eyes in more ways than one. His old friend was suffering too. House pretended he didn't give a shit about anything, but he was still badly wounded by life itself and the deaths of his dad and Amber.
House was capable of experiencing grief. His grief was the deep, grinding, regretful kind. He just wasn't quite capable of expressing himself in a manner that Wilson could readily understand while still trying to deal with his own.
Wilson had had to pause and think about that at length. His irate road companion on the trip to Kentucky was certainly not shy when it came to bitching and whining to get what he wanted. He was, however, a social misfit who had no clue about discussing feelings. He had them. He just didn't know what the hell to do with them. So he stuffed them.
They always reemerged, usually as physical pain. House would not discuss that either.
Stalemate after stalemate.
John House's funeral had affected Wilson too. Not in a good way.
The healing wasn't over. It was just beginning.
Wilson sighed, fiddling with a pen from the mess on his desk. He still couldn't find anything, and it didn't look like it would get better anytime soon.
He wrenched his thoughts out of the recent past and back to the here-and-now with an abrupt mental squaring of his shoulders. The hand that held the pen had been making jabbing motions onto the paper below, and the corner of the page was peppered with tiny pits of blue ink.
However recovered he thought he might have been up until this moment, part of his mind still lay embroiled in past events. He dropped the pen onto the blotter and then threaded his fingers helplessly backward through freshly shorn auburn hair.
A quiet tap on his office door brought him quickly to attention, and he dropped his hands quickly to the surface of the desk. He picked up the pen and gripped it with fingers of steel …
The office door came open by degrees, and a dark coiffed head poked its way inquiringly around the opening. The rest of a slender female body followed in turn, and Dr. Lisa Cuddy walked quietly into the office. She turned, giving him time to collect himself by closing the door in a soft, intent manner. She approached the desk.
"Good morning, Dr. Wilson. I saw you moving around in here … you're early …"
"So are you. Come all the way up here to check on me?" He asked.
"Yeah, you could say that."
They paused, looking at one another questioningly for a five-second interlude. The silence stretched into awkwardness. They both spoke at once.
"I'm glad to have you back, James …"
He deflected. "I still can't find half the stuff I need …"
The resulting smiles were self-conscious. Cuddy was a little hesitant to take the non-conversation forward and perhaps strike a nerve in the still-grieving Wilson. "You look tired, Dr. Wilson. Things will get better. Don't push too hard."
"Why would you think I'd do that?"
She shrugged and swept a hand above the mess that surrounded him. "Because that's the way you operate. Your desk looks as though you're waging war across it … trying to do too many things at once."
He breathed a tiny puff of amusement through his nose. "And you're telling me that … because?"
"Because you're holding that pen like a sword."
"The pen has always been mightier than the sword."
"James …" There was exasperation in her tone.
He shrugged. "Sorry. I'm just trying to stay ahead of the memories. There are some things that come back to haunt me, no matter what I do to get beyond them. The only thing that seems to be working in my favor is the fact that House has been a bit subdued since we returned from the colonel's funeral …"
Cuddy stepped closer to the desk and lowered herself briefly onto the only chair not piled with file folders. "Well, look at it this way;" she said with a twinkle in her eyes, "he's probably just backing up for a fresh start."
Wilson wrinkled his nose a bit. "Just what I needed to hear. Thanks a lot for the encouragement."
Cuddy laughed softly. "Well, I just wanted to stop by and let you know that this place is very happy to have you back where you belong. All of us are. Even House. Especially House …"
He watched her rise and turn to leave his office. It was nice to be appreciated …
"Thank you …" he called after her.
Time was passing quickly, James thought, rubbing absently at a twinge of pain beginning to bite at his temple.
Outside it was raining, for God's sake … in the middle of winter. The drops were big; bursting against the glass like small water balloons. He frowned. He was sure it had been below freezing when he'd arrived at his office. The temperature must have gone up since then. Damn global warming! Damn crazy weather. One would think it was April, not January.
Accept the things you can't change …
He hauled out his middle desk drawer and withdrew a bottle of aspirin. The headache was gaining momentum now, and the goofy monsoonish weather was playing hell with his sinuses. Time to corral the monster. He took two of them dry as he had seen House do. The taste was strong and bitter.
Since the deaths of The Colonel and Amber, his friendship with House had pretty much settled into its old pattern of miniature crises and minor skirmishes. They'd both lived through it without killing each other, though sometimes not by much.
Wilson leaned back in his chair, relaxing backward to allow the headache to fade gradually away. He stared out the window at the dull grey sky and let his mind go blank.
221B BAKER STREET, PRINCETON:
It was nearly 10:00 a.m. Where had the time gone? He had walked it away, that's where.
Gregory House made it to the couch. Propped the cane against the arm. He was tired and edgy. He threaded his fingers through tangled hair that lay across his head like a peppery haystack. His beard felt like barbed wire curled around the lower half of his face. Baggy scrubs hung off his skinny ass, and the tail of his tee shirt lay puddled about his middle like a wrung-out dishrag. He was too tired to care, and the burn in the wasted muscle was not going away.
He encircled his angry right leg and positioned it across the coffee table. His right hand worried at his thigh as though it had nothing better to do. The area of the scar was hard as rock. His pain was mounting again and he was running out of options.
A fresh supply of morphine was stashed atop the bookcase.
He'd paced the length of the apartment until the soles of his feet stung. The callus on the heel of his right hand began to burn, and his shoulder was screaming. He'd had enough of pain. Enough of the stiff upper lip. Enough of everything.
He stared at the bookcase, despising the need to resort to desperate measures again, but it was time. He placed his foot back on the floor and ratcheted himself up from the couch. The stepstool was in the pantry beside the refrigerator, and he yanked it out with barely controlled rage.
After he climbed up there, threw down the cane, grasped the box and pulled it toward him, he felt for purchase with his other hand and curled his toes over the top step of the stool. He stood motionless for a moment, acclimating himself to his position.
His balance fled as the stepstool tilted sharply away from the lesser amount of weight he could place on his right side. The morphine box flew through the air and the stepstool slammed to the floor in the opposite direction. House crashed across from it in an awkward heap.
He landed flat on his ass, on the tip of the cane he'd tossed down earlier. In spite of everything he might have done to bite it back, a yelp of pain escaped him and morphed into a howl of agony.
He struggled to roll over and away from the sharp pain that dug at his hip bone and raced in angry echoes into the center of his back, down his leg and into his foot. He managed to rise about halfway, but the strength he might have called upon when he was a healthy man was not there now.
The rubber tip of the cane dug into his hip bone, producing another piercing stab of torture. House, however, mercifully passed out before his keening could be heard echoing through the whole apartment.