Sleeping Man III: Settling the Score
Characters: House and Wilson
Timeline: The fall, around the time of Cane and Able
Summary: A brief epilogue for Sleeping Man I: Outside and Sleeping Man II: Inside. This won’t make sense unless you’ve read the earlier parts first.
Since coming back from the dead, House had become something of a minor national celebrity, and when he alerted Police Department headquarters in Cambridge that he was arriving the next day, ostensibly for the simple purpose of retrieving the remains of his motorcycle, the Chief of Police himself insisted on meeting him.
“Dr. House?” he asked, shaking House’s hand and then raking him with an unabashedly curious gaze.
“The same,” said House. Everyone in the vicinity had dropped what they were doing to watch.
“And I’m Dr. Wilson,” said Wilson, leaning forward to shake hands since House, having flunked Manners 101 some time ago, would never think to introduce him.
“Gotta admit, you still don’t look much like the photograph.”
This was something of an understatement. The photograph the Chief was referring to was at least ten years old—and it predated House’s scruffy period. It was the only one the hospital had found to give the press when House disappeared. And after he reappeared, the press had never managed to get a new photo of him, despite their frantic efforts, thanks to Cuddy and Wilson.
During the initial barrage of press coverage, Cuddy had ferociously kept reporters away from House, who was far too sick to talk the first few days. When he was well enough to be discharged—House and Wilson brazenly leaving the hospital by the front door, right through the scrum of reporters--no one had recognized either of them, because they were, well, unrecognizable: not quite in drag, but well hidden under wigs Wilson had snatched from the Oncology Department. Safely home and finally well enough to talk on the phone, House had firmly declined all requests for phone interviews, had never ventured outside the door, and gradually the swarms of reporters outside 221 Baker Street had melted away, their disappointment at missing “the get” —the biggest media get in months-- almost palpable.
As a result, the story of what had happened to him in the days he’d gone missing had never come out. What disturbed Wilson, though, was that House had never talked to anyone about what had gone on in those ten days. He had dodged all of Wilson’s questions, just giving the sketchiest outline, claiming he could no longer remember. After a while, Wilson stopped pressing him; he figured like all things House, the information would come out when House was ready to give it, and not a moment sooner. Still, he had not stopped tormenting himself by wondering about it, wondering how House had gotten himself into such an abject, filthy, nine-tenths-dead state.
“The camera always adds ten pounds, I’m told,” said House, looking casually around the station house. For reasons he wouldn’t share with Wilson, he’d decided to shave for this trip and don a suit and tie. In that way, he resembled the old photo the Chief was referring to—but nothing else did.
It had been nearly four weeks since House had been discharged from the hospital in Wilson’s care. In that time he’d managed to put back on a little weight and conquer the acute phase of the pneumonia that had nearly done him in. It would, however—in Wilson’s judgment anyway--be a very long time before he was back to the shape he’d been in before getting sick.
His kidneys were healing nicely, no thanks to anything House had done. He had continued vehemently protesting the strict high-carb, low protein diet Wilson had put him on, but his protests fell on deaf ears. Twice Wilson had intercepted delivery boys at the door with take-out food on the No Fly List. Thereafter Wilson had taken the precaution of removing all cash from his wallet and hiding his credit cards. House, of course, had neither cash nor credit cards, having lost his wallet during his previous escapade; thus, the third time the Thai Palace delivery boy showed up with $80 worth of food, House discovered he had no way to pay for it, and Wilson refused to rescue him. There was a tense moment while the oncologist thought the boy might throw the food in House’s face. Instead he left, promising to blacklist him at every takeout place in the Tri-state area for the rest of his entire life and part of the next one. The hunger strike following that episode went on for three hideously long days.
As a result, House still looked gaunt. He leaned heavily on the anonymous wooden cane Wilson had found for him. Worse, his hair had only just begun to grow in following the Wilson shaving incident. In fact the two of them still resembled post-chemo cancer patients. Their hair was an identical one inch long, the difference being that House’s stood up in straight haphazard bristles like the hair of a frightened animal, while Wilson’s grew flat on his skull, revealing a series of what House had dubbed “adorable” cowlicks that Wilson had been hiding since the age of fifteen when he’d first figured out how to use a blow dryer. Even worse, Wilson was acutely aware that his eyebrows were taking their own damn time growing back, and if you’ve never seen what an eyebrow crew cut looks like, take his word for it: you don’t want to know.
“You’ve come to get your bike out of hock, I’m told,” said the Chief, whose name was Potter.
“Yes,” House admitted. “Or what’s left of it.”
“I’ll drive you myself,” said Chief Potter, and with one last glance around the station house, House followed him out the door to the waiting squad car.
Officer Robinson watched the door shut behind House and collapsed back into his desk chair with a sigh of relief so loud it earned him stares from fellow officers. Ever since the news of House’s miraculous reappearance had made national headlines, he had lived with the sword of Damocles hanging over him, wondering when the blade would fall and sever him from his job, wondering when the press would get a hold of the details and make him into a national scapegoat for everything that was wrong with police departments everywhere these days.
He’d decided once again that he better start dusting off his resume. But who would hire a police officer who’d been nationally disgraced? Thank god he was close to getting his paramedic license. Maybe they were desperate enough for paramedics somewhere that they’d hire him. Somewhere like Alaska. Where no one reads newspapers.
For the next hour, these thoughts, in rotation with the same old rationalizations he’d been making to himself this last month (“It’s not my fault. Anyone would have reached the same conclusion. How could I know he was a doctor and not a loony?”) ran through his head ceaselessly.
Following House’s reappearance, as the days had turned into weeks, and the details of House’s treatment by the Cambridge Police Department—by one Officer Robinson to be exact— had never surfaced, he had gradually relaxed, very gradually, one nerve fiber at a time. House, he concluded just days ago, must have no memory of that time, must have forgotten his—Robinson’s—reprehensible mishandling of his case. Thank the lord.
Then the door to the precinct house had opened, a tall, vaguely familiar looking man in a tan suit and red tie had walked in, leaning on a cane and talking to another man, and announced himself to the woman at the front desk: “I’m Dr. House, and I’m here to see Chief Potter.”
Robinson had nearly shat himself.
But the gaze that House swept around the room had lingered only briefly on him, very briefly, before Robinson found something fascinating in his bottom desk drawer that required close scrutiny. And when he had dared to glance up again, House was leaving the building without a word.
He had dodged that bullet. House was just here to get his bike. He had not remembered or recognized Robinson. If he had, Robinson told himself, he would have told every newspaper everywhere by now. He would have alerted Chief Potter, too. Robinson would long ago have been toast. No, he and his job were safe. He could breathe again.
Sitting in the back of the Chief’s car, Wilson was getting an earful, and what he heard was dumbfounding. For the first time, in plain, measured tones, House was relating the details of exactly what had happened to him four weeks ago, or at least those details relevant to Chief Potter: from his first arrest, to being forced out of the park at dusk, to his efforts to report himself and his motorcycle as missing. He was for the most part precise and careful, like a witness on the witness stand. But he mentioned no names, nothing that would give away anyone’s identity.
Potter listened in complete silence. Just as House finished his narrative, Wilson’s phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and passed the phone forward.
“It’s for you,” he told House. “USA Today.”
House held the cell phone without answering it. He gave Potter a long look. “I wonder,” he said, glancing down at the phone, “what the Cambridge Police Department might be prepared to do to improve its treatment of the homeless population?”
Potter looked at the still ringing cell phone and then back to House. “Yes,” he said slowly. “The homeless. It’s something I care very much about.”
“Good,” said House. He passed the phone back to Wilson without a glance. “Tell USA Today I’m not available.”
The motorcycle was a poor, twisted, mud-covered wreck. By some miracle, House’s cane was still attached to the side. Wilson popped it off and handed it to House, who promptly ditched the other cane in a trash can. House began asking the Chief about arrangements to have the bike towed to New Jersey.
When Potter realized that House was going to try to salvage the bike instead of selling it to a local junkyard, he stopped him. “My brother-in-law’s a miracle worker with motorcycles,” he said. “I’m sure he’d like to work on this one for you.” Then he added hastily, “As a favor to me, of course.”
House smiled for the first time that day.
Despite everything, despite all his rationalizations, Robinson was still panicky when the Chief and Dr. House returned that afternoon. He saw them confer briefly at the door. Potter shot a startled look right at Robinson, and nodded slowly. House made his departure, without a backward glance.
Robinson’s heart was in his throat as Potter made his way over to his desk. He felt the blood drain from his face.
“Officer Robinson,” began Potter in a not unfriendly voice. “I thought you’d like to be the first to know that the Department will be developing a new policy regarding the homeless.”
“Yes. And before he left Dr. House mentioned that you looked like the kind of man who might like to chair the committee in charge of creating that new policy. It shouldn’t take more than, let’s say, five hours a week for the next few months.”
“He did? I mean, yes. Yes, of course.”
“And he also suggested that you might like to set an example for the rest of the force, seeing as you’ll be chairing this committee, by volunteering four hours a week at the soup kitchen.”
“You won’t be paid for it, of course.”
“No, of course not. That would be…wrong.”
“Great! That’s settled then.” Potter clapped him on the back and turned to leave.
“Chief Potter, sir?” The Chief paused and gave him a raised eyebrow. “How did Dr. House know that I, that I’d be happy to—or rather that I was the right man for all this?”
“You know, he couldn’t really say how he knew. Let’s call it a hunch. A lucky hunch.”
“Lucky,” repeated Robinson as he sank to his chair. “Very lucky.”
The doctor at the free clinic didn’t get off quite as easily.
By the time House was through with his boss—which took a while as Good Morning America, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe kept interrupting with phone calls; someone seemed to have informed the press that House was suddenly eager to do interviews—there was general agreement that the clinic needed to open a satellite office actually inside the homeless shelter, Halfway Home, and that this office should be funded by the hospital attached to the free clinic.
“It’ll be expensive to run,” said House, rising to his feet, and finally turning off his cell phone with a show of annoyance as yet another press call came through.
“No expense is too great,” began the hospital’s Dean of Medicine, and he began listing the ways in which he hoped to make improved medical treatment for the uninsured an important part of his tenure.
Wilson, who had listened tight-lipped as House detailed for the Dean his treatment at the clinic, was unable to focus on his words. The humiliation of House’s experience was such that Wilson found himself, now, long moments later, still flushing in anger. He was astonished that House could relate it all so dispassionately. Clearly he’d been thinking about it for weeks, though. Once again he’d been careful to name no names, though the Dean pressed him to do so. A scapegoat for the Dean, for the hospital, would be far too easy a thing for everyone, and besides, House had never believed in ratting out another doctor. There were better ways.
So it was that as House stood to leave, he seemed to be struck by an afterthought.
“You have a Dr. Bates here, don’t you? Young black guy? A second year resident? You know, it has just come to me that Dr. Bates might be the perfect person to volunteer at the Halfway Home clinic. What do you say to five nights a week? After he gets off work at your clinic here?”
The Dean bit his lip. “Dr. Bates? Why, yes. Of course. The perfect person. I’ll speak to him right away. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes,” said House. “I need a pair of crutches.”
House actually got to Dr. Bates before the Dean did. Wilson didn’t witness this meeting. All he saw was House leaving the doctors’ lounge a good half hour later, tucking a business card into his breast pocket, with a look of deep satisfaction on his face.
“C’mon,” he said to Wilson. “One more place before we go home.”
House stopped at Halfway Home, greatly startling the woman at the front desk.
“Why, it’s you--Mr. Daniels!” she exclaimed. “I mean, Dr. House. I knew it was you! I knew it!”
House stopped her ejaculations of surprise and happiness by thrusting the crutches at her. “Thanks for the loan. I hope you can find someone else who might need them.”
Then he asked her something about some shelter residents named, as far as Wilson could tell, Fergus and Estelle. The receptionist checked her ledger and shook her head. House looked disappointed but pulled out a business card. “If they ever show up, please give them this,” he said. “Tell them it’s from Jack.”
“Now where are we going?” asked Wilson. “I thought you said just one last stop.” House had ditched the car and was walking toward the Charles River with no apparent destination in mind. “It’s getting late. And cold. We’ll miss our train.” He didn’t add that House looked completely worn out, that walking even that short distance was clearly taxing him.
House paused to look at his watch while he caught his breath. “They’ll be along any minute now,” he said cryptically. “If they’re still here.” He began walking again, heading now toward a bridge abutment along the riverside. To Wilson’s amazement he ducked under the bridge and re-emerged holding a long strip of corrugated cardboard hidden there, as if he’d known all along it was there. He hauled it over to some grass by the river’s edge. “I’ve gotta lie down,” he said, lowering himself carefully to a reclining position and gazing up at the sky. “Care to join me? There’s another piece of cardboard in there you can have. I’m sure they won’t mind.”
“Who—“ stuttered Wilson. “What—“ And then he just gave up and joined House beside the river.
Sure enough, ten minutes later, he heard voices.
“What the heck?” someone exclaimed. “Someone stole our mattresses.”
“You can’t trust nobody these days,” grumbled a second voice, a woman’s. “Just when you—hey, there they are! You! Whaddya mean stealing our stuff?” Wilson turned his head in time to see a man and a woman, the man pushing a shopping cart and the woman hauling a trash bag, pointing at them and heading in their direction. They were worked up and decidedly unsavory looking. Wilson jabbed House in the side.
“House!” he hissed frantically. “House, get up!” House ignored him, continuing to examine the heavens. But Wilson stumbled to his feet and turned to face his accusers, his hands out in a placating gesture.
“No harm meant,” he said with what he hoped was a friendly smile. “Just borrowing. Here, you can have it back.” He grasped the cardboard gingerly between thumb and forefinger, holding it out like a piece of meat to an angry dog. These people were large, and the word scruffy hardly did them justice. They just glared at him and he felt intensely aware that he was dressed in his best blazer and grey flannels, not to mention his shiny Italian leather loafers.
The man, a bearded behemoth, snatched the cardboard from him and Wilson took an involuntary step backward. “Get your own cardboard,” muttered the man, his glare diminishing not one whit. “And as for your friend here—“
“As for his friend,” said House, and he rolled onto his stomach and found his feet in a move that was admirably nimble for a man with a bad leg. Then he grabbed his cardboard pad and held it in front of him, facing the newcomers for the first time. “As for his friend, this IS his cardboard, Fergus, you old fraud. So hands off.”
If there had been a contest as to whose jaw dropped farther or faster, the judges would have been hard pressed to choose between Wilson and Fergus; for her part, Estelle would have come in a very close third. There was the briefest of pauses and as the dumbstruck Wilson watched, Fergus bellowed, “Jack!” and enveloped House in a bear hug—a bear hug that he actually tolerated. Estelle quickly elbowed Fergus aside and bestowed her own hug. The two of them stood grinning at House in evident disbelief and then everyone started talking at once.
“Lookit you!” said Estelle. “Lookit you all dressed up in a fancy suit.”
“You made it to Princeton,” said Fergus, shaking his head.
“Thanks to you.”
“We was worried about you, Jack. Thought for sure you’d croak somewheres along the way.”
“Came close but turns out I’m hard to kill. And it’s Greg, actually. Greg House.”
“You remembered your name!” exclaimed Estelle. “You remembered who you are! What happened? Somebody clocked you on the head and you woke up and it all come back to you?”
House shot a sideways look at Wilson. “Um, well, something like that, yes.”
The sideways glance was not lost on Estelle. “Who’s this then, Jack?” she asked slyly.
“This is Dr. Wilson.”
Wilson extended a hand, feeling like he was in some sort of alternate universe. House completed the introductions as Wilson’s hand was swallowed in Fergus’s giant one: “Estelle and Fergus.”
“Very pleased to meet you.”
House was ignoring Wilson’s pointed What the hell is this? stare.
“Doctor Wilson, eh?” Estelle persisted, giving Wilson an uncomfortable once-over. “Did you nurse him back to health, then?” She jabbed Fergus in the ribs. “Just like in All My Sons and Lovers,” she hissed to her partner in a loud stage whisper.
“I suppose you could say that, yes,” mumbled Wilson.
Estelle got close enough to him that he was grateful to be upwind of her and she stage-whispered in his ear: “Don’t worry. He won’t remember that you cheated on him.” With a mysterious wink, she withdrew.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Wilson finally blurted out. House seemed to take him in for the first time, perplexed glare and all.
“Estelle and Fergus here saved my sorry butt. Took me in. Let me camp out here with them”—a gesture that took in the muddy underpass, the scraggly bushes, the sodden cardboard. But House seemed oblivious to the horror of what he was revealing. “Fed me. Clothed me. Kept me alive while I was detoxing.” Detoxing? Here? Sweet Jesus Christ, that explained a lot.
“So you are a drug addict?” Fergus had put a hand on House’s arm. “You sure don’t look like one. Not now anyway.”
“Well, yes and no. Turns out I have a pretty steady Vicodin habit. For the leg.”
Wilson was forgotten again. House was back somewhere else. He had picked his back pack up off the ground and was rummaging through it. “Here’s your hat,” he said, extending a battered Red Sox hat to Fergus. “I’m afraid it’s been boiled. Does it still fit? Great. And, look, I’m sorry about the parka. They had to…well, let’s just say it got destroyed.”
“No problem, Jack. Really, you—“
“And here’s that bottle of brandy I owe you, you know, for the bus ticket home.” House pulled out a bottle of something truly disgusting, coffee brandy it looked like. And this time Fergus gave him a huge smile and took the bottle gladly.
“Okay, so we’re even. Enough, Jack. Really,” he said.
But House wouldn’t stop. He asked them why they were still in Boston when the weather was far too cold for living outside. When he found out they’d been prevented from travelling south because Estelle had had a “bad spell,” he made them both sit on the cardboard mats, pulled out a stethoscope and listened to their lungs and heart. This was made difficult by their continued exclamations over the fact that House had turned out to be an actual doctor—“I called it! Didn’t I say so, Estelle!” “No, Fergus it was me who…”
After House got Estelle to describe the symptoms of her “spell” he extracted a glucometer from his bag and tested both their blood sugars. At last he sat back, satisfied.
“All right,” he said. “Here’s what’s going to happen.” He took an envelope from a breast pocket. “And argument is futile, so shut up and listen.”
Estelle frowned at Wilson. “Is he always this bossy?” she asked.
“I’m afraid so,” said Wilson. “You better do what he says.”
“Here are two bus tickets to Florida. No, don’t argue. It’s payback for my ticket to Princeton. But you’re not going anywhere until you get treated at the clinic. You both have diabetes mellitus and you need to get started on insulin and a proper diet. Also, Fergus, you need to have the lesion on your neck checked out. Looks like squamous cell cancer to me.”
“Right, Jack.” Fergus nodded once or twice, but his attention seemed more focused on the brandy bottle than on what House was saying.
“Will do, Jack. Swear to God.”
House looked from one to the other and then sighed.“You’re bullshitting me, aren’t you? You have no intention of going to the clinic.”
“Jack, dear, you know the problem with the clinic. The tests are free but the treatment ain’t. Who can afford the treatment?”
“Turns out, you can.” House pulled a business card out of the envelope and passed it to Estelle.
“Dr. Bates,” she read with a frown. “So?”
“That card’s got my signature on the back, so don’t lose it. You show it to Dr. Bates, and he’ll see to it personally that you get whatever treatment you need. At no cost—well, except to him. And here’s my card. If you run into any problems, you call me.”
Estelle shook her head slowly. “Amazing. It’s kinda like a Burger King Gold Card for medical care.”
“Exactly. And speaking of Burger King…” He passed them another card from the envelope.
“Get out!” said Estelle, jumping to her feet. “A real Burger King Gold Card!! How’d you get one of these?”
“Friends in high places. So no more eating garbage, okay? Last order of business.” He passed another business card to Fergus. “That’s the Chief of Police’s card, with his signature on the back. You run into any trouble with the police, show them that card.”
“Ho boy! A Get Out of Jail Free card.”
“Mmmm, more like a Stay Out of My Hair card. Careful how you use it.” House climbed slowly to his feet. “Well, I guess that’s everything.” He shook Fergus’s hand and submitted to another hug from Estelle. “Look me up if you’re ever in Princeton. We'll go dumpster diving, for old time's sake.”
Estelle watched the two doctors walk off, House limping slowly on the frozen and rutted ground, Wilson a half step away to make sure he didn’t fall.
“Pity,” she mused aloud.
“What are you talking about?” asked Fergus, who was turning the Burger King card over and over as if it were a winning lottery ticket.
“Do you think he had all the gay knocked out of him when he woke up? It would be a shame. That Dr. Wilson’s a cutie pie.”
“Except for those eyebrows.”
“Yeah, they’re a little weird. But whaddya think? Gay or straight?”
“I think you watch way too much television, Estelle Johnson. C’mon now. Let’s go get us a whole shopping cart full of Whoppers.”