Characters: House, Wilson, Cuddy, with some appearances by the rest of the Scooby Gang; and a few OC.
Rating: Gen; R for language; H/W strong friendship (slash if you wear slash goggles)
Summary: House takes a vacation from... everything.
Timeline: Set in the early fall of last year, around the events of Cane and Able, Informed Consent, Lines in the Sand.
A/N. Bear with me a bit. I've finished writing (and re-writing) most of Sleeping Man. I've re-structured it, including the beginning. So I am going to post it all over again from the start.
A/N (April 2008): Now that this epic fic is finished (all 60,000 words of it) I've got it available on a Word file. If you'd prefer to read it that way, PM me with your email address.
“Come on, buddy. Wake up. “
The policeman nudged the still form with a foot. A whiskey bottle resting on his chest fell to the ground with an unmistakably empty sound. “No sleeping in the park, pal.” The sleeping man groaned and tried to roll onto his other side. The policeman ran his flashlight over the length of him. Disheveled, unshaven, his clothes dirty and torn, smelling faintly of whiskey, his fly half unzipped. The cop sighed. He was so close to the end of his shift. It was tempting just to let the poor slob sleep it off under the bushes. But duty called.
”What time is it?” asked Lenny as yet another car pulled out of the rest stop and passed by without a second glance. He gave the car a finger as it pulled back into traffic.
“Seven thirty,” said his companion. “We’re never going to fucking get there at this rate.” So near and yet so far. They were just across the river, maybe five miles from South Boston. “If we’re not there by eight, the whole deal’s off. Ten grand,down the toilet.” So much for their plan of instant riches.
“And it’s getting dark. Once it’s dark we’re screwed—no one will stop for us. “ He turned to his companion. “Put the fucking bottle away,” he growled. Nobody’s gonna stop if they see you fucking drinking fucking whiskey.” Lenny ignored him, took another long swig at the bottle and wiped his chin on the sleeve of his army fatigue jacket.
“Got a plan,” said Lenny, stumbling a bit as he returned the bottle to his jacket pocket.
“This better be better than your last plan.”
“Shut up. Listen. Next car that comes in here, we…borrow it.”
“Steal a car? Now you are nuts. Cops’ll be on us in no time..”
“Nah, we’ll just jack something long enough to get us to Richie’s place. Ditch it before the cops find us. A free ride, y’see? And whaddya know? Look here—here comes our ride, right now. Sweet.”
“A motorcycle? You stupid fucker. You don’t even know how to ride a bike.”
“Shut up,” said Lenny, and pulled his buddy back out of sight to watch as the Honda pulled into the rest area. The driver killed the ignition, and the two hitchhikers moved behind a tree as the man sat for a moment, massaging his right leg and seeming to gather his strength. “Come on, you fucker,”muttered Lenny. “Go take a piss. You know you want to. And leave the key.” As he said it, the man removed his helmet, lifted his right leg slowly over the bike, stood for a moment leaning on the handlebars, and then –limping heavily, his right hand pressed hard against his leg—moved off toward nearby bushes that grew between the gravel rest area and the banks of the Charles River.
“Just our luck, he took the key.”
“Never mind,” smirked Lenny. “The guy’s a cripple. How hard can this be? Taking candy from a baby. Come on.”
The two crept up behind the unsuspecting man, the sound of the traffic on Memorial Drive hiding the noise of their approach. Just as the biker was wrapping up business, Lenny pulled the whiskey bottle out of his pocket and swung it in a quick, hard arc that connected with the right side of the guy’s skull. No dramatic shattering of glass, like in the movies, just a solid thud, and the man slumped straight to the ground—a marionette with his strings cut.
“Shit, you killed him, you moron.”
“Naw,” said Lenny, who had turned the man over and was going through his pockets. ‘He’s still breathing. Aha!” He smiled and held up a set of keys.
“Let’s get out of here,” said his friend, panic starting to set in.
“Just a aminute,” said Lenny, continuing his pat down. “What’s this?” He dug around a pocket and then held up a bottle of pills, squinting at it in the fading light. “Vicodin! Oh, yeah!”
“Come on—enough. Let’s get out of here.” His friend glanced anxiously around, but Lenny pulled the man onto his stomach and checked his back pockets.
“Ka-ching!” exclaimed Lenny, holding up a wallet.
“You take his credit cards, we’re in big trouble. This is bad enough.”
“Relax,” he said. “I’m not that stupid. Now help me move him.”
The two grasped the man by the wrists—he was heavier than he looked--and dragged him across the mud and gravel until he was lying beneath the bushes. He looked quite peaceful, curled up on his side. Pausing a moment to uncap the whiskey, Lenny drained most of the bottle, and then, with an evil grin, poured the last few drops onto the chest of the sleeping man. He wrapped the man’s arm around the empty bottle. “Sweet dreams, and thanks for the ride,” he said, almost fondly.
“And we’re outta here,” Lenny's friend declared, tugging him back onto the gravel parking area. He snatched the wallet from Lenny's hand just as he was rifling through it, pocketed the cash and, before Lenny could object, tossed the wallet into a nearby trash can. "Come on," he shouted.
Moments later the Honda sprang into life and the two stuttered jerkily off to their rendezvous on the other side of the river. The sun dipped behind the Boston skyline. A chill settled over the city. The sleeping man stirred, then rolled over and fell back asleep.
The policeman lowered himself, grunting, to a squatting position, and poked the man in the side with his flashlight.
“Get moving, mister,” he repeated. “Don’t make me take you in.” He flashed the light straight into the man’s face. This got a reaction, a grimace, and a hiss of pain. The sleeping man rolled onto one elbow, rubbing the back of his head with his other hand.
“Fug off,” he slurred, trying to brush the flashlight out of his face. “Go ‘way.”
The policeman kept his flashlight mercilessly trained on his eyes. “Come on, you—“
Without warning the man vomited. Half of it went down his front the other half splattered over the cop’s well shined shoes.
“Son of a ---!” the cop shouted, stumbling backwards. . Disgusted, he called for his partner. “Gimme a hand, Ransom. Got to take this guy in. He’s drunk.” The two of them hauled the man to his feet, where he swayed drunkenly. “What’s your name?” they demanded.
The man opened his mouth to answer, but then stopped. He shook his head slowly, as if to clear it, and a confused look crossed his features. At last he shrugged.
The cop sighed. He’d seen it all before. “Do you know where you are? What day it is?” The drunkard blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes.
“Park?” he mumbled.
“Where do you live? Got any ID on you?”
Once again, the man appeared about to speak, but this time it turned into retching. Both cops backed off, still holding him by the elbows. They patted him down. Nothing. No wallet. The first policeman was having trouble hiding his disgust.
“He’s completely wasted. Some days,” he muttered to his partner, “I wonder if I’m a law enforcement officer or a damn social worker. Let’s go,” he told the vagrant in a loud cheerful voice. “We’re taking you to the municipal hotel, otherwise known as the drunk tank. You can sleep it off there. At least,” he added, not unkindly, “you won’t get rained on.”
The important thing was written on a piece of paper, folded many times like origami and stuffed deep down into a faraway pocket, an inner jacket pocket no one knew about. But now a dog was nosing him in his side as he tried to sleep, a dog with a hard sharp snout and fetid breath. It was after something, that piece of paper no doubt. But it was a secret and the dog had no right to it. He swatted at the dog, but the nose only prodded harder. The dog was trying to talk to him, but its words made no sense. “Fuck off,” he mumbled at last. “Go away.” Even in his dream his words sounded twisted, muffled.
“Now, now,” said the dog. “That’s no way to address an officer of the law. Come on. Get moving, mister. Don’t make me take you in.”
Bright light penetrated his eyelids and shot splinters of pain through his head. Squeezing his eyes shut, he sucked in a breath and propped himself carefully on an elbow. The back of his head hurt—his whole head hurt—a pain that alternated between deep and throbbing, and knife sharp. Cotton wool and glass shards. “Cut it out,” he told the dog. There was a lump above his ear . He tried opening his eyes. Black shiny shoes. Not shoes, boots. Blue uniform pant cuffs. The smell of grass, mud, whiskey. A bottle of Jim Beam. The boots and bottle suddenly shivered and divided into two. Two of everything The light in his eyes again, and the glass shards shifted. His stomach recoiled and before he knew what had happened hot bile and vomit rose in his throat and spilled out his mouth. He couldn’t stop it and felt vaguely ashamed.
The dog growled something. The shoes disappeared, came back. More of them this time. Hands grabbed at his armpits. He tried to focus on them, but everything was in doubles. Two faces, no, four faces. The world spun. Christ he was really really drunk. He couldn’t make the spinning stop, he couldn’t make the world come into focus.
“What’s your name?” asked one of the faces. Cops. They were cops. Shit.
He tried to come up with it, he really did, because he sensed that maybe then they would leave him alone. But it was lost, somewhere in the cotton wool, or maybe written on that piece of paper somewhere. He shrugged.
“Do you know where you are? What day it is?”
Where was he? No idea. Outdoors. He would have shaken his head but moving it at all brought on more dizziness, more nausea, so he settled on shrugging. “A park?’ he guessed.
He was walking, being dragged really. Christ, what was wrong with his leg? He nearly fell, bringing the whole lot of them down. They cursed again. Plastic cuffs like garbage bag ties around his wrists. A car door slamming beside him. Someone buckling him in like a child.
“Don’t you fucking puke on my nice clean squad card,” said the one with the bad breath. “Or I will bust you from here to next Sunday, so help me God.” But when the car started moving he did puke again, and again until nothing was left in his stomach but his head was full to bursting, about to split open ear to ear. He puked right in the middle of their argument about the Yankees and the Red Sox and forced them to pull over the car and make sure he wasn’t aspirating on his own vomit.
More talking, more walking—lurching really—more bright lights and more questions he couldn’t answer. The man accepted it all—the bolt of pain in his leg that had caused him to stumble, the complete absence of anything solid to hold onto, except that his head hurt, his stomach too, and he wanted to sleep. To go back down into the well he had been in, a black well of nothingness. At last he was allowed to lie down again. It was just a wooden bench, but it was blissful to lie down and sleep, undisturbed by cops or dogs or dreams or questions.
“Jason Javits and John Doe. Let’s go.”
He was lying on the floor—the concrete floor—of a cell. Cold and gritty against his cheek, damp with drool beneath his chin. On the other side of the room someone was pissing into a toilet. The smell of urine joined the pungent tang of vomit. There was a sharp clang and a harsh grating sound from behind him. A police sargent had unlocked the door of the cell and was gesturing at the two of them.
“That’s you, buddy. John Doe. Let’s go.”
He sat up stiffly. The world had stopped spinning, and the diplopia had resolved itself into normal vision. But the headache was, if anything, worse. It had been joined by a pain in his right leg that just wouldn’t quit. He nodded mutely to the cop at the cell door, and pulled himself slowly to a standing position using the bench above him (at some point in the night he must have rolled off onto the floor). The right leg was not only sore, but was unbelievably unhappy about having any weight put on it. He made his way to the door by holding onto the bars of the cell, while gripping the waist of his pants with his free hand. Someone had divested him of belt and shoes the night before.
“All right, mister,” said the sergeant when they reached the front desk. “The officer who brought you in really wanted to book you for public drunkenness and vagrancy.” He looked down at the clipboard he was holding. His features softened for a moment. “We’ll let you off this time. But next time, do your drinking in private. You got some place to dry out? Some place to go home to?”
Home? What did that mean? A wife and kids? A tidy apartment somewhere? A cat? Neighbors? Friends? A backyard with swingset and gas-fired barbecue? He could summon nothing. The word home was meaningless. “No,” he said. And then again. “No.” He should feel alarm. Dismay. Something. All he felt was embarrassment. This cop had a home, a wife, a pet dog, he was sure. He had nothing. Nothing but the mother of all hangovers.
The cop handed him a brown bag with his shoes and belt in it, John Doe scrawled in Magic Marker on the side. Then he reached under the desk and produced a thin brochure printed on cheap paper. “Homeless shelter’s six blocks down. Check it out.”
The man nodded. He wall-crept over to a worn, wooden slat bench, lowered himself slowly onto it, and installed his shoelaces and belt with fumbling uncoordinated hands. He ran a hand over his right thigh, the source of the pain radiating up his torso. The leg felt gouged out, incomplete. He knew he should care about this, or at least wonder at it, but for the moment all he was capable of thinking was, how the hell was he going to walk six blocks, feeling the way he did right now.
“Hey, John Doe,” said the cop as he made his way out the door. He remembered that this was his name now, and turned to look at the cop. The cop gave him a not unfriendly smirk.
“You really tied one on last night. You remember your name yet?”
“Yeah,” he said slowly, unwilling to admit otherwise. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Feels like he’s been gone a week,” said Cuddy, her feet propped up on the coffee table, a relaxed look on her face that made Wilson feel like she was the one on vacation. He dropped the sheaf of grant applications he’d brought for her signature onto her desktop and joined her on the short couch.
“One day. One day and already I feel guilty,” he said. “Only House could make you feel guilty for forcing him to be happy.”
“I know what you mean,” murmured Cuddy happily. “Wonderful feeling, isn’t it?”
“By now, he’s spread out in the hot tub of some luxurious Boston hotel, emptying the mini-fridge of liquor and ordering up bad movies. Why should I feel guilty about that?” After biking two hundred miles he’d damn well need a hot tub, some part of his brain reminded him. And a massage and a fistful of Vicodin.
“Remember, we’re talking about a man who could make you feel guilty for saving his life,” sighed Cuddy. “Feeling guilty for forcing him to take a vacation—hey, that’s child’s play for him.”
She—they—had, in fact, forced him to go. Following the minor screw-up that fall caused by letting House feel he had screwed up, missed diagnoses, lost his touch; following the return of pain and the failure of the ketamine treatment, and House’s refusal to talk about it, they had conspired one more time to try to do what was right for House. He needed a break, Wilson convinced her. To get away from the hospital, filled as it was with people who couldn’t hide their pitying looks when he showed up at work that day, leaning hard on his cane again, the same hospital where only a few days ago he had been taking the stairs two at a time; where people—himself included—noticeably averted their eyes when he started taking Vicodin again, trying hard not to count how often and how many.
And so she had gone to talk to him. Told him that the hospital accountant was getting hard-assed about staff who had backlogs of vacation time. Cuddy needed said staff to wipe their vacation time off the hospital books, where it had to go in the “liability” column of the financial reports.
Hands on her hips, stern administrator voice. “Use it or lose it, House,” she told him, and only him. “New hospital policy. You’ve got, what, six years of vacation time accrued. Take some now, before we close the books at the end of the month—or lose it.”
“Just give me six weeks' vacation from the clinic, and we’ll call it quits,” House had wheedled. Cuddy didn’t buy it and in the end, House had agreed to take a week, or rather six days, off. Wilson had done his bit by finding and making him buy a four-day pass to a fall jazz festival being held in Portland, Maine.
”Go,” he urged. “Listen to music. Enjoy the foliage. Ride your bike. Eat bad food. Have fun.”
“Have fun,” repeated House, sounding like Eyeore, or someone being told to enjoy his colonoscopy. But in the end he had caved.
Perhaps he had caved too easily. Wilson hadn’t really believed his friend was going to take the vacation, and his skepticism led him to show up at House’s Wednesday, just to be sure. He suspected House might spend the week holed up in his apartment, not answering the phone, or venturing outside. A virtual vacation wasn’t going to do him any good. Wilson was there to make sure he kept to his plan.
The plan, since the Indian summer forecast was balmy, was to leave Wednesday, taking it slowly on his bike, giving himself eight hours to make Boston, and the whole next day to make it to Portland.
Wilson had stood around watching him pack. “You’re doing this for real,” he said, as if trying to convince both of them. House nodded. “Forgetting about work. Leaving your cell phone behind and everything,” he said—trying to make it a command and not a question.
“Absolutely,” said House, stuffing a bag with an extra pair of jeans, his leather jacket, and very few other items for the trip. “The children don’t need me anymore.” His voice grew tragic. “It seems like only yesterday they were in diapers.” He paused to fill Steve’s water bottle, point out to Wilson where the food was kept, and exact a pledge to come over once a day to play special rat pornography for Steve that House claimed to have downloaded onto his laptop.
On the sidewalk, Wilson watched him transfer the backpack into the bike’s saddle bags, and then stood there with his hand out as House lifted his leg over the bike. It was a move he’d regret many times in days to come.
“What?” asked House innocently, regarding the outstretched palm.
“What are you talking about?” The eyebrows were raised in a pantomime of innocence. Wilson didn’t buy it, making an impatient gesture, and finally House sighed and dug the cell phone out of his jeans pocket. “I might need this,” he whined.
“Who’s going to call you? Aside from Chase, Cameron or Foreman?”
“My bookie,” House offered. Wilson shook his head. “Publisher’s Clearing House?” Wilson made a gimme motion with his fingers. “No, really, I’m expecting an important call from a close personal friend wanting to know if I’m happy with my long-distance provider.” Wilson neither smiled nor budged. House made a face but handed over the phone.
“Jeeze,” said Wilson. “You haven’t even turned it off. “ He slipped the phone into his jacket and then stood back and watched as House lowered the visor of his helmet, kicked the bike off its stand and drove off down the street without a backward glance. He experienced a fleeting pang of envy, imagining himself sitting behind House and joining him on the road trip. This he quickly shrugged off as a stupid adolescent fantasy—road trip, for Pete’s sake!—and turned his back on him before House was even out of sight.
“You feel guilty,” said Cuddy, still with the happy smile on her face as she gazed comfortably at the ceiling of her office, knowing that, even if the phone rang, it wouldn’t summon the sense of dread it always did when House was on the rampage; knowing that if the door to her office were to burst open the worst it could be was a board member irate about some financial catastrophe; “you feel guilty just the way our parents felt guilty when we finally left home and went to college. The moment we were gone, they changed the locks, broke out the champagne. Made love on the living room floor in the middle of the afternoon. And felt guilty about enjoying it.”
Wilson raised his eyebrows. “Maybe your parents…”
“Shut up. Yours did too. They just pretended to cry their little Jewish-mother hearts out when you left.“
Wilson put his feet up on the coffee table too, leaned his head back, and closed his eyes. It was hard to acknowledge, even now, the sense of relief he had had this morning, waking up, knowing he did not have to worry about House: whether the weather—or his leg-- would allow him to get to work okay on his bike or if Wilson might have to call and come up with some excuse for offering a ride; did he have enough Vicodin; had he done something to alienate someone who could make his life miserable; had he flipped off a cop recently; was he covering up problems with his health or his leg…the million little things that House would be furious to know he kept tabs on and worried about.
Wilson conducted an inner scan: blood pressure low, nagging worry bunnies nowhere to be seen, no incipient migraine headache…nothing. He turned to Cuddy.
“It’s three o’clock,” he said to the Dean of Medicine who was still sporting a blissful expression, eyes shut, on the couch beside him. “Shall we make love on the floor?”
The receptionist was eager to take her lunch break, and the man was just as eager to keep sitting on the chair.
It had taken him an hour to walk the six blocks to the shelter, and he simply couldn’t face the idea of standing again, much less walking.
What the journey had lacked in length it made up for in anguish. Despite the fact that his stomach was demonstrably empty, it had still insisted on repeatedly trying to turn itself inside out. The pain in his head had been quickly overtaken by the agony in his right leg. He could put almost no weight on it, and that had made walking a challenge, to say the least.
Starting with the broad semi-circular stairs leading down from the precinct house. There was nothing to hold on to, no railing on either side, and as he had stood looking down to the sidewalk he experienced a moment of agoraphobia, scared that the dizziness and clumsiness would overtake him again and he would end up getting to the bottom of the steps by the simple expedient of falling head over heels. Just the thought of jarring his head that hard made a wave of nausea rise inside him. There was no way his leg was going to go down those steps. And there was no way in hell he was going to sit down and crawl down them. So he just stood there.
Suddenly an arm landed on one shoulder, a hand grasped him by the elbow. “Let me give you a hand,” said the voice that belonged to the hand, and before he could react--protest, withdraw, refuse--he was being propelled slowly down the steps, held up by a stranger. No, no stranger. It was his cell mate—what was his name? Jacobs? Javits? He was a short man with a silver beard, distended belly and the bulbous nose that proclaimed chronic alcoholic. Definitely working on a case of cirhhosis of the liver, said the one part of the man’s brain not taken up in trying to negotiate the steps. “D’ja lose your crutches last night or something? You were pretty out of it,” Javits asked him in a voice that had no business being so cheerful after a night in the drunk tank.
It was a question that fortunately didn’t seem to require an answer. Javits kept talking and when they reached the sidewalk he added, “Well, here’s my ride home.” A silver Ford Escort had pulled up to the curb, driven by an equally silver-haired woman. “You need a ride anywhere?” asked Javits, letting go of the man’s elbow. “Where’s home?”
“No, I’m good. Got a ride coming,” the man muttered, and he watched as Javits gave him a wink and then got into the Escort. He could hear the sounds of arguing, even through the closed window, as the car pulled away from the curb.
Home, for him, was four blocks south and two blocks east. Is that right? He tried to remember what the desk cop had told him, because actually reading the homeless shelter brochure was beyond him at the moment. A lot of things were beyond him at the moment. All he could think about was getting to the shelter. Once there, he was sure he could take stock of his situation, get his brain to start working properly and figure out the answers to all the questions he was keeping at bay with an act of will. One step at a time, he told himself. Right now, find somewhere to lie down. Concentrate on walking. Left foot, then right foot, hand braced against thigh. Find a wall to lean against. Right foot, left foot. Find someplace to lie down. Then think about…all the other stuff.
Six blocks, one block at a time. He set off slowly, clinging to the wall of the brick buildings lining the sidewalk. His gait drew him stares of mid-day shoppers; they made wide detours around him. In the crisp fall air, he left grimy, sweat-fogged handprints on the windows of shops, the cheery bookstores and dry cleaners and banks. The smell of fresh coffee and donuts coming from the opening door of a Dunkin Donuts made him hungry and nauseous at the same time. He swallowed heavily and kept going.
He paused to rest after only a few dozen yards, gazing into the window of a small café, trying to get a look at his reflection. The man gazing back at him--faint, no more than a ghost-thin reflection—was a complete stranger. He could just make out a long gaunt face, pronounced cheekbones, large deepset eyes—blue? grey?—and the beginnings of a beard. He ran his hand along his chin. Chin hair. He had a good four days’ worth of stubble. Had he been like this for four days? The reflection of this stranger was superimposed over the faces of two of the café’s patrons, interrupted while trying to down their cheese quiche. He suddenly realized they had turned their startled faces to stare at him, mere inches away, through the glass. The man turned his back on all three of them—the patrons and the stranger reflected back at him--and sagged against the wall. Moments later, or perhaps ten minutes later—some busybody came out of the café, a well fed man in tight fitting jeans, and ordered him to move along before he called the police. The man blinked at him. “Go fuck yourself,” he said with as much force as he could muster. But he pushed himself off the plate glass window and set off again.
Six blocks. By the time he got to the end of the first block, he was sweating heavily. And now he had to cross the street. He gazed at the expanse of concrete like a man surveying a hundred miles of open desert.
He would have to release the support of the buildings and navigate the busy street with nothing to hold him up. His leg was quaking. The pain in his thigh had magnified by a factor of ten in the time he’d walked less than one block. Still, what choice did he have? He relinquished his hold on the last friendly wall and started into the intersection, buttressing his leg with his hand.
Halfway across, the light changed and the cars, ignoring the man in the crosswalk, accelerated past him on both sides. He staggered and nearly fell. A car screeched to a stop inches from him, the driver swearing loudly at him.
“I’m walking here!” said the man, doing a passable Ratso Rizzo impersonation and leaning heavily on the car’s hood to finish making it across the street. He may or may not have dragged the wristband of his watch across the paintwork of the hood as he did so.
“Asshole,” yelled the driver again, opening the door of his car to shout over his roof at him, and for moment the man thought he might get out and start a fight. But the cars that were backed up behind the driver began sounding their horns, and he finally shut the door, popped his clutch and took off.
On the other side of the street, a godsend. A bus stop, with a bench. Two women sat, staring straight ahead as he lowered himself to the bench with a grunt and then bent over, clutching his thigh. God that felt good, to sit. He noted dimly that the women stood up and moved away, even though the bus had not come yet. The man gazed down at his clothes. The t-shirt and jeans were still encrusted with vomit, and the shirt sported large dark stains around the neck and armpits. He must stink, he realized, though he couldn’t smell anything himself.
Just rest here a few moments, he thought. Catch my breath. It occurred to him that at the rate he was going, it might take him another four days to get to the homeless shelter. He pushed himself to his feet and started off again.
Within a few yards, he ran into his first piece of luck: the corner of this block was a construction site, surrounded by chain link fence, easy to grip as he made his way down the sidewalk. And there, a few feet in front of him, was a barrel of construction debris. Poking out of the barrel was a length of 1x2. The man managed to worm the piece of rough wood out of the barrel, not minding the splinters it drove into his palm. It was exactly long enough to make a suitable walking stick. It wasn’t able to take much weight off his leg, like a cane or a crutch, but it helped greatly with his balance. He set off again: left foot, right foot, stick. No need to lean on walls. He would get there. The thought of a soft mattress and a place to lie down kept him going, long after his leg had completely quit on him, long after the pain became unbearable.
“I need a place to stay, just for tonight,” he told the middle aged woman at the desk in the front hall of the sad brick building with mustard-colored linoleum floors. “I’m just…passing through.” She gave him an appraising look and passed him a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard with the stub of a pencil tucked into it. Not even a cheap ballpoint pen. Just a stub of a pencil, like the kind you get in libraries. She indicated a chair and checked her watch.
“Fill this out,” she said. He sat.
Name, said the form. They all wanted to know his name. What was a name, anyway? Just an artificial construct, a meaningless label. Still, he needed one. Everyone seemed to require one. Everyone seemed to have one. Except him.
He tried once again. Closed his eyes and worked hard to summon his name from the fog bank he could feel it lurking behind. It was right there, just out of reach. But he was too tired to force it, too tired to concentrate for more than a few seconds on anything. The fog and fatigue of last night had not lifted in the least this morning. All the concrete details of his life—he must have some concrete details, mustn’t he?—were no closer at hand. The harder he peered at them, the more resolutely they receded into the mist.
He would invent something then, invent a temporary identity until he had the strength to come up with his real one. The name is Bond. James Bond. Can’t tell you more than that or I’ll be forced to kill you. Social security number: 007-00-7007. No. He scratched it all out. Too obvious. Need a better identity. First name: John. Last name: Daniels. Hah.
Address. Well, that was some kind of stupid question for a homeless shelter. Here, he wrote. Date of birth. No idea. Judging from his hands, probably late forties. Forty-eight. He made up a date.
Next of kin/Emergency contact. Just write the first thing that comes into your head. First name: James. Last name: Beam. There you go. Jack Daniels and his good friend, Jim Beam.
He handed back the clipboard and stubby pencil. “Thank you, Mr. …” she glanced down… “Daniels. If you come back at five we can see about a bed for the night.” She must have noticed his stunned look. “We are not open to residents except in the evening. Residents have to fend for themselves during the day.” He was still taking this in—the need to stand up, start walking again, no place to lie down—when she hit him again. She’d been scanning the health questions on the form, all of which he had drawn a single bold line through and scrawled “NO” beside. “We can’t take you in here if you’re sick,” she said gently.
“I’m not sick,” he protested. “I’m fine.”
“You look pretty sick to me,” she said. “You’ll need to get a clean bill of health from a doctor.”
“There’s a walk-in clinic about ten blocks from here.It’s free. Get a doctor to sign this sheet and bring it back with you.” She handed him a pink form and rose to leave, gathering her pocket book. “Now if you don’t mind, we’re closing for lunch. You can leave your things here if you like.”
“I don’t have any things,” he muttered, reaching for his stick. He knocked it to the ground and she must have seen his look of despair as he fumbled for it.
“I…Mr. Daniels, if you want, I can lend you…one of our residents left a pair of crutches here. He…the other night, well…let’s just say he won’t be needing them again. Would you like to borrow them?” He said nothing, but his look must have conveyed something because she disappeared and when he opened his eyes again a few seconds later, there she was, holding out a pair of battered wooden crutches, each one missing the foam armpit pad, but quite serviceable. They were even the right length for his long frame.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, and then left before she could show him the door.
Health clinic, he thought. One more hurdle to leap before he could lie down again. Then through the miasma that was masquerading as his brain, one bright thought emerged. Health clinic. Once they’d given him a clean bill of health, maybe they could give him something for the pain in his leg. The idea was like a beacon in the fog, and he clung to it like a shipwrecked mariner.
He surveyed the clinic waiting room with a jaundiced eye. There were a couple of college kids from Fancy U down the street, doubtless hoping that by avoiding student health, their STD results might not get reported to their parents—or the public health authorities. Probably using fake names. There was an unmarried teenage mom with a toddler, and another unmarried pregnant teenager, both of whom reeked of cigarette smoke and all three of whom had coughs to match. An obese middle-aged man in a hooded sweatshirt and running pants he had bought not to run in but because the stretchy waistband wouldn’t remind him of how overweight he was every time he downed another Krispy Kreme chocolate-covered myocardial infarction. Plus a homeless guy sitting in a corner in the classic tripod position, struggling to breathe, keeping watch over a plastic bag which doubtless contained all his worldly goods.
If only House were here, thought Wilson, as he sorted through the patient files until he found the one he wanted. He would doubtless have something choice to say to this lot, most of whom were slowly but surely destroying their bodies through their own stupidity. But House wasn’t here, and in fact it was House’s absence that had caused Wilson to draw extra clinic shifts for the rest of the week. Fate seemed to have landed him with a particularly choice selection of patients this week, but it was a small price to pay, he felt.
“Mr. Petrocelli,” he called out, and Homeless Guy stood and followed him into Exam Room 2.
“Now then,” said Wilson, as he opened the folder, “what seems to be the problem?” He switched the air conditioning to high, noting the sheen of perspiration that covered his patient, but he did it not so much to cool down the stuffy exam room as to disperse the dense fug that rose from the patient’s clothes and body.
“I can’t seem,” said the patient pausing for a second, “to take a deep…breath.”
Judging from the condition of the man’s fingernails, hair, and the color of his neck, the patient had probably not bathed in several months, Wilson guessed as he gestured for him to remove his shirt. While the patient was peeling off his top layers Wilson took the opportunity to rub a smear of Vicks Vapo Rub on his own upper lip. It helped disguise the strongest smells, and allowed him to concentrate on the patient. He placed the bell of his stethoscope on the man’s thin back.
“Deep breath,” he said softly, listening for the tell-tale rales and crackles of pneumonia. “How long have you had this cough?”
“Oh, a coupla days. Week maybe.” Or more, thought Wilson. But you were too stubborn to come ask for help. Why? Because it’s free? A handout? He sighed and removed the stethoscope.
“I’d like to admit you, run some tests. I’m fairly sure you have pneumonia.”
“No, no,” said the man. “Can’t you just give me a prescription, some pills? I’m okay. I’m fine. I don’t need to be in the hospital. Just give me some pills.”
Wilson knew it was hopeless to argue, but he did his best. In the end he had to let the man leave with just a sputum sample, a chest x-ray and a prescription for pills he knew he could never afford to fill. Wilson made him wait while he managed to scrounge up antibiotics, all the time cursing a health care system that magnanimously provided free diagnostic services for patients who had no way to treat the diseases they diagnosed. Free mammograms for low-income women? Not a problem. Hey, probably generate a little business for the hospital. But free mastectomies? Free chemo? No way. What the hell was the bloody point? At last he cornered enough Vancomycin samples to cover a full course of treatment. He thrust the packets into the man’s cold hands. “Take them all, every last one,” he said. “Promise me.”
He knew House would have mocked him for trying to save the world one hopeless person at a time, but, he thought as he watched Mr. Petrocelli leave , if he didn’t do it, who would?.
This time the dog, the same dog, had him by the leg and was gnawing away at it, calmly, patiently, enjoying his meal. The pain was intense, the sight disgusting, but he was helpless to move. Then the dog began shaking him, trying to drag him into the bushes.
He’d been dreaming again, dead asleep in the hard plastic chair of the clinic waiting room. Difficult to believe he could have nodded off when the pain in his leg was like a jackhammer. Calling his name had not woken him, since the name was meaningless to him, so the woman behind the glass window had had to walk out of her safe den and shake him by the shoulder. She’d put on her blue latex gloves before touching him, he noticed as he came back to consciousness. Seeing he was awake, she backed away from him.
“The doctor will see you now.”
Damn. He’d fully intended to spend the hours in the waiting room collecting his thoughts, trying to tackle the mystery of what he was doing here, what had happened to him. He’d planned to lock himself in the bathroom, get a good look at himself in a mirror. But as soon as he’d sunk into the chair, he’d been overcome with exhaustion. And now it was too late. He followed the receptionist into a tiny exam room, where a doctor was finishing writing some notes in a file.
“Be right with you,” said the doctor without looking up. He checked his watch and kept writing. “Take a seat on the exam table.”
The man parked his crutches against the wall and boosted himself onto the table with a twist, using his arms. He was glad to note that while his leg pain had only gotten worse in the last hour, the nap he’d taken had left him feeling more focused, less disoriented. He seemed at last able to marshal his thoughts in some logical order. He sized up the doctor while he waited. Young, black, with a soul patch and shaved head. Probably a few years out of med school. Intern, second year resident. Not happy to be here, judging from the body language. At last he put down the file he was writing in and slid another file across the counter. Glanced at it briefly before looking up.
“Okay, then, Mr. Daniels. What seems to be the problem?”
“Just need a clean bill of health. And maybe something for pain. Like it says in the chart.” The last comment was a bit more pointed than it needed to be. But what was the point of filling out those forms if no one read them?
“I see. Looks like you’ve been having some nausea.”
Right. He’d meant to try to clean up in the bathroom. Hadn’t had a chance. “It’s from the leg pain. Plus I’m a little hung over. I really just need you to sign off on a clean bill of health.” He held out the crumpled sheet of paper from the homeless shelter. “And give me something for the pain.”
“Uh huh,” murmured the doctor, ignoring the health form. “You want to lie down on the table for me?” The man complied, lifting his right leg up in order to lie flat. “How bad is the pain?”
“Pretty bad. A seven, I’d say. Maybe eight.”
“Really? Want to unbuckle your pants for me?” The man complied, with a sinking heart. He had a sudden realization where this might be going. “I see you’re familiar with the pain scale. So, what’s the cause of this leg pain?”
Shit. He hadn’t had a chance to get a look at his leg. Had no idea what the injury was. The situation was patently ludicrous. If he admitted he didn’t know how he’d hurt his leg, or what his name was, the doctor would page the men with the strait jackets in a flash. He paused in removing his jeans, trying to buy time, but the doctor simply tugged them down the rest of the way to his knees. The man propped himself on his elbows and tried to get a look at his thigh. The bloody doctor, however, was in the way.
“It’s a—“ he tried to remember the feel of the leg, the shape of the pain. It felt like he’d been mauled by a bear, in fact, but that would never pass the straight face test here—“it’s from a car accident. Broke my femur.”
“How long ago?”
The doctor moved and he caught a sudden glimpse of the thigh. “Christ!” he gasped before he could stop himself. The leg was a mess:, deeply pitted with surgically straight scars running the length of it. It did actually look like he’d been mauled by a bear. What the hell?
“Mr. Daniels? Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Just a, just a cramp.”
“When did you say this happened?”
He’d only gotten a quick look, but the scars hadn’t seemed pink or red, like a new wound. “A few years ago.” A wild guess.
“I see. And it’s still causing you pain? Severe pain?”
“Un hunh. Would you sit up, please.” The doctor stuck a thermometer in his ear. “Now hold out your hands for me.” He did so, and was dismayed to see that his hands were shaking. He busied himself with pulling his jeans back on again while the doctor made some notes in his chart. “You can do up your pants, and get down,” the doctor finished. Then he sat down and watched, an expression on his face that did not bode well.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said when the man was fully dressed again. “Give this to the receptionist on your way out.” He held out the chart.
“You’re not going to fill out that health form? Or give me any kind of painkillers?” the man asked, stunned by the doctor's dismissal of him.
“Mr. Daniels,” the doctor commenced. “You come in here looking for painkillers for an injury that is at least a three or four years old—“
“Have you never heard of chronic pain?” the man interrupted, unable to believe where the idiot doctor was going with this.
“If the pain was chronic, you’d have a prescription for painkillers, wouldn’t you? And you wouldn’t need me. Now, as I was saying, you want pain pills for an old, well-healed injury.” He actually began ticking symptoms off on his fingers. “You’ve been vomiting—“
“Like I said, I’m hung over. Pain would also explain the nausea. Hello. “
“--You’re sweating, but you have no fever.”
“Hot flashes. Male menopause.” This was going nowhere fast, but little alarm bells kept going off in his head, and they weren’t just because the doctor was a cretin.
“You’ve got chills”—unfortunately this was true, he’d started trembling with cold a few minutes ago, damn the doctor for being astute enough to notice—“and you have a bad case of the shakes. Classic symptoms of drug withdrawal. I see a lot of that in here, and a lot of drug seeking. So please don’t ask me for a clean bill of health. And if you keep insisting on pain pills, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the clinic. By force if necessary. “
“I’m not here under false pretenses.”
“Really, Mr. ‘Daniels’?” said the doctor, opening his file once again, and the man had to give him credit for keeping his cool. “Jack Daniels. Cute. How many more aliases do you have? And let’s see if you can remember your social security number?”
Shit. What had he written down? He couldn’t remember.
“Date of birth?”
“I, I have memory lapses.”
“Uh hunh. Would you like a neurology consult? Or a psych consult? No, I didn’t think so. Here”—another sheet of flimsy paper—“Cambridge City Hospital has a rehab center. The receptionist can make an appointment for you. Now if you don’t mind, I have other patients—“
“Just a goddam minute, you sanctimonious moron. I’m not an addict. I just need some—“
But the doctor had already pressed a button on the wall. The man reached for his crutches and for a moment entertained a fantasy of braining the idiot in front of him with them. Instead, he turned and stumped for the door. But before he could open it, a uniformed security guard did so for him.
“Come with me please, sir,” said the guard, gripping the man firmly by the upper arm. And then there was the humiliation of being escorted--dragged--out through the over-crowded waiting room, humiliated in front of the great unwashed, America’s uninsured masses, and thrust out the front door. Told not to come back again or they would call the real police. They had his name and description, the self-important cop told him, and they would circulate it to other clinics in the area.
They had his name, thought the man bitterly, as the door whirred shut behind him. Lucky them. He still had no idea what it was.
In the end it wasn’t a free clinic or a free rehab center that saved him but an upscale coffee shop that finally provided him what he craved: a bathroom. It was perfect—a single room with a lock. He crutched his way to the bathroom, pausing at a trash can to extract a used paper coffee cup and, ignoring the glances from the staff, the sign that said “Reserved for customer use,” he entered the bathroom and locked the door behind him.
Once he had relieved himself—such a small thing, such sweet relief—he began to feel, for the first time since this nightmare had started, vaguely human, and vaguely in control of his thinking—just vaguely, but it was better than the chaos he’d been experiencing for the last 24 hours. He knew he was dehydrated—pinching the skin on the back of his hand confirmed it—so he limped to the sink, washed his hands, filled the coffee cup with water, rinsed out his mouth, and began drinking as fast as he could. He drank bent over the sink, eying himself above the rim of the cup as he did so. Watching the man in the mirror drink. Watching the man in the mirror’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed. Watching the way his brow unfurrowed in relief as the water ran down his parched throat. Watching the man’s startling blue eyes watching him.
Next he stripped off his clothes, starting with the T-shirt. He had to sit on the john to remove his pants and shoes. And then he was naked. For a long time he simply examined himself, turning to look at as much of his back as he could see in the mirror. Then he gave himself a thorough medical exam. He started with his head, running his fingers across his scalp, feeling the tender spot above his ear, checking his eyes and behind his ears for Battle’s signs, covering one blue eye and then the other, watching the pupil reaction to light. He examined the inside of his mouth, the scar on his nose, the scruff that covered his face.. Moving down, he examined the scar on his neck and then the scar on his abdomen, the insides of his arms, ending with a minute examination of his hands. He sat and examined his genitals, his feet, checking between the toes.
And finally he gave himself over to examining his mauled and ruined thigh. The sight was horrifying, and he could only remain clinical about it because, eerie as it sounded, it was, in fact, like examining a stranger’s leg. He ran his fingertips lightly over the pronounced ridges of the scars, then dug them into the scar tissue, feeling for what was left of the muscle, and then flexing the quads to give them better definition. He manipulated the patella while flexing and relaxing the muscle, and tried raising the leg as high as it would go—not very, as it turned out.
Throughout the whole process, he tried to remain clinical, detached. But he couldn’t help sneaking glimpses of himself, the man he now was, in the mirror as he worked. It was like he was trying to catch this person off guard, as if there might be some clues in the man’s expression, or his posture, that would reveal something. But all he saw was a tall, well muscled, slender man, his body scarred, his face marked by pain.
When he finished examining his body, he turned to his clothes, intending to give them the same sort of once-over, but there was a sudden sharp knock on the door. He ignored it. “Hey,” said a female voice. “Other people need to use this, you know.”
“Gimme a minute,” shouted the man at an impressive volume. “I’m really really constipated.”
The voice went away, but halfway through putting his boxers on, he was interrupted again, this time by a man’s voice demanding to know when he was coming out.
“I’ll be out in a jiffy, as soon as I’ve finished shooting up,” the man shouted. When he’d finished tying his shoes, he shoved the door open, badly startling the nervous-looking coffee shop employee who had come to hassle him. The man gave a pleasant nod to the barista and headed over to the counter. “I’ll have a double grande latte with whipped cream and nutmeg,” he said. And as soon as the woman had turned her back on him to fill his order, he swiped a fat Magic Marker from a pencil jar next to the cash register, pocketed it, went over to the area where the shiny milk dispensers sat in neat rows, filled his empty paper cup with Half and Half, grabbed six packets of sugar from the dispenser, poured them all into the cup of milk, stirred it delicately with a slender wooden stick, and poured the whole thing down his throat in one long gulp. He set his cup down with a belch, nodded to the people who had watched the small display and stumped out of the coffee shop.
Ten minutes later he had found the last thing he needed: a bus stop bench inside a shelter with three blank glass walls. After sitting and staring at the walls for five minutes, he walked over to the nearest one, pulled the fat marker out of his pocket, and began writing.
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