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Chapter 9: The Road Less Traveled

 


Two pairs of uneven footfalls dented the new snow. The owners of these feet were both equally battered, so that, for the first time in eight years, the gaits of James Wilson and Gregory House were one in the same.

The sun made a cameo appearance earlier that morning, but had since vanished behind a flurry of angry clouds that were the color of a misprinted newspaper.

The path wasn’t quite as treacherous or narrow as it’d looked from far away. In fact, it got wider the farther they journeyed, and was lined with enough trees to point the way back to Princeton…if they knew which way that was. Its easy navigation, however, was accompanied by enough icy patches to keep House and Wilson within an arm’s length of each other, because as every cripple knows, ice is public enemy #2, right behind stairs.

“Why are you doing this?” Wilson spoke but didn’t stop for fear of falling through some unseen rip in the time/space continuum. After yesterday, such things seemed eerily possible.

“What?” said House.

Wilson never really understood the purpose of vying for time by acting as if you’ve misheard the question. Sooner or later, the question will be asked again, and by then, the other person is expecting an answer.

“Why are you doing this, coming with me?”

This time, House had an answer, be it unsatisfying, to say the least.

“Sometimes, there aren’t reasons for the things we do, Wilson.”

“Oh yeah, that completely sounds like you, because everyone knows you’re life is all about random acts of kindness.”

House nodded with false enthusiasm. “They were gonna have me play Mr. Simonet in Pay it Forward, but I was too pretty to pull off the scars.”

This earned a very slight smile from Wilson.

“Seriously House, I thought you’d give anything to molest Cuddy in her weak and vulnerable state. Why come with me when you could’ve just stayed put and rested?”

“Maybe I wanted to molest you in your weak and vulnerable state.”

House stepped a foot towards Wilson. Wilson took two steps back.

“I can run.”

“No,” snorted House, “you can’t.”

“House.”

“Wilson.”

“House.”

“Okay, you want to know why I came…”

The lack of a definitive end to that sentence made Wilson quite nervous.

“…Well,” said House, “I want to know something, too. You answer my question. I’ll answer yours.”

Wilson slapped a hand against his forehead, and readied himself for a very large sigh. “What is it?” he said.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone you were hurt?”

“Oh, for Christ sakes, House, I—“

House clicked his tongue like a Catholic schoolteacher. “Nope, we had a deal.”

Wilson shook his head, as if a satisfying answer would break free from his brain and spill out his lips while doing so. “I, I don’t know. I didn’t know I was hurt.”

“Bullshit.”

“House, it wouldn’t have made a difference, okay? I didn’t know I was hurt as badly as I was. I wasn’t experiencing any freaky complications like low BP or vomiting or brain-eating infections, and you guys had enough to worry about besides a cut on my side.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not lying,” he lied.

House didn’t say anything, which meant he was doing something worse—thinking. Wilson dreaded the slightest sparkle in the man’s eyes.

But it wasn’t a slight sparkle. One minute later, House’s eyes lit up as if he was hiding the entirety of Atlantic City behind his pupils.

“You don’t care if you die,” he said.

“What? Of course I care.” Wilson wasn’t lying; he genuinely didn’t know where the assumption was coming from.

“Not enough to seek medical attention from a doctor, who happens to be right next to you.”

“I told you, I—“

“That doesn’t mean anything, Wilson. People care what happens to them. That’s why they get jobs, get married…go to the doctor.”

“You’re saying I want to die?”

House shook his head. Wilson was perplexed by the lack of a smug smile on House’s face.

“I’m saying that sometime between wife #2 and wife #3, something changed.” Wilson avoided House’s gaze. “Sometime between now and when you went to the ER for a twisted ankle that wasn’t even swollen, something changed.”

Wilson shut his eyes as a headache swam beneath his temples. “You’re right, House, I couldn’t possibly care less whether I live or die. That’s why I’m out here with you, looking for a way out, when I could be having snowball fights with Chase and getting back rubs from Cuddy. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

It took House a long time to speak.

“I’m not sure what I wanted to hear,” he said dully.

It took Wilson equally as long to give some sort of response. “Fine, then answer my question.”

“I was bored. I came with you.”

Wilson didn’t really believe what he was hearing, and suddenly, he didn’t care enough to find the truth.

Neither one of them talked for a while.

House was fine with that, which is why he went with Wilson, because there’s a different type of silence between best friends—the type that doesn’t affect casual or even good friends.

Casual friends can say “talk to you later,” and good friends can say “it was good seeing you,” but best friends don’t have that luxury. It’s because there are no awkward silences or ended discussions between best friends, merely very long pauses in one very long conversation. Best friends never have to say “hello” or “goodbye.”

House and Wilson were experiencing a long pause.

House reached into his coat pocket and palmed a familiar pill bottle. There were still three left, and he was amazed he’d gotten this far without one. But now, he was scared of every step, and with good reason. After every step, he convinced himself that it couldn’t possibly get worse, and yet every step was a little bit worse than the one before, and his face was starting to show it.

He put all three pills in his hand, just to feel like he’d be getting relief, before putting one in his mouth and leaving the other two behind.

There was one second after he swallowed it that he felt alright—that mini-placebo effect that occurred when he knew relief was on its way. Then, of course, there was the ten minutes of agony that followed while he waited for the relief to actually get there.

He distracted himself by ending the pause.

“You’re sure you saw these lights? That it wasn’t some kind of rabid animal with glowing red eyes?”

The mental image was enough to take his pain down a notch.

“Yes, I’m sure,” said Wilson coolly, obviously still fixed on House’s earlier “hypothesis.”

“It’s just, it wouldn’t be the first time you were…mistaken.”

Wilson shook his head with a humorous amount of exasperation. “You’re talking about that conference in Florida.”

“Actually, I was talking about the party after that conference in Florida.”

“House, that was ten years ago.”

“Nine, actually.”

Wilson put his hands up defensively, which proved an odd contrast with the nostalgic smile he didn’t bother to hide. “I was drunk. I thought he was a girl.”

“A girl named Frank?”

“Maybe she had, uh,” Wilson struggled for any form of justification, but there was none. “Maybe she had creative parents?”

“The dude had a beard!”

“He did not!”

House smiled deviously. “Well you would know, seeing as your face was practically glued onto his for 30 seconds.”

Wilson’s eyes were wider than a stuffed deer’s. “At least I figured it out! Some guys would of…you know…before they realized she was a he.”

Wilson made a flailing hand gesture that was apparently intended to be sexual. House wished Chase or Cuddy could see it, if only so they could join him in an impolite snicker.

Wilson tilted his head thoughtfully, then added, “He was actually a pretty good kisser.”

House’s leg was now the last thing on his mind.

Off his look, Wilson quickly added, “And as I recall, you said “she” was hot, too.”

Wilson smiled triumphantly.

“Wilson, I’m not the one who’s kissed a man.”

Wilson’s smiled faded.

Then, after a minute of recollection, it was back in full force, along with a chuckle.

“I think we broke the land speed record getting out of that place,” he said.

House laughed. It’d been a while since he’d done so.

“We didn’t stop running until we could see our hotel,” he said, a grin firmly tugging on his cheeks.

They laughed, and for a minute, it was like they were home again, sitting in House’s apartment with lousy KFC chicken, talking about old buddies while not caring that every bite of chicken was bringing them closer to botulism.

It frustrated Wilson that this was the side of House the world would never see, but it gave him a poke of pride to know that he saw this side of Gregory House more than anyone else.

They’d gone a mile with no sign of the lights, but they kept laughing.

Wilson smiled and shook his head. “Oh oh, and remember that time at Lou’s with Casey Bellows and Notso from Cardiology?”

“Notso Swift?” asked House.

“That’s what everyone called him,” Wilson said with a shrug.

“What was that guy’s real name?”

Wilson squinted, searching the back of his mind for an answer. “I don’t think anyone knew.” And it was true, Notso was a guy who was destined to be called Notso for the rest of his life, and if an invitation to the birthday party of Edward Swift were to be mailed to his friends, they’d probably throw it out, thinking it was some mistake.

“Well,” said House, “what happened at Lou’s?”

“You were there!”

“Wilson, I’ve never been to Lou’s with Bellows or Notso.”

Wilson gave him a puzzled look. “Yeah, you have. We all went there, maybe…seven or eight years ago after golfing.”

House looked at the ground. The gesture was unintentionally pitiful.

“Wilson…I wasn’t there.”

Wilson could’ve sworn that House was there, but as he thought back, he couldn’t remember a single word House said there, or what he ordered, or whether they took his car home. That’s when he remembered.

“Oh…Oh, right. You went home early, said you—“

“Pulled a muscle in my leg.”

Crap.

It had been the worst day of House’s life, and Wilson was talking about drunken escapades at a local bar.

“I’m sorry, House. I wasn’t even thinking. I—“

“It’s fine.” House looked straight ahead apathetically. This was the House the rest of the world saw.

“I can’t believe I—I really am sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said House, in a tone indicating an abrupt change in subject, “I mean there’s hundreds of things I should apologize to you for.”

“Are you going to?” said Wilson, immensely relieved at said change in subject.

“Going to what?”

“Apologize.”

“Oh…well if I were going to do that, it’d kind of defeat the purpose of this entire conversation, wouldn’t it?”

Wilson just didn’t see how that statement was logical.

“Wait…so you’re saying that you’re sorry for a lot of things, but you’re not going to actually apologize for them?”

“Right,” said House, a contented grin making a reappearance after its brief hiatus. “Except, I’m not ‘sorry,’ there are just several things I’ve done over the years that I probably should be sorry for.”

Wilson squinted while it sunk in. Then, he rolled his eyes…again.

“Like what?”

“Again, kinda defeats the purpose of me saying I’m not apologizing.”

“Then why are you telling—OOF“

Wilson opened his eyes and saw snow. Ironically, snow, as white as it is, looks the same as everything else when viewed at an extremely close distance—black. He popped his head out of the ground, and looked up to see if House had suffered a similar fate.

He had. It was the result of him kicking his own cane out from under him with his reckless left foot. He’d grabbed on to something (in this case, someone) in an attempt to stay upright, and failed (in both respects, seeing as that someone was also lying face-down on the ground).

Neither House nor Wilson could suppress a groan of pain, lying in what could only be described as upside-down snow angels.

It then began snowing. Or, if you prefer, God spat on them.

House didn’t get up, mostly because he didn’t think he could. About two feet to his left, Wilson was feeling the same way.

And as much as Wilson wanted to break character, and yell “Idiot!” to House, he wanted to yell at his stomach more, which felt… “funny,” despite years of medical training that wanted him to find a better adjective.

Unfortunately, his stomach didn’t have ears to receive this yelling, and so he directed it at House after all.

“Holy crap!”

The exclamation sounded far less juvenile in his head.

He felt guilty when House didn’t answer.

“House, are you okay?”

He began to pull himself up, wincing as the movement involuntarily flexed his side, and feeling as if his liver and appendix might have traded places. He got to his feet, surprised when he didn’t feel dizzy or nauseous or both.

He walked over to where House still had his head in the snow.

“House,” he said again, “are you okay?”

“Do you think we get reception up here?”

“What?” Wilson tapped House on the shoulder, half expecting the man to have brain matter leaking out of his ear.

House replied by pulling his left hand out from under himself and brandishing a cell phone that didn’t belong to either of them.

Wilson yanked House out of the snow by his left shoulder, and deposited him on his back. “Where did you find that?”

“Technically,” said House, “my crotch found it…when it landed on it.” His joking nature did nothing to distract Wilson’s eyes from his white-knuckle grip on the pant leg of his right thigh.

House flipped the phone open elegantly and handed it to Wilson, who, as grossed out by the crotch comment as he was, couldn’t deny his curiosity towards the phone.

He looked at the corner of the screen and immediately gave it back to House.

“Of course there’s no service out here,” said Wilson, the bitterness in his voice escalating to full-on anger, “Who were we kidding?”

“Apparently, Dave,” said House, who had the phone to his ear and was listening to ‘Dave’s’ voicemail greeting. “I think I’ll just take a message.”

“House.”

“What?”

“Look.”

Wilson tapped him on the shoulder and pointed directly ahead. About 20 yards away, perched under the tangled remains of an evergreen tree, was a black Honda civic, and it looked familiar.

That’s what hit us,” said Wilson, “But we’ve been walking for almost an hour. How’d he make it this far away.” He looked to House, who was busy scrolling through Dave’s recent calls.

“Well, he obviously was able to stay on the road a little longer than we were,” said House. He paused, thinking, before adding, “He must’ve been calling someone.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Wilson.

“That’s the only way his phone would’ve ended up 50 feet from his car. And as for how he got way the Hell out here after hitting us at 45MPH, it’s a good sign. Means the roads curve more than we thought, and we’re not that far from civilization after all.”

Wilson nodded as if it helped, despite the fact that he knew the statement was 60 percent complete bullshit, and 40 percent partial bullshit, and that House knew that Wilson knew it was bullshit.

“So,” said House, rolling to his left side in an attempt to get up, “you think he’s singing camp songs with Chase and Cuddy by now, or you think he’s still in there?”

Wilson watched House attempt to stand with a sort of angry awe. He was in awe that House could sit there in agony and not once ask for help, and he was angry that House did this over something so simple. All it would take was for Wilson to reach grab onto his hand and pull him up—dilemma solved.

But there was a third emotion that Wilson felt more often than not, and luckily he was about as good at hiding it as House was at hiding pain. But right now, they were both having trouble hiding anything, and the utter pity that had welled up within him during the past 30 seconds began to soften his eyes and make him frown, and he hated himself for it.

He also hated himself for reaching his hand down in front of House, acknowledging this emotion in its purest form.

He didn’t hate himself as much when House grabbed onto that hand and allowed himself to be pulled up.

So there they stood, side by side, looking at the results of a car wreck while snow continued to splatter their hair and clothes. And if they hadn’t looked like two beaten survivors of a gang war, the image would be pretty triumphant.

They made their way over to the car, traveling noticeably slower. The snow melted as soon as it hit them, with all the sting of snowflakes and all the wetness of rain. Wilson thought he even felt it seeping through his jacket by his pockets. He kept walking though; if it got much worse they could wait it out under what was left of the huge tree before them.

Wilson thought he saw a branch sticking out from the driver’s window of the car, but when they got a little bit closer, he realized it was a hand.

He ran.

House continued rolling passed the old outgoing calls that Dave had made, looking at the time, trying to remember what time the crash occurred. When he saw something that didn’t fit, he called out to Wilson.

Wilson slowed to a brisk walk, as sleet squirmed its way inside his jacket, feeling oddly warm against his skin. He looked back, but didn’t stop.

“Wilson,” House tried again, “he’s dead.”

What?

Wilson still didn’t turn around. He was nearing the car, and if House was right, then House was right. But if House was wrong, he’d be saving someone’s life. He obviously hadn’t called into work today, so saving lives was still technically his job.

House was right.

Dave was slumped against the steering wheel, eyes staring blankly out the window, towards Wilson. It wasn’t creepy, though, as least not in the sense of Dave staring directly at Wilson. His eyes were glassy, unfocused, but vibrant enough to make Wilson wonder if just maybe the guy was alive. They were blue, ultramarine, a few shades darker than House’s, but just as intense.

It seemed wrong to see a dead body outside of the hospital.

“Bloated, in rigor mortis, he’s obviously been here a while.”

Wilson saw House in the rear view mirror. House walked closer as he continued his “analysis.”

“At least he doesn’t stink yet,” he said.

Wilson turned to face him, thankful for the change in scenery. “How’d you know he was dead?”

“Other than guessing?” Off Wilson’s look, he held up the phone. “Last call is to 911. Thing is, he called at 4:37PM.”

“What does that mean?”

“The last song on the radio was ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ at 4:40PM. Dave called 911 before the crash, meaning there was already something wrong with him, heart attack or something.”

Wilson went against his better judgment and looked back at Dave. “House, this guy can’t be more than 40 years old.”

“And while I’d love nothing more than to diagnose his obviously rare ailment, something tells me Cuddy would get mad.”

Wilson knew that House wasn’t kidding.

House leaned against the window for support while he reached his hand into Dave’s back pocket. He pulled out a wallet, and began thumbing through Dave’s license, credit card, and Barnes and Noble membership card.

“David Barbee Spencer, 2827 Cleary Drive, Fairview, New Jersey. Birthdate: 6/9/65.”

House threw out a few more cards and some dollar bills before finding a medical alert card tucked in between a Dillard’s gift card and a picture of his cat.

“Apart from an unfortunate middle name, he has Diabetes, type 1. He was probably hypoglycemic, didn’t have glucose on him.”

House seemed disappointed that the answer was so easy.

Wilson nodded, taking the card and continuing House’s assessment. “He was driving on a narrow road, so he couldn’t have pulled over and taken insulin either. He probably passed out, didn’t even see it coming.”

They both took a step back and examined the vehicle. It was surprisingly in good shape, and had it not been sitting at the base of a 65 degree incline or tangled around a tree, they wouldn’t be surprised if they could start it and drive it off into the sunset.

House got an idea, one he really hoped was wrong.

“Wilson, see if you can get him out. I’m going to start the car.”

Wilson didn’t hesitate as much as he thought he would. Maybe it was the intrigue he felt over House starting the car. Not that it would do much good, but it would make a noise—maybe not loud enough to evoke a care from the world above, but it’d at least let Chase and Cuddy know that they made it this far. Either way, it made moving a dead body a little less daunting…if that was possible.

The snow made the door handle slippery to the point where Wilson had to reach his hand through the window and open it from the inside. His forearm barely grazed Dave’s as he pulled his hand back. It was cold, colder than the outside of the car. Wilson really didn’t want to touch him anymore, but House was depending on it, and broken fingers and cut stomach seemed like a lame excuse given their current situation.

He opened the door, and Dave’s hand barely moved from its position at the height of the window. His arm stuck out straight, like a very realistic scarecrow, one that would scare more than birds and the occasional squirrel. It was the apathetic way Dave sat there that unnerved Wilson, as if he expected Dave to care that his life was over and that two strangers were looking at him like a sandwich that was already eaten.

Dave didn’t seem to mind, though, when Wilson began to unbuckle his seatbelt, and slide him off the seat. He didn’t seem to mind when he was tipped out of the driver’s seat, and landed with a thud on the ground. He didn’t seem to mind when Wilson dragged him away from his car and over to a tree nearby.

Wilson did mind. He distinctly felt as if he were doing something wrong, dragging a dead man out of a car while he and his friend played games with the remaining possessions inside. Or, at least, that’s what it felt like.

He felt nauseous as he placed the body up against a tree. He also had a strong urge to wash his hands.

House sat in the driver’s seat, effortlessly ignoring the weirdness of it all.

“Wilson, come here!”

Wilson took one last glance at Dave before heading back over to House. He considered taking off his jacket, as the snow was obviously still getting in somehow, but didn’t see how drying it off would ease the chill that ran through him, at least, not as quickly as he wanted.

House looked at the key in the ignition for a long time. He really hoped he was wrong.

Gregory House is rarely wrong.

He turned the key, and nothing happened. “The battery’s dead,” he told Wilson, who was now right outside the driver’s window.

“What? Why?”

“He put his hazards on after the crash, before he slipped into a coma. They were flashing all night.”

Lights.

Wilson kicked a pinecone, which proved a downright lousy way to channel his anger. He felt sick just hearing it. His hands were clammier than a pair of latex gloves, and his heart was racing. “So, we’ve been out here, thinking we’d find someone who could help us, and all we get is some dead guy who left his fucking hazards on?”

Wilson rarely cursed, but when he did, it wasn’t without good reason. He tried to say more, but was choked in an angry flurry of stuttering and tears.

House watched him with a cynical lack of surprise. Not at Wilson’s reaction, but at the situation itself. He believed in the statement “things tend to turn out for the best,” but he also believed that statement typically applied to someone else. Therefore, somewhere in the world, someone had just won the lottery.

He looked beyond the car’s interior, straining for a view around a bend in the road (consequently a bend in the cliffs that supported the road). He thought he saw a place where the hill wasn’t as steep. And while he’d just learned the hard way the perils of “thinking,” and “assuming,” he couldn’t help but think that that particular hill looked downright docile when compared to the rest. He guessed Wilson could probably make it up with little complaint, and while the journey for him would be a different story, he did remember some of civilization’s finer attributes, such as morphine. Thus proving that, given the right circumstances, Greg House could be downright optimistic.

“Hey Wilson—“

“I’m cold.” Wilson’s voice seemed odd, almost ethereal.

House’s thoughts began to talk to him as if they were a different person completely. That was weird.

”Yeah, well, join the club,” said House, only afterwards turning to look at Wilson, who was tilted forward slightly on his feet, only adding to the strangeness of his comment.

“No, I mean, I think something’s wrong with…”

Wilson’s voice faded out at the same time he spilled to the ground, fainting with girly elegance.

House hopped clumsily out of the seat, landing next to his friend on the ground.

Shit.

“Wilson! Hey Wilson, answer me!”

House released a breath he didn’t know he was holding when Wilson spoke something inaudible.

“What? Say that again, Wilson.”

Wilson had his eyes closed and was breathing fast, obviously in shock. His voice was still watery from the tears he shed earlier. “I don’t want to die,” he said.

House was almost stunned into laughter by how arbitrary Wilson’s plea was.

“Hey,” he said, the harshness of his voice doing nothing to detract from the comfort of his statement, “you’re not going to die, okay?”

Wilson nodded, desperately trying to swallow or catch his breath or both. He tried to chuckle in between harsh breaths as he asked “You don’t have any more of those jokes, do you?” but it came out more like a wheeze.

House frowned and took off his jacket, placing it over Wilson’s shivering shoulders. “Sorry man, I’m fresh out.”



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