Chapter 2: 32 Pretzels, 20 Questions, 1 Crash
“Could you pass the pretzels?”
“I ate them.”
“I thought we were sharing!”
“Wilson, I started eating those pretzels two hours ago. Old people with no teeth don’t eat that slow.”
Wilson leaned his head against the window in defeat as House quietly reached into his backpack and got a pretzel.
Apparently, not quietly enough.
“House, is that a pretzel?”
“No, this is a pretzel stick. There’s a difference”
“House!” Wilson’s eyes were wide in one of those primal looks of jealousy.
“Mom, Wilson’s yelling at me!” House’s lower lip quivered comically in the rear-view mirror while Cuddy shot him a glance, as if her eyes alone could rip off the smile that was now occupying his face.
The car was silent for about 20 seconds before House got bored again.
“Hey, Captain Kangaroo,” House yelled, tossing a pretzel stick at Chase, determined to waste as many pretzels as he could for Wilson’s discontent.
Chase twitched a little before blinking his eyes and sitting up. His hair was tossed up with static, making him look like some exotic Amazonian bird.
“What?” His voice was thick and gravelly from disuse. He noticed the pretzel on his chest and brushed it off without realizing that he probably could’ve eaten it with little consequence. Then again, Gregory House was only feet away.
“It’s an animal,” said House, his expression almost too intense to be joking.
“What is?” asked Chase, making a futile attempt to get his hair flat again.
“As in,” said House, “it’s not a vegetable or a mineral.”
“You…want to play 20 questions?”
“It would appear that way,” said House, absently rubbing his thigh.
Chase looked over the faces of Wilson and Cuddy, who both shrugged as if to say that it was Chase’s turn to play babysitter.
“Uh, okay. Is it…bigger than a refrigerator?”
“Is it bigger than a microwave?”
“Does it have claws?”
“Is it a mammal?”
Chase paused, looking out the window for inspiration.
“Does it like snow?”
“Is it prey to another animal?”
“Is it a predator?”
“Is it a member of the cat family?”
House answered reluctantly. “Yes.”
Chase was starting to forget which questions he had already asked.
“Is it…uh, bigger than a microwave?”
Wilson waved a hand at him. “You already asked that.”
But House answered anyway. “No,” he said.
Wilson turned to him questioningly. “But, you just said…”
“That was before I changed my answer from an Iberian lynx to E. coli.”
The exasperated sigh seemed to come from all directions in the vehicle…because it did.
House took a Vicodin and began once more to gaze out the window as the free world whizzed by him.
The snow was falling faster now, barely caressing the windshield before being shot off by Cuddy’s fervent wipers as she increased their speed. They were now well into the foothills of the Pocono’s, and the ground was just cold enough to hold a fresh mantle of powder.
As the Land Rover climbed passed the base of the mountain, the bends in the road became more defined, more treacherous. From high up, the car looked like a rat stuck in a maze without a sense of smell, bobbing along from curve to curve with only sparse metal guardrails to keep it from plummeting to the ground.
By about the seventh right turn, House’s headache had returned, and by the eighth, Wilson was looking a little green himself.
By the time the car had gone around the mountain ten times, Cuddy had to pull over to avoid getting her prized oncologist’s vomit all over Chase’s interior.
Another pit stop and a Sprite later, and the wrath of the road and the snow had both subsided ever so slightly. They were now driving on top of a ridge. Here the sides of the narrow road were banked in snow, the metal railing no longer visible. On both sides the rest of the land dipped down dramatically in some sort of man-made valley. The powder was deeper here; it was impossible to see where it ended or what it was covering up. House imagined that sledding down such hills would not only be the childhood equivalent of incredible sex, but would most certainly give you a cracked skull and a cool scar, to boot.
Cuddy could see the appeal to working here. They hadn’t passed a car since leaving New Jersey, plus it was quiet. But it wasn’t the kind of creepy quiet, the kind that makes you break sticks just to hear a noise among the miles of awkwardly silent snowfall. It was they kind of quiet they write poetry about. The kind where nothing really matters and a slow pace is the only place.
Cuddy found it very relaxing.
Except, she’d hate it here, and she knew it.
There wasn’t a polite way of putting it: Lisa Cuddy was addicted to stress more than House was addicted to Vicodin. Jersey was the only place her species could thrive.
“You want me to drive for a while?”
Wilson offered, but he didn’t really mean it, and Cuddy knew it. Plus, she didn’t feel like stopping now. They were an hour and a half away. She could make it.
“So,” said Cuddy, eyeing House in the rearview, “what are you going to say?”
“When I meet them?” asked House. “Well,” he said, tilting his head, “I thought I’d just say ‘hi’ and introduce Chase as my gay lover. Something subtle like that.”
“Yes,” whispered Wilson, “because subtlety’s always been your strong-suit hasn’t it?”
They were tired, and both House and Wilson couldn’t help but smile a little bit.
“I’m serious, House. One phone call to Peter’s Guitar Emporium, saying ‘oops I made a mistake,’ that’s all it takes,” she said, narrowing her eyes fiendishly in the mirror.
House’s eyes, however, widened.
“Cuddy, watch out!”
She swerved, and so did the other car—the only car they’d passed since Jersey—and it was swerving into their lane.
Chase reached instinctively for the wheel, as if his only thoughts were not for their safety, but for the well being of his car, his baby.
So now the combined efforts of Cuddy and Chase were pulling the wheel furiously to the right, as Cuddy’s left and right feet trampled the brake with every ounce of strength she had.
And the other car kept coming closer.
House heard the crash before he felt it, almost like a reverse sonic boom. In fact, he wasn’t sure he felt it at all. Maybe he was simply prepared for such a collision to occur.
Which of course, is impossible.
Because Wilson felt it, and Cuddy felt it, and especially Chase felt it, as the sound of tearing metal was no longer coming from the cars, but from the metal guardrail that separated them from about a 300 yard drop.
This method of dying had never really occurred to any of them, and yet this was the way it happened when fate got creative.
But gravity was moving faster than the speed of these thoughts. They were just add-ins, pleasantries. Trying to distinguish thoughts from instinct in a time like this was like trying to find a light bulb on the surface of the sun.
Lisa Cuddy, Greg House, James Wilson, and Robert Chase were falling off a cliff.
And the pretzels spilled.