Chapter 16: Debitum Naturae
I’m sorry for being a shitty best friend.
House’s shoes brushed effortlessly against the tile floor as he walked towards the double doors before him. The corridors in the hospital’s basement seemed longer, somehow. Next to him was a man named Jason Mort. His last name became ironic when you found out he was a coroner.
They walked briskly, their strides perfectly synced, and their shoulders not quite touching. House looked down and counted the tiles as he walked, only half-listening to what Mort had to say.
The man talked a lot about time, how too much of it had gone by, making identification of the bodies nearly impossible. That’s why House was here, he’d said.
“What about their wallets?” asked House, “You think two dead guys deviously switched their wallets to avoid being identified? Because I don’t think Wilson would’ve appreciated a middle name like Barbee.”
“Sir, we found no wallets on or near the victims,” said Mort, his voice about as dull as his name. “We only found this.”
Mort pulled out a plastic bag, seemingly from nowhere, which held a pen and a small, white piece of paper.
House could only make out the first few lines, and that was okay; he didn’t need to see more.
Went to get help on ridge to the northeast. Will be back.
House eyed the doors ahead before speaking, finding that they seemed no closer than when he last checked. These corridors were damn long.
‘That’s my business card,” said House. “Well, it’s a card with my name on it. I left it in Wilson’s coat pocket so Cuddy would know where to find me if she found…”
House allowed his words to fade, mostly because he wasn’t sure if he should say “Wilson” or “Wilson’s body.”
So he turned his attention (and frustration) to the matter of the disappearing wallets.
“How could you not find their wallets? We found the other guy’s; that’s how we knew how he died, and I don’t think Wilson goes a foot out the door with it in his coat pocket or strapped to his ass.” House felt his voice rise and almost crack. He shut up before his eyes started to water.
He didn’t used to be like this.
Mort didn’t reply, merely restated his answer from before. “Sir, we found no wallets on or near the victims.”
House looked up at Mort for the first time since, well, he couldn’t really remember what happened before he walked down the hallway. Mort’s eyes were a dull brown, maybe even black. The sun avoided his irises as if they were some impenetrable shield—dark, dumb, dead.
It was then House suspected that perhaps Mort didn’t exist.
House looked forward once again to find the double doors within an arm’s reach, as if their accessibility depended on this revelation.
He stood aside while Mort perfunctorily punched a code into a keypad on the door handle, and the doors slid open with a mechanical breath worthy of Darth Vader. House followed Mort inside, admiring the strange font of the word “morgue” as it loomed above the doors.
It was cold inside. House didn’t know why that surprised him.
There were tables in the center of the room, each of which was occupied by human-shaped clump under a white sheet. The sheets blanketed the bodies like tissue paper over forgotten Christmas presents, with the exception of a foot that peeked deviously out from under the sheet on each table. On these feet were the unmistakable bits of cardboard that attached a name to the sheet, as if the bodies weren’t really people, just objects with pretty little tags, like dolls in a toy shop.
House walked along side the tables, taking a glance at the toe tags. The first one was Susanne Vita, and the second one was their old pal from the wrecked Honda, Dave Spencer. House stopped by the last table, not really needing to look at the tag, but knowing that if he did glance at this particular tag, on this body, on this table, in this morgue, in this dream, he’d find the name James Wilson.
“Just curious,” said House, “why would you have me come down here to identify a body that’s already been identified?”
Mort stood there stoically, his face void of expression or emotion or anything. “Sir, we could not identify the bodies.”
House flipped the sheet off of Dave dramatically, finding that none of the decomposition alleged by Mort had occurred. “Yes,” said House, avoiding Mort’s hollow gaze, “well that’s obvious. I was wondering—could you maybe identify, say, a thought if it came up and bit you in the ass? Or would you need to find its wallet first?”
House turned around to face the coroner, and found that he’d disappeared. In fact, both Dave and the Vita woman had vanished as well.
So this is how House ended up alone with a Wilson-shaped clump. He knew his own head well enough to guess that if he lifted the sheet, Wilson would start talking. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that. But he wasn’t ready to walk out of there without assuring that he’d ever talk to the guy again. He definitely wasn’t ready to wake up.
He lifted the sheet off Wilson’s head, looked over his face for a minute, then said, “Hey.”
House wasn’t surprised when Wilson opened his eyes and said “Hey” back.
They looked each other over, like two scientist examining rare specimens of some forgotten species. Wilson sat up in the light, his face as pale as when House left him there at the wreck to die. Alone.
But Wilson wasn’t angry—not here. Here it was as if he’d never left. It was as if any moment, one would make plans for lunch and the other would follow. It was any other day, any other place, and any other thing that resembled normalcy. It was home.
“How’s your shoulder?” asked Wilson, as usual, not missing an opportunity to avoid his own problems.
“Doesn’t hurt,” said House.
“How’s your leg?”
House stared at Wilson for a long time before talking, committing his face to memory one last time. “I got a better joke for you,” he said.
“No…I just, um…” House puffed out his cheeks, pretending to think about what he didn’t have to think about. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
“House,” said Wilson, making sure he had his friend’s eye contact before continuing, “you know I’m not really here.”
“I know. I know that. It’s just…”
And House felt that feeling again. A strange sensation no matter how many times you experience it. His eyes stung upon blinking, but the way they watered up when his eyes were open made him want to blink more. His throat felt scratchy and damp, like he was coughing up a thirty year-old hairball or something. And though he couldn’t see it, the blue in his eyes was swiftly being upstaged by the red that surrounded his whites.
He was able to hold back the tears until he asked, “Do you think I’ll be okay?”
“I suppose that depends on whether you think you’ll be okay.”
House looked up, smiling weakly. “Not sure I even remember how to buy my own lunch.”
“As long as you can zip your own fly, I think you’ll get the hang of it.”
House chuckled as some more tears fell. Wilson smiled.
House shook his head and sniffed. “You weren’t this funny.”
“Apparently I was.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m laughing at my own joke.”
He opened his mouth, surprised at the words that came out. “I killed you, Wilson.”
House knew that Wilson wouldn’t answer, because Wilson couldn’t say anything that House didn’t believe.
“And I don’t want to be alone.”
Wilson’s eyes squinted as he smiled, and House could’ve sworn he saw his best friend mouth, “You aren’t.” A second later he was sure he’d imagined it, but he wasn’t sure how that was different than anything else he saw here. It was just as stupid, just as pretend…but somehow, real enough to matter.
Wilson opened his mouth again, but this time, it wasn’t his voice that came out. This voice was higher, edgier, and grew clearer as Wilson’s face got foggier. The entire room seemed to disintegrate beneath the voice’s ring, sending shadows of smoke out in every direction. Wilson smiled as he faded away with the light, his form draining through some huge colander in House’s head.
House wanted very badly to say “Thank you, Jimmy,” but out of habit he couldn’t quite get that last part out. It didn’t sound right when he was gone. But before he could arrange any slew of words that felt almost right, Wilson had disappeared, too.
And for the second time that day, everything went black.
There was that voice again. The kind of voice that made the naggings of a Yiddish grandmother seem pleasant.
House opened his eyes to the sea of white that seemed to hit him from below as well as from above. He flinched at the intense brightness of it all, his eyes retreating back under his lids.
“House! Can you hear me?”
Cuddy’s voice was next to his ear. Or, at least, it sounded like Cuddy. The close proximity to his eardrum left her words a little muffled on the uptake.
“Ow,” he replied.
He opened his eyes again, ready this time for the onslaught of white, but finding himself quite unprepared for the people staring back at him.
There was Cuddy, trying to keep it together for his sake and failing miserably, and three EMTs, two of which looked competent. The third EMT stood back a few feet, at least knowing his place. He was a squirrely-looking guy, young, obviously the newbie.
And Cuddy’s voice was back near his ear. She was sitting in the snow next to him, which was all she could do to stop herself from jumping on top of House and hugging the life out of him.
“Are you okay?” she said, the tears on her cheeks mixing oddly with her reassuring smile. “I mean, I know you’re not…Oh God I was so worried about you two!” She rest her head on his chest, as if she needed proof that it was still rising and falling.
You two. Two.
“I left Wilson,” said House, his voice barely audible, even to himself. He stared up at the hair nestled messily across his forehead. He wasn’t going to cry in front of a bunch of twenty-somethings who cared more about Myspace than medicine, or anyone at all, for that matter.
Cuddy lifted her head and looked him in the eye. “What?”
House’s eyes flicked around nervously as he felt the tears in his throat again. “I…left Wilson alone. He’s, he’s dead because of me. Shit, shit, shit, I killed him, Cuddy!”
And for some reason, Cuddy smiled even more. “How do you think we found you, House?”
House gave her a puzzled look. “How, I—“
“A helicopter pilot…saw the word ‘help’ written in blood on the window of a wrecked Honda Civic. He landed, found a DOA by the name of David Spencer with his stomach cut open by the license plate. Wilson was next to him in the snow, looking pretty much as bad.”
Cuddy paused, as if House needed extra time to catch up. “Wilson’s alive, House. He gave us your note, which told us where to find you. I mean, thank God you didn’t get as far as those girls thought, or we wouldn’t know where to look, but Wilson’s alive…thanks to you. And I guess you’re alive thanks to him.”
Now House was on the verge of tears for a different reason. “He was, uh, conscious when you found him?”
“Barely. He’d been in severe hypovolemic shock for at least an hour, maybe two. It’s a miracle we found him alive, let alone awake.”
“He wasn’t awake when I,” House paused, scared to say the words, “left him. He was tachycardic. BP was through the floor, so I could barely get a pulse. The hemorrhage was from his earlier laceration, so make sure the boy scouts know where to apply pressure.”
“House,” Cuddy put a hand on his left shoulder. “They already took him to the hospital at White Haven. He’ll be okay.”
“White Haven?! Hmm, let’s see, the hick-ass place you sent us here to ‘help?’ Yeah, sounds like they’ll do a way better job at saving his life.”
“They’re waiting until he’s stable. Then, they’re flying him back to Princeton.”
“Fine,” said House, tiredness sweeping over him once more, “okay.”
And with the fatigue came more consequences. He fought off a grimace while the pain in his leg and shoulder was welcomed back for an encore.
But Wilson would be okay.
Wilson was alive.
Cuddy’s smile began to fade as she looked House over with eyes that screamed mother more than doctor. “How bad?”
“Sex with you? Well, to be honest—“
“How’s your shoulder?”
“How’s your leg?”
“I think you’re going to need to be a bit more specific.”
House sighed and blinked tiredly. “My collar bone’s broken. More like shattered now that I think about it.”
“Is your leg okay?”
House didn’t think he’d ever join the ranks of those who could be exhausted into honesty. He was wrong.
“Dunno. I don’t think—It doesn’t feel okay.”
Their eyes met, like two pitbulls who’d survived a dogfight in a sort of stalemate with nature. House was surprised when he didn’t see pity in Cuddy’s eyes, just as Cuddy was surprised when she didn’t see misery in House’s. They didn’t quite smile at each other. After all, to the rest of the world, “not dying” didn’t seem that big of an accomplishment.
That’s exactly how House would’ve phrased it—“not dying.” Wilson would’ve called it “surviving,” if not only to demonstrate how two things can be so similar and so different at the same time.
One of the EMTs put a stretcher down next to House, whose eyelids were on the verge on drooping shut.
“Hey Cuddy,” he said, as a pair of hands got ready to move him onto the plank. “Don’t tell Wilson I cried over him. He might make me watch ‘The Notebook’ again.”
Cuddy made a quick gesture of locking her lips and throwing away the key, a promise she had no intention of keeping. “Oh, one more thing,” she said.
The EMTs impatiently released their grip on House yet again, as Cuddy wrestled something out of her pocket. “I think Wilson wanted me to give this to you.”
She handed him a small white piece of paper, now stained red with various bloody fingerprints, and it wasn’t in an evidence bag this time.
On the back was the note he’d written Cuddy, telling her where he was. House flipped it back to the front, where his name and title were written in some exotic font.
But under his name, there was a quick note. Some weak, left-handed scribble that seemed to define the typical handwriting of people who’d just lost 30 percent of their blood volume. It said:
Dr. Gregory House, MD
-is not a shitty best friend.