Tuesday, September 06, 2005

3:04 AM

I didn't do anything for Labor Day. James asked me over to a cookout at his place, but it was a token invite -- Julie's family was going to be there, and James knew I'd never accept. Besides, what kind of friend would I be if I'd come? If you're trying to make nice to the in-laws, I'm the last person you want around.

I actually went in to the office for a couple of hours this morning and worked on my journal article for a bit. Chase was covering, so we had lunch together. I had to go back to the office afterward to pick up some stuff; I hit the button for four and was a little startled when Chase hit the button for three, until I remembered: Mark Warner is here. He and Stacey timed his short follow-up admission for the long weekend. At the third floor, Chase hesitated for just a moment -- was I going to join him? I answered the unasked question by jabbing the button for four again. Chase nodded and ambled out before the doors closed on him.

The weather was stupendous. After I left the hospital I went down to the towpath and walked around for a while until I got tired. Then I found a bench and just sat and watched the water. Afterwards I went to Gilbert's for a sandwich and ate it in the park. The chess players and the bocce players were out as long as they had enough light to see.

Back home, watched the game on TV, aimless channel-flipping, Scotch and stride piano, more channel-flipping, and now it's three o' clock in the morning and I still can't sleep. Or won't sleep.

This is so stupid. I push myself up from my chair, grab my cane, and head off for the bedroom, stopping off for a glass of water on the way. Shoes, jeans, bathroom.... on the way back I stop by my dresser to take off my watch. I stop when I see the box, and even as I'm reminding myself that I need to throw it out, I'm lifting it up and carrying it over to the bed.

I sit down, take a Vicodin, and arrange myself in bed. I stare at the box for a while.

And then I open it.

The envelopes and postcards are on top, and my stomach flips a little as I see my name in that familiar handwriting. I start going through them, leaving the unopened ones alone as I make my way to the bottom of the stack. It's a red envelope without a stamp -- just my name, no address. I don't open the envelope.

I hit the playback button on the answering machine and leaned against the counter. The message started. “Hi, um, Dr House? This is Eileen Abney. I’m sorry to call so late, but my ride -- my ride stood me up today. I’m still in town. I’ve been trying and trying but I can’t find a ride and I was wondering if maybe I could take you up on that ride home, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.... Would you mind calling me here, whenever it’s a good time? Call whenever. Just -- please just let me know if it's okay, so I know whether I need to get a bus ticket or not. Thanks….”

I stared in amazement at the answering machine and then replayed the message to write down the number. I looked at the clock, thought for a moment, and grinned. One in the morning certainly counted as “whenever”, didn’t it? I punched in the number and started counting the rings….

5:00 AM, Christmas Eve. I pulled up to the apartment building and was about to double-check the address when, by the weak light of the entry lamp, I saw the main door open and disgorge an enormous suitcase. The suitcase was followed by a shopping bag, the big kind with handles. I rolled my eyes and got out of the car.

By the time I made it up there, Eileen had managed to squeeze herself and her backpack out from behind her other impedimenta and shut the door. I jogged up the front steps. “Good Lord, Abney! Do you think I drive a UPS truck?”

“I said I had one suitcase, and I do!” She grabbed at it, but I had already started carrying it down the stairs. She gave up, picked up the shopping bag and her backpack, and hurried to catch up.

I popped the trunk and loaded her suitcase. “So what goes in here besides the steamer trunk?”

“Just this.” She handed over the shopping bag. It was filled with wrapped presents.

I stowed it where it wouldn’t get crushed and slammed the trunk shut. “All right, let’s get going. It’s cold out here.”

I pulled away from the apartment and headed for the main drag. As we waited at a stoplight, I looked over at Eileen. Thin light from the streetlamp fell across her face. She looked exhausted, but was smiling a little and practically hugging herself as she leaned back into the seat, snuggled up in her blue overcoat.

She turned and beamed. “Thank you so much, Dr House, I really appreciate this – ”

I grimaced. “Enough, Abney. You don’t think I’m doing this to be nice, do you?”

“But you yelled at me when I asked you how much to chip in for gas – ”

“Because Briony’s on my way. No, I just wanted a co-pilot. Your jobs are to stir my coffee, keep me awake and entertained, and handle the change for the tolls.” I nodded towards the fistful of change scattered in the center console. “Additional duties to be assigned as needed.”

“Aye, aye, captain.” She took off her mittens and started sorting the coins. The light turned green and I turned onto the main road.

“And I’ve told you this before: enough with the ‘Dr House’. The only people who call me that are either wearing stethoscopes or paper gowns with their butts hanging out.”

“Well, what do you want me to call you?”

I shrugged. “ ‘Hey you’ usually works. So does ‘House;’ so does ‘Greg.’ I’ve also been known to answer to ‘you arrogant bastard.’ ”

She stifled an unbelieving giggle. “I don’t do that last name thing very well, so if it’s okay with you I’ll go with ‘Greg.’ “

I nodded.

“I have a first name too.”

“I know.”

We were approaching the end of the university area. I spotted a drive-through I knew would be open.

“Have you had breakfast?” I asked her.

"Yes, I have."

“Then we’ll just get coffee. I want to make some time before traffic gets heavy on the turnpike.”

“Okay – oh, decaf for me. Thanks.”

At the window, I handed the foam cups to Eileen, one at a time. She put them in the cup holders, opened the first sugar packet, and we were back on the main drag again. As we headed out, I saw Eileen grinning to herself again. She seemed so happy to be on her way home. I almost felt envious.

I took a sip of my coffee. “Not bad. You pass the coffee test. Your next assignment is to find a radio station – if you can stay awake that long; are we keeping you up?”

She finished yawning into her hands and, blinking sheepishly, leaned for the radio. “It is five in the morning. What station do you want?”

“Push the first button, I want the weather.” She adjusted the volume as the news came on. “Five’s not that early,” I goaded her.

“I guess you’re always up this early?”

“Pretty much. It depends a little on my service and how obtuse my residents and med students are, and how sick my ingrate patients were the night before. When I was doing surgery rotations in med school, sometimes I’d have to be there as early as four, four-thirty to get ready for rounds before scrubbing in for first case.”

She started to say something but had to hide her face behind her hands as she yawned again.

“That narcolepsy you’ve got going there? You can take something for that, you know. It’s cheap, it’s all-natural, and you can get it anywhere, even at a drive through window.”

“I bet it goes great with doughnuts, too,” she replied. “I know. Caffeine just doesn’t agree with me.”

Interesting. Migraines? Mitral valve prolapse? Part of my brain raced off on that tangent, while the rest of it started listening to the weather: cold, overcast, but no new snow or ice expected.

The car was warming up. I unzipped my jacket; Eileen took off her hat and, at the next stoplight, started wriggling out of her coat sleeves. As she leaned forward, I took a second look at the nape of her neck.

“Abney, what did you do to your hair?”


“Your hair. You know, that stuff on your head.”

She stared at me for a minute before she realized what I was talking about: she'd carelessly pulled her hair into two pigtails, loosely braided at the ends.. “You’ve never seen braids before?”

“Sure, on ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”

You watched ‘Little House on the Prairie?’”

“Don’t change the subject, Laura Ingalls. Hair, braids, two of them.”

“These are not Laura Ingalls braids.”

“There’s a hill coming up. I could make you run down it to prove my point.”

“That wouldn’t prove a thing. It’s dark, the hill’s covered in snow, and I don’t have a calico dress on.”

“You’ve just got an answer for everything, don’t you?”

“Of course. It's what I do. And remember, you started it.”

“Started what?”

“This little argument.”

“Who’s arguing?”

“Not me.”

“I’m not arguing either. So where did this argument come from?”

“This discussion, then. About my hair.” She settled back into the seat and popped up again. “Are you always like this?”

“Pretty much.”

“Oh. Well, I’m not into arguments.”

“I’m not into arguments either,” I said.

“And I do not look like Laura Ingalls.”

“If you’re so sure, then why do you keep saying it? You know, if people would just listen to me and not argue, we’d save so much time.”

“Just accept that you’re right and get on with it?”

“That’s right.”

“Even when you’re wrong?”

“That is so rare it’s statistically insignificant.”

She snickered. “Do patients argue with you?”

“All the time -- when they’re not lying. Of course, some of them argue while they’re lying. At least that saves a step.”

“You make it sound like you hate patients!”

I didn’t say anything; it was easy to avoid meeting her eyes in the dark.

She waited a bit before she tried again. “You must be looking forward to getting a break.”

I kept my eyes on the road. We were well out of town by now. “Yeah.”

“So what are you going to do when you get home?”

“I’m going to sleep. And then I’m going to eat.”

“Is that all?”

“Well, I might mix it up a little, you know; eat and then sleep. I’ll probably get some TV in, too. But that’s it.”

As we approached the toll plaza, Eileen started leaning forward, smiling broadly under the bright lights.

“Abney? It’s the toll plaza. You’ve seen it before.”

"I know."

We pulled up to the machine; I took the ticket and handed it to her. She held it up to the light as we pulled away, looking at the printed mileages. “We’re on the way! Only three and a half hours!”

Three. The people who wrote that up drive like girls.”

There was just enough light from the toll plaza to see her making a face at me. I smiled a little, she tucked the ticket behind the visor and settled back into her seat, and we were off.

Eileen tried hard to keep her promise to entertain me – it was certainly very amusing watching her try to stay awake – but she didn’t last long. Fifteen minutes on the turnpike and she was only answering questions with a drowsy “mm-hmm?”; another five minutes and she was out, a faint smile still on her face. I was awake and well caffeinated, so I let her alone.

It was just as well; I didn’t have anything to say to her anyway. I grimaced and turned the heat down.

I didn’t regret offering the ride, and as it turned out she had really gotten herself into a jam; a more cunning girl might have waited to dump the boyfriend until after she’d gotten her ride.

But what had I thought was going to happen? I hardly knew Eileen, and yet when I’d called her back, I’d dialed that number like I was looking forward to the privilege of being cooped up in a car with her for three hours.

All right, so I had been looking forward to it. Even as I admitted it, I grew more disgusted with myself for my self-delusion.

I looked over again at Eileen. She was sound asleep. I wondered briefly what she was dreaming about, and then wondered why I was wondering.

So why had I been looking forward to it? Eileen and I had almost no connection. I only knew her at all because she’d been dating a med student, for God’s sake, a rather run-of-the-mill one whom I’d only supervised once, almost ten months ago. But then there was that afternoon in the practice room, when we’d met by chance, and then that evening in the restaurant…

“You like her, don’t you?” Dr Ball had asked. And I’d tried to evade him.

“I don’t mean ‘like’ in the sense of ‘wanting to date’….”

Did I want to date her? She was so young, she was probably still on the rebound, and the horror in her eyes when I’d asked the question….

I glanced over at her again. In the dim light from the dashboard, I could just see the collar of her coat gently rising and falling as she slept.

No. It was a waste of time to even think in that direction. There was no point in even asking myself if I wanted to date her, because she sure as hell didn’t want to date me.

“... I mean 'like' in the sense of 'like', in the sense of finding someone to be interesting, pleasing. So. Do you like her?”

I looked up into the rear-view mirror – a tractor-trailer was riding my bumper. I muttered something coarse and pulled over into the right lane to let him pass.

Dr Ball… why couldn’t he have asked me something about Kupffer cells or the common bile duct? How was he always able to throw me with such simple questions?

Even at the Christmas party, the week before. I’d sought him out, so I could check his name off on my list, but every time I’d seen him he’d been talking to somebody. My turn came later in the evening. He’d found me in the corner where I was taking a break from being sociable.

“Ah, there you are, Dr House. I hope you’re enjoying yourself?”

“Indeed I am,” I lied.

He smiled knowingly and went on to the usual small talk about my current rotation with Roderick. To my relief, he skipped the part where most attendings asked about fellowship applications and instead went straight to chitchat about the band.

“They’re very good, aren’t they? At least Mrs. Ball says so; I haven’t been able to pry her off the dance floor the whole evening. There she is, in the red dress.” Mrs. Ball seemed to be in danger of having her feet melded to the parquet floor by Rosenthal’s plodding box step. Her eyes met Dr Ball’s for a moment, he smiled as they telegraphed some silent joke, and then she was out of view again.

He turned back to me. “So what are your plans for Christmas?”

“I have a couple of days off….”

And? his face asked.

“So it looks like I’m going home.”

“And home is….?”


“Somerset. Closer than California, I suppose, but still a significant distance away. Do you see your parents often?”

I looked down at my drink. “It’s been awhile.”

From the front of the room, the dancers applauded as the song ended. Dr Ball looked as if he were weighing his words.

“There’s something,” he finally said, “about the Christmas season that makes it an ideal time to step back and assess things: to be grateful for what you have and what you’ve achieved, and to leave grudges and regrets behind. When I was a little boy, after Christmas dinner at my grandfather’s the grown-ups would drink champagne and toss holly springs into the fire. Naturally I would always want to participate, but my grandfather told me I was too little for champagne and too young for such troubles. The idea, of course, was that by throwing the holly into the fire you were casting away the troubles and worries of the old year, so that you could start the new year free of those old burdens and make a fresh start.

“This next year is going to be an important one for you. I’m glad that you have this opportunity to see your family, and I’m very pleased that you’re taking it.”

The band had started again, a slower song this time. Dr Ball listened for a moment. “Dr House, I’m afraid I must excuse myself. If I don’t see you again, have a safe trip to Somerset and a very merry Christmas.”

“Thanks, Dr Ball. Merry Christmas.”

I watched him walk over to the dance floor and glide into a foxtrot with his wife. I shoved my hands in my pockets and thought for a moment. I’d seen everyone I needed to see; it was decently late enough. It was time to go.

I went to get my coat. It was hot and stuffy in the checkroom, and the side door was open. As I dug in my pocket for my ticket, I glanced out the half-open door and spotted Roderick, talking with some of the other attendings. I recognized Taylor, Norris… there was another guy there with his back turned. I could hear them, but they couldn’t see me. They were discussing the senior residents.

I rolled my eyes – stupid idiots, talking so loudly when there were so many residents around – and gave my ticket to the check girl. She disappeared into the cloakroom.

Suddenly I started to listen more carefully. Roderick was talking about me.

“…Because I think he’s a viable candidate, that’s why,” he was saying.

“You’re wasting your nomination,” Norris said. “He’s managed to piss off just about every member of the faculty. And if he were chosen, Isabel Nutting would shit a brick.”

Isabel Nutting was the Director of Nursing, and I was not on her good list. I knew I wasn’t going to be invited to be a Chief Resident, but… was Roderick really thinking about nominating me?

“Have you ever had him on a rotation, Norris? I didn’t think so,” said Roderick. “House has his issues, but he’s hardly the first and he won’t be the last. He’s sharp as a tack. And he hasn’t pissed off every member of the faculty. I’m quite satisfied with how he’s doing so far, and he came with glowing evaluations from Jennings and Ball.”

“Are they going to nominate him?” said Taylor.

“I don’t know about Jennings. Ball said he wasn’t going to nominate anybody,” Roderick replied. “He didn’t think it was fair, since he’s moving to the fellowship program next year.”

The fourth guy snorted. Roderick frowned and excused himself; the fourth guy turned to watch him go. My eyes narrowed. It was Ogilvie.

“Fellowship program my ass,” he said. “I heard it was something to do with failures in mentoring or nobody he felt comfortable nominating or some such crap. I’ve had several run-ins with House. Roderick likes him because Roderick is a head case. Jennings likes him because Jennings is a lab rat.”

Taylor raised an eyebrow. “What about Ball?”

“Well, of course Ball would love him,” sneered Ogilvie. “They’re birds of a feather. House is almost as full of himself as Ball is, that pompous conceited hillbilly.”

The girl came with my coat. I checked to make sure it was mine, threw a tip into her dish, reminded myself that it was usually counter-productive to deck an attending, and took off. I cut through the back of one of the buffet rooms, avoiding the little group on the mezzanine.

That had been less than a week ago. It seemed so much longer – I’d been so busy – and I hadn’t had a chance to think about what I’d heard. I’d been trying not to.

I took a sip of my cooling coffee. Ogilvie, that backstabbing weasel… no wonder he’d had it in for me. But Roderick… would he really nominate me? Dr Ball had been the only one to bring up the possibility of a Chief Residency. I’d been disappointed, but hardly surprised, when he’d hinted that he hadn’t nominated me.

But then he’d dangled the fellowship in front of me. I’d gone ahead and applied for it, along with the other fellowships. What was I going to do if I was offered the fellowship? On the one hand, it would be a chance to work closely with Dr Ball for another three or four years. On the other hand, it was a GI fellowship, and I just didn’t want to do GI: all that sticking skinny scopes into patients, from both ends. Three years of butts and barium? No way.

And then if I accepted the fellowship… would people think I got the post out of sheer favoritism? Of course Ball would love him, they’re birds of a feather. House is almost as full of himself as Ball is….

This had to be a first: worrying that someone might think that I was somebody’s favorite. I chuckled harshly. Eileen stirred a little but didn’t wake up.

Since when did I care about what other people thought? What they thought, what they felt, was irrelevant.

Suddenly I heard my father’s voice, his unexpected speech on the golf course: It’s important to build good working relationships... Don’t wall yourself off….

I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. Damn it. Yes, my father had suddenly become quite the expert on building good working relationships with others. What was I going to say to him? How did I think I was going to stay in the same house with him?

Once again, I’d gotten what I thought I wanted and then didn’t know what to do with it. I thought I wanted time off for Christmas, I’d gotten it, and now I was regretting it. But I couldn’t turn around and go back because I’d promised Eileen the ride.

I’d thought I wanted to give her the a ride, but what was I expecting? I had no idea what to say to her.

I’d thought I wanted to be a doctor, I’d worked so hard… was I going to end up regretting that too?

I shoved that thought out of my mind, but brooded over the other themes for a good twenty miles. And my frustration grew every time I glanced over at Eileen, sleeping peacefully, so happy to get home, while I was so tongue-tied and conflicted. I stewed and fretted as, on the radio, the mild voices of the NPR announcers prosed on and the dark turnpike rolled away behind us.

I had just finished my tepid coffee when I heard Eileen stirring. She took a deep breath and sat up straight, rubbing her face and blinking like a little tousled owl.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to crash like that. Where are we?”

“We’re almost in Ottawa.”

“We are not.”

“Oh, but we are. You’ve been sleeping for about twelve hours now. I drove past your exit, since you weren’t awake to tell me where it was, and I just kept driving.”

She reached for her coffee. “So why didn’t you stop at your house?”

“We’re not there yet. Mama and Papa live in Montreal.”

“Briony is not on the way to Montreal.”

“It is in the greater scheme of things. But it’s a moot point, since you slept through your exit.”

We passed a sign for an upcoming exit. Eileen, reassured that we were not actually in Ontario, turned from the window. “You told me a fib,” she said in mock reproach. She sounded like she had her pretend haughty face on.

“A mere fib? I think I was a little more creative than that.”

“All right, then, you told me a fish story, a falsehood. A jocular lie.”

“I was hardly going for the jocular.”

A passing car lit up the cabin; I could see her wrinkling her nose. “Ew, that was bad. So you were just going for the flat-out lie?”

I just lifted my eyebrows.

“You told a lie on Christmas Eve!” she teased.

“What, Santa’s going to leave coal in my stocking? Do you speak from experience?”

“Not me. I always tell the truth,” she insisted, certain but playful.

I knew she was just kidding around, but the topic depressed me – lies behind me at work, lies ahead of me at home -- and her giddy cheer left me feeling isolated and resentful. I felt myself sliding back into the frustration and unhappiness I’d been stewing in while she’d been sleeping. “Self-refuting statement. Everybody lies, you should know that by now.”

“I don’t tell lies, especially on Christmas Eve.” She dropped her voice, trying to pretend to be solemn. “Lies make Baby Jesus cry. It’s a sin to tell a lie.”

All this wholesomeness and cheer was getting way out of hand, and something snapped inside me. “Fornication and insurance fraud are sins too,” I snapped, “but that doesn’t seem to have stopped anybody.”

Eileen didn’t say anything. I stared ahead at the road for a minute before I glanced over. She was twisted around in her seat, staring out the passenger window into the first tinge of dawn.

We went another couple of miles before she turned back around. She was crumpled in the seat with her arms pulled in tight, eyes red, face damp and flushed.


Another mile, another, and another rolled by.

The tension was growing intolerable. I looked over; her expression seemed a little softer.

“So, Abney, that insurance fraud thing… is that why you don’t have wheels? Crashed your car on purpose, still waiting for the adjuster? I promise not to tell anyone.”

Her mouth twitched a little but she didn’t say anything. We spent another five miles or so in silence.

Finally she spoke up. “When you think about it, insurance fraud is really just a kind of lying. And fornication… well, if you lie to yourself, that still counts as lying, doesn’t it?”

I looked over. She was gazing bleakly at the dashboard. “So you were right all along,” she said. “I guess that makes me a liar.”

A small, savage bit of my brain gloated with triumph, which made the rest of me feel that much more of a louse. She was just kidding around -- why had I lashed out at her like that? Why hadn't I thought first and stayed away from what was probably a sore topic? I hadn't meant to hurt her -- or had I?

Another couple of miles slipped by: me with my stomach churning; Eileen huddling pensive and silent in the passenger seat; Bob Edwards murmuring serenely on the radio, through the growing static, about Gene Autry and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

“Eileen,” I started, “listen, I –”

“Don’t,” she said. “I had it coming.” I narrowed my eyes, but before I could snap back she cut me off. “What, don’t be so hard on myself? Stop being a goody two-shoes? Everyone lies, so it’s no big deal? That doesn’t make it right.

“I always thought of myself as being truthful, but I wasn’t. I was lying to myself about – the other stuff, I was lying to myself about being truthful, and I was lying to everyone else when I pretended to be a person who told the truth. ”

Huh? I thought -- weren’t we all excited about Christmas just five minutes ago? I tried to follow her line of thought but could only reach the conclusion that I needed more coffee. I did want to suggest that she stop being so hard on herself. Lying to oneself struck me as being an adaptive habit that allowed most people to be able to function in the world without cracking up, and I thought about telling her so, but I pictured her looking me straight in the eye and asking me if I lied to myself. And I didn’t care to leave myself open for that.

So I let another mile or two roll by before I spoke again. “Most people who lie to themselves don’t even realize they’re doing it, or if they do, they choose to believe their own lies. So you’re way ahead of them.”

She didn’t look terribly consoled, so I left her to mope in silence. We were losing the radio station, though, and the static was getting really annoying. She didn’t seem to hear it, or if she did, she didn’t seem to care.

“Hey. Abney.”

She looked up.

I nodded towards the radio. “You’re neglecting your duty.”

She unfolded herself. “What station do you want?”

“Your choice. Just no country.”

“I’ll do my best.” She started rotating the tuner, as focused on her task as if she were cracking a safe. We were in a bad area for radio, but she managed to pull something in and immediately curled back into her seat, mission accomplished. I was not satisfied with her choice – it was the first station she’d found, an oldies station, and I was not terribly interested in how Brenda Lee was rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear
Voices singing, "Let's be jolly, deck the halls with boughs of holly."
Rockin' around the Christmas tree, have a happy holiday
Everyone dancing merrily in the new! Old! Fashioned! Wayyyyyyyy!

I was about to demand that she change the station, but the deejay came on and introduced a few commercials and I thought I might as well stick around for the weather. After he read the forecast he informed us that the moment we’d all been waiting for had arrived. I waited for him to tell me that it was December twenty-sixth, but instead he told us that he was going to play three – three! -- Beatles songs in a row.

Somehow I was able to contain my gratitude and retain control of the car. The Fab Four trilled something about being so happy just to dance with you (whoa-oh.) To my disappointment, Eileen failed to sit up, clap her hands to her face, and start screaming. I guess it only worked in the ‘sixties.

I hoped that the next song would be something that reflected my mood – “Helter Skelter” would have done nicely – but it was just “Penny Lane”. I looked over at Eileen; to my surprise, she’d turned from the window and seemed to be listening a little. She smiled a little as the first chorus started and the brass came in.

She was funny to watch. The music summoned her out of herself, and by the time we got to the middle of the roundabout (where the pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray), Eileen was mouthing the lyrics to herself, as if she’d forgotten I was there.

“Oh, go ahead and sing. You know you want to,” I teased her. She shot me a look that would have been devastating from someone who didn’t look like a junior high school student. I chuckled, and she turned away, her nose in the air.

She didn’t sing, though, even as the last song in the set turned out to be "Here Comes the Sun." I told her how disappointed I was.

“I sang last week,” she said. “It’s your turn.”

“It’s never my turn to sing.”

“Why, does everyone cut in line ahead of you? You sound so disappointed.”

I snorted. “I don’t sing.”

“Oh, that’s right. You don’t play piano, either. You have an image to maintain.” She smiled slyly. “Never fear, your secret is safe with me. For now.”

“Are you threatening me, Abney?”

“Not at the moment.”

“You are a cruel, cruel little thing.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now look at that sign coming up and tell me what it says.”

“Gas and food, two miles.”

“Excellent. We’re going to stop. I need to pee.”

“Ew. Don’t you have a doctor word for that kind of thing?”

“Books’ and books’ worth. But if I start talking about the micturition reflex, I might get distracted and miss the exit. They just mean ‘pee’ anyway.”

I was able to tend to my micturition reflex and still get to the front of the line at the restaurant before Eileen caught up with me.

“Where’ve you been?” I demanded. I stepped to the register. “For here, a number three with a large coffee, a medium decaf – what do you want to eat, Abney?”

“There was a line! Nothing for me, I had breakfast.”

“She’ll have a cinnamon roll.”

“I didn’t want anything to eat.”

“Yes you did. Go get the cream and sugar.”

Back at the table, Eileen stirred her coffee and poked at her cinnamon roll. “I told you I already had breakfast.”

“This isn’t breakfast. It’s second breakfast.” She looked blank. “What, Kopp didn’t fill you in on this? Breakfast is the meal you eat at four or five in the morning, before you come in. Second breakfast is what you eat later on, depending on when rounds are.”

“So when you eat pancakes at nine at night, is that third breakfast?”

“That’s just dinner. Three breakfasts? What do you think we are, some kind of freaks? Don’t answer that.” I reached over the table and tore off a piece of her cinnamon roll with my fork. She put on an indignant face and covered the roll with her hands. “What?” I asked her. “You snooze, you lose. Besides, you said you weren’t hungry.”

She smiled, took a couple of bites of her roll, and started on her coffee. I quickly finished my own breakfast and reached across the table to spear another piece of the roll for myself; she didn’t try to stop me.

“We’re making good time,” she said.

I shrugged and looked around. The dining room was getting more crowded. “If we want to keep it up, we’d better get going.”

“Okay. Can I get some more coffee?”

“Oh, I suppose. Here, warm mine up, too. Two sugars.” I handed her my cup and she headed off to the coffee station. I watched her cross the restaurant as I reached across the table for her roll.

We’d made very good time; it was only another ninety minutes or so to the Briony exit. And then I’d drop her off, head back to the turnpike, and spend another two hours in the car by myself.

I took another bite of the roll. I didn’t want to leave the restaurant. I didn’t want to get any closer to Briony. But I couldn’t think of any excuse to stay.

Like I could think of anything to say to her, anyway. Here, Eileen, just sit here in the booth with me for a couple of hours, just because I just want you to. I’d already had a good hour or so with her in the car and all I’d managed to accomplish was put her to sleep, push her buttons, and make her cry.

She came back with the coffees. “Are we ready?”

I stuffed the last bite of roll into my mouth -- "Mm-hm--” and started gathering up the trash. By the time I'd dumped it out and stowed the tray, Eileen was halfway out of the restaurant. I shook my head and went to go catch up with her.

I stare at the red envelope a little longer and then put it back in its place at the bottom of the stack; the unopened letters at the top stare at me reproachfully as I close the box back up. I put it on my nightstand, take a drink of water and a couple of Tums (tropical), and turn out the light.

author's note: this is post #100!


Anonymous Ally said...

I always enjoy reading this blog and it really does capture my attention. I like knowing what's going on, thanks for letting us know. We dont get to see this side of you very often, House. What happened with Eileen. I guess we'll eventually learn what happened and why you dont talk to her anymore. Was she one of those people you pushed away after your infarction?

What about the med students? You were one and not too long ago either. What about James? Shouldnt he be a med student about now?

September 08, 2005 4:01 PM  

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