Thursday, August 31, 2006

1:26 AM

PG-13 for language and content.

Thanks to npkedit and Dr Mac for their technical help, and special thanks to Namaste for her patient, heroic beta work on this long chapter.

It's been a while, and we've been joined by new readers from around the world, so here's a quick note on what's going on.

Since its beginning, this fic has included chapters about House's past, including the infarction story and a series of chapters about his residency.

The foundations of the backstory chapters were laid during the first season. Since then, the show has rendered all this backstory AU. For the ficblog, I have chosen to stay as consistent as possible with earlier backstory chapters. For example, Canon House is the only child of Blythe and John House. In the ficblog, House has a brother named Mark; their ficblog mother is named Nancy. The backstory is also populated with characters that live only in the fic, not in the show.

House has been reminiscing here and there about Eileen, a woman who came unexpectedly to visit him in the hospital after the infarction. (There's a complete list of Eileen chapters in the right sidebar.) He'd met Eileen during his residency and found himself interested in her. Things were complicated, though, for Eileen was significantly younger and -- even worse -- was dating a medical student whom House was supervising at the time.

Eileen and House bumped into each other a few times that spring. Their paths crossed again that November: Eileen, now a senior in college, had just broken up with her med student. House found himself giving her a lift home for her Christmas vacation, taking her bowling in January -- and then inviting her out for a bite to eat....

Sitting here in my bedroom chair, in the dark.

Wilson left a couple of hours ago. We finally went to see "Snakes on a Plane" last night. The closest place it was playing was down at the fancy theater on Route 1, which happens to be in a mall, and Wilson's price for the privilege of seeing this fine piece of cinema was dinner at the seafood restaurant instead of the food court and side trips to Williams-Sonoma and Restoration Hardware. Gotta feather the nest to attract the chicks, I guess.

My leg's been better lately, but wandering around the mall wasn't good preparation for climbing the stairs in the theater. At least stadium seating means I can stretch out a little. The theater wasn't too crowded, which also helped. I wondered idly where all the high school kids were; the local schools aren't in yet. Not that I missed them.

As we were leaving the theater, Wilson's cell phone went off. I wondered who it was -- he wasn't on call -- but I quickly saw that whoever it was would be talking a while. So I found a bench.

Another movie let out while I was waiting -- apparently, the one that all the high school kids and other local yokels were seeing that night. They streamed out, clumping into groups and pairs, some of them turning the corner to go drink mochas at the bookstore and others going straight ahead toward the Friday's for cheese sticks and illegal beer. Just another Wednesday night. I suddenly felt very conscious of how invisible I was to them -- some old guy sitting alone on a bench.

And that was fine. Wilson finally got off the phone. From there it was back to my place for legal beer, and now it's just me again.

It's getting dark earlier now. Aas we left the mall we passed the restaurants, their windows lit up in the dark. It struck me how cozy and merry they looked. I quickly reminded myself that that cozy and merry look was a commodity, produced by architects and designers, and a pretty trite commodity at that. That brass, beer, and antiques look has been around for what, thirty years now?

But once it was tempting and new. I glance up at my dresser and start thinking it's time to go to bed, but I don't. I force myself to remember....

I looked around the counter to the bowling alley's snack bar. The lanes were full now, so the snack bar was only going to get more crowded and smoky, and I wanted something a bit more substantial than pretzels and watery Cokes and cold plastic chairs.

I turned back to Eileen. “…Maybe I’ll ask if you want to go get something to eat.”

She smiled. “That sounds great.”

We ended up near the mall, at one of those R.T. McHooligan’s places. It didn’t seem too busy, but the perplexed hostess sent us to the bar anyway. I grumbled, went to get a couple of drinks, and came back to find Eileen gone. I looked around and saw her trying to catch my attention from a nearby booth.

“Good work, Abney.” I set the drinks – a Guinness and a Shirley Temple – on the table and started to take off my coat.

Eileen’s face lit up. “Oh, my favorite! How did you know?”

I frowned -- no tantrum? Not even a little eyeroll? – and then stared in chagrin as she started drinking my beer.

“Mmm.” She put the glass down. “Thank you so much, that hits the spot.” She looked at the lonely mocktail. “How cute! I didn’t know you liked those. Aren’t they called ‘Roy Rogers’ when they’re for boys?” She chuckled as I glowered at her.

“I figured you’d be up on your kiddie drinks.” I tossed my coat into the booth and sat down. Eileen looked like she was going to say something, but instead abruptly pulled the mocktail in front of her.

“Hey,” I complained, “don’t I – ” Eileen ignored me; she was staring over my left shoulder. I looked around. The waitress was coming with menus.

I cut her off before she could start the recitation of her name and the evening’s specials. “We’ll have the appetizer sampler – the big one.”

“Um, okay—” She tucked the menus back under her arm.

“And another Guinness, please,” Eileen added. I waited, amused, as the waitress carded her.

“That’s a lot of beer for you to be crying into, Abney, I didn’t realize you were that competitive.”

“Competition is my life. Besides, aren’t there nachos in that plate? I’m going to need something to drink.”

“Who said those nachos were for you? You had your chance to order, you should have taken it.”

“You said we!”

“That was the royal we.”

“Well, if you’re not going to share, then I’ll order something for myself when you get your refill on your Roy Rogers there.”

The waitress brought the second beer. Eileen smiled, pushed the mocktail across the table, and sent the new beer after it. I pushed the mocktail back to Eileen, lifted my beer, drank, kept drinking, trying to put off the moment when I’d have to put down the beer and make with the small talk.

Finally I had to set down my glass. Eileen leaned forward. “So,” she asked, “how was your Christmas? Was Santa Claus good to you?”

“A shiny new lump of coal for my collection. How about you?”

“I had a good break.”

“That’s not what I asked. Did you get your car?”

“No.” She looked away, but not quickly enough to hide the disappointment and frustration flashing across her face. She quickly collected herself. “No, I got something bigger. Our whole family got big news for Christmas: my brother got engaged.”

“Oh. Well, congratulations, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Or whatever I’m supposed to say. I don’t know; you’re not the one getting married.”

I kicked myself as soon as I said it. Eileen just chuckled wryly. “No, I’m not. But a sister-in-law’s better than a car, I suppose. I’ve met her; she’s pretty nice.”

Eileen stared at her beer for a moment, while I stared at Eileen, trying to assess her expression. I’d known her for about a year now, and I had a good sense of her type: pretty, prissy, a little prudish, and almost certainly a daddy’s girl. Was she a queen bee? She didn’t seem vindictive enough -- she’d asked me to take it easy on Kopp only half an hour after dumping him. Manipulative? She certainly played at it. But then, maybe she was doing just that – playing. I couldn’t picture any of the queen bees I’d known sending out bags of candy, for example. Or carrying around chess magazines in their bookbags, for that matter. Or inviting me to their recitals. Or sitting in a restaurant drinking beer with me.

But I could certainly picture them being upset at having their plans of engagement and marriage foiled -- Eileen had been sniveling about that all the way up to Christmas Eve -- especially plans of engagement to a future doctor. Really, why in the world else would she have been dating that scut monkey?

I looked at her again. Who was she really? Part of me was urging me to shut up and just take in the view of her sitting there, her long hair glinting copper under the stained glass lamp. Another part of me wanted to consider the possibility of taking her out again and mull over whether I wanted to expend the patient and careful effort it would almost certainly take to get to know her in the Biblical sense. But the rest of me was eager to test my theory: that Little Miss Abney had been in love with the idea of being engaged – and wasn’t used to not getting what she wanted.

Finally I just went ahead and asked. “You’re jealous, aren’t you?”

She didn’t look up, and even as part of my brain yelled at me to shut up already, I pressed on: “You are, aren’t you? You thought you were going to bring a boyfriend or even a fiancé home, and instead…”

“It just wasn’t meant to be, was it?” She leaned back, still looking bleakly at her beer. “No, it’s better this way. How long would it have lasted? And besides, even if I had come home with a ring on, that wouldn’t have changed anything. My brother would have still gotten engaged, and that would have been that: the rest of the holidays would have been devoted to getting their planning started, and I wouldn’t have been allowed to set a date until they had their own stuff squared away.” She laughed a little. “It’s just as well. Dresses, planning… let his bride deal with all that stupid bride stuff. I’ve got enough on my plate with school.” She reached for her beer and took a drink; as she set the heavy glass down, I saw a glint of mischief coming back into her eyes. “As long as she doesn’t pick graduation weekend or my senior recital. Those dates are mine.”

“And what if she does pick those dates?”

Eileen shrugged. “She’ll just have to shell out and get someone else to sing at her wedding.” She looked up. “Can we talk about something else now?” Her voice was getting an edge to it I’d never heard before, and I knew I was on the right track. There was no way I was going to let her change the subject.

“Why?” I pressed her. “This is interesting.”

“So call up Claire and talk about it with her. I’m on the groom’s side anyway, so I’m just a spectator.”

“And that is what’s interesting. Weddings are anthropology. Bridesmaids, for example. Those matching dresses? In ancient times they were identical to the bride’s dress, to confuse the evil spirits—”

Eileen snorted. “That explains a lot.”

I ignored her. “So, if weddings are anthropology, talking to people about weddings shows how they see themselves in relation to their culture. It’s psychology. And in this case, what’s interesting – ” I leaned forward “-- is your psychology: seeing how you react when you’re out of the spotlight.”

She leaned back, arms folded.

Bingo, I thought. “You thought you were going to be the Christmas Queen, coming home triumphant with your doctor-to-be on your arm.… I’ll bet you had it all planned out in your head: he’d give you the ring for Christmas, you’d get to show it to your mother and your sister and squeal, and you’d get to spend the rest of your break meeting his parents and gushing about dresses instead of--”

“Instead of singing to dead people and practicing bowling,” interrupted Eileen. She glared at me. “Is that all you think it was about?”

I lifted my eyebrows.

“That’s all you thought I wanted? All the trying to compromise, all the hoping and planning for a future with someone I – someone I loved, someone I thought loved me –” The disgust on my face at the thought of Eileen loving that scut monkey only made her angrier. “—losing everything I’d been hoping for – and you think it was only about getting a ring? Do you really think I’m that shallow? That I’m some kind of… some kind of….” She paused, searching for a word; I decided to help her out.

“Some kind of diva?” I suggested.

I almost burst out laughing as I saw the blood drain from her face -- I’d never thought she was capable of such fury. But my amusement faded quickly. This intriguing display of anger had nothing of her usual playfulness. There was plenty of resentment, though, and I grew a little uneasy as I thought I recognized a growing hint of disdain.

“That’s…” she finally started. “That’s… I don’t know what to say. I thought….”

I waited eagerly to hear what she thought, but instead she looked down at the table as she collected herself. Finally she looked back up. Her voice was quiet and hard.

“You knew I was with Dave for over a year, and you know how upset I was when…. when things fell apart. You were even nice to me. So for you to sit here and say this to me – either you know better and you’re just trying to make me mad, in which case it’s mean and not funny, or you really believe it. You really believe that the only reason I would want to get engaged is wanting to be the center of attention.

She looked me straight in the eye. “I wonder if it’s because you want to be the center of attention. It’s what you want, so you think everyone else wants it too. And you make fun of other people if you think they want it.

“I bet you’re used to it. I bet you love it. The way the med students hate you and fear you – I bet you eat that up, you love knowing that you’re the one they’re talking about at the end of the day. I bet you’ve been the star of the show since the day you were born. You know you’re smart, you made it through medical school – and from the looks of that old bumper sticker on your car, not just any medical school, either.” My eyes narrowed -- I thought I’d gotten enough of that Hopkins garage sticker off. “So you probably went to a good school before that and were at the top of your class there. You’ve probably been at the top of your class all your life. Were you the high school valedictorian? Did you get a perfect score on your SAT?

“And your parents – having a doctor for a son? They must be so proud.” She said it without a trace of sarcasm. “It must be nice to be the center of attention so often that you get used to it.”

“And you’re not.”

“No. I’m not.” She looked away for a moment. “You don’t know what it’s like to always be second-best, do you? In my family, my brothers are the stars. They got good grades, they played sports, they got into good schools… I landed a solo in All-State in high school, but what’s singing? Sean got two varsity letters. I was in the top twenty, but big deal – Tom was first in his class. They both graduated with all kinds of honors. Now Sean has an MBA and a fiancée. Tommy’s an engineer.

“I’ll never be an international star, but at least at school I know that if I audition, I have a chance. But at home, no matter what I do, I’ll never be Eileen – I’ll always be Sean and Tom’s sister. I wish I could explain it better.”

“No, I know what you mean,” I said. Eileen’s talk of high school… for an instant I was back at the kitchen table in Somerset, drinking hot chocolate after practice while my mother started dinner… “I… Actually, you were right. I did make a perfect score on the SAT…”

“Hah!” Eileen crowed. “Did you get your picture in the paper?”

“Sort of. It was underneath my older brother’s: ‘Local Teen Repeats Brother’s Feat.’ He’s two years older than me; he’d gotten a perfect score too. He’d also submitted corrections to some of the questions – the College Board had to go back and regrade all the tests taken that day.”

“Hm.” I waited for her to say something more, but instead she reached for her beer. She tilted the glass towards herself, gently swirling the heavy foam, but instead of lifting the glass to drink she looked up at me. “What’s his name?”

I looked down at my beer. “Mark.”

“So at school were you always ‘Mark’s brother’?”

“Never for more than a day. I’m very different from Mark.”

“Oh really?” Eileen leaned forward. “Is he as…” Her voice trailed off. I took another drink of beer and waited for her to continue, but she was still thinking.

“As mean as I am?” I finally suggested.

“What? No, that’s not what I was going to say.”

“You had quite a bit to say about that just a few minutes ago, so don’t try to spare my feelings now.”

“But that’s not what I was going to say!”

“So what were you going to say? You’ve already forgotten, which just goes to show you: tact is just a waste of time.” Eileen opened her mouth to protest, but I cut her off. “Think about it. You could have told the truth and said the first thing that came to mind, but instead you thought you’d make it sound nicer. So you stop while you try to think up some euphemism. Meanwhile, the clock’s ticking and your silence is telling the person you’re talking to exactly what you’re doing, which is trying to say something you think they won’t like in a way that won’t hurt their feelings, and when you finally say something they’ll already know that it’s a lie. So all that musing was a complete waste of time.”

“Well, it all depends,” Eileen retorted. “If it takes you that long to think of a graceful way to say something, maybe you just need some more practice. Of course, a really good way to move a conversation along is to quit trying to be psychic and telling other people what they’re thinking. Because first you spend all that time thinking up what you think they’re going to say, and then you spend all that time telling them what they’re thinking, and then they have to spend all that time saying, no, that’s not what I was going to say and you go off onto some ridiculous tangent to justify yourself. You could save all kinds of time and just ask them – or better yet, stop interrupting and let them tell you.”

Her voice was still cold, and I was really starting to miss her old playful hauteur. “So tell me, Abney. What were you going to say?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. You interrupted me. I –”

“Here ya go!” Eileen looked up, distracted, as the waitress slid a plate in front of her. I sat back as my own plate appeared, followed by the platter. “Anything else I can get for you? Another Guinness?” the waitress asked.

“Yes,” I grunted, and reached for the food. Eileen had already spooned some sour cream on her plate and was daintily dabbing it onto the end of a potato skin.

“Tell me the truth, Abney, and no trying to sugar coat anything. What were you going to say back there?”

“The unsweetened truth is… at that moment I was still trying to decide what I thought. I knew it wasn’t mean but I hadn’t settled on what exactly it was.”

“And have you decided yet?”

“Yes.” She looked me straight in the eye. “Is your brother as contentious as you are?”


She lifted her eyebrows.

“No, my brother is not as contentious as I am. He… is not contentious at all, he’s downright placid. Immoveable, even. We take turns poking him with a stick to watch him blink.” Eileen snickered. “He’s like those guards at Buckingham Palace, it’s impossible to get him to raise his voice, much less pick a fight with him.

“Of course, that means he’s got some wicked inertia -- once he gets rolling, it’s impossible to stop him. He doesn’t look to the right or to the left, he just does what he’s going to do. He doesn’t care about how it looks.

“I wonder sometimes if anyone really knows how smart my brother really is. It’s hard to tell, because he doesn’t care much about credentials.”


Why was I saying all this? I never talked about Mark. At least it seemed to distract Eileen, but why would she care about any of this? Even as I pondered, I heard myself keep talking. “What makes smart people smart? They do the things smart people do. They take tests, they go to big name schools, they get lots of degrees in the right subjects.” I nodded toward the swinging doors. “You could have a guy with an IQ of 170 frying cheese back there in the kitchen, and you’d never know it because he didn’t have the right credentials. And some credentials are cooler than others. Who’s smarter – a PhD in folklore or a PhD in nuclear physics?

“My brother got a scholarship to MIT and majored in math. But instead of double-majoring in physics and becoming the absent-minded rocket scientist he was born to be, he got into geopolitical economics or something like that, and now he’s slogging away in some eternal post-doc program.”


“Someplace in Washington.” I stabbed my cheese stick into the marinara sauce.


I shrugged and leaned back a little as the waitress brought my beer. “Who knows? Wherever it is, he’s always doing something somewhere else – taking a class here, teaching there… I’m amazed he can keep track of it all.”

“I thought you said he was smart.”

“He is, but only about one thing at a time and only in a certain order. It’s like he runs on tracks, he can only go in one direction and he only makes scheduled stops. He’s got his routine, and all you have to do to throw off his whole day is move the raisin bran from the right side of the shelf to the left. Take his favorite mug out and hide it in the dishwasher? I think he’d have to wash it in the sink, put it away, go back to bed, and start the whole morning over again.”

Eileen smirked. “Why do I get the feeling that you did some very, very bad things on April Fool’s Day?”

“Probably because you’re projecting your unconscious wish to torment your older brothers on to me. You wanted to prank them, but you were too good a girl to do that, so you tell yourself that I played mean tricks on my older brother.”

“So in other words, you did do some very, very bad things on April Fool’s Day.”

“Well, maybe not very bad, but…” Eileen listened appreciatively as I reminisced about sugar swaps, hidden shoes, ooky surprises in jacket pockets, and a mirror-image rearrangement of Mark’s bedroom. I didn’t mention that all of these pranks were ultimately failures, as even the most ingenious ones failed to get as much as a lifted eyebrow from impervious Mark.

Eileen, in turn, confessed to doing her best to keep her own older brothers on their toes, mostly through small acts of sabotage and often with the help of her younger sister. “Tom took it all as good fun, but Sean….” She grinned at the memory of her past victories. “We never went too far. Just enough to annoy him, but only little things, so he’d be too embarrassed to complain.”

From there it was easy to get Eileen talking about her family, about high school, about long bus rides to the state capital for concerts and baby-sitting to earn money for a summer program at a conservatory. Eileen played along, carrying the conversation as we ate, until I realized that by some weird conversational judo she had me talking about high school in Somerset: lacrosse in the winter, track in the spring; calculus, chemistry, French, the science fair.

“Were you in the chess club?” she suddenly asked.

“No,” I replied brusquely. I’d already talked quite enough about myself and more than enough about Mark, and didn’t feel like telling her about how I joined the chess club only after Mark graduated because he was the club president, and where exactly the hell did that question come from anyway? “Were you?”

“I went when I could,” she said, and too late I remembered that stupid magazine she’d been reading at Christmas – and how she’d asked me the same question then, too. What did she think she was after?

“I’ll bet you just went to meet boys,” I teased.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, yeah, that was it.” She helped herself to the second-to-last potato. Something caught my attention, and as she went after the sour cream I realized what it was. In that brief action, as I’d watched her, there’d been something about the way she’d pressed her lips together just for a second or two, her fork hovering over the platter, a quick glint of concentration in her eyes -- maybe considering the chicken wings and rejecting them as too messy, maybe doing some fast arithmetic involving Guinness, potato skins, calories expended in bowling, and the fit of her jeans – and then, as she made her decision and harpooned her potato, that little twitch at the corner of her mouth as if she were laughing at herself…. She might have been thinking about her potato or maybe her dress size but she wasn’t thinking about me at all, and in that fleeting, unguarded moment I thought I caught a glimpse of the little diva again.

So what had just happened here? I’d thought I’d gotten a good look at the real Eileen tonight, but had I really? What if I’d been seeing her true face all along?

She looked up, as if she’d realized I was watching her, but before I could say anything the waitress appeared wanting to know if we were “still workin’ on that” and if either of us wanted another beer?

“I’m fine, thanks,” said Eileen. I glanced at her Guinness – it was almost half full – and shook my head.

As soon as the waitress left, Eileen wrapped her hands protectively around her beer. “No.”

“No, you’re not going to finish that or no, I can’t have my beer back?” I turned to the platter and captured the last potato skin.

“Oh, please, help yourself, I’m getting full.”

There was still a bit of an edge to her voice – was she still angry at me? – but then she laughed a little. “No, I mean it, go ahead.” She picked up her fork again.

Time to test her good humor. “Thanks.” I reached across the table and took her beer.

“Not fair!”

“Perfectly fair. There was no way you were going to finish that, and it was mine to begin with.”

“You didn’t have your name on it.” Her indignation was all in her voice, nothing in her expression.

I felt encouraged. “I thought your name was written clearly enough on your own drink.”

She looked at the Shirley Temple, which was now looking pretty watery, and drew it over. “You could have just asked me what I wanted.”

The waitress appeared again. “Anything else tonight?” I silently cursed the waitress, and cursed her again as Eileen gave her one of those bland looks that clearly signaled we’re done no matter what he says, and then I cursed myself for wasting so much time trying to discover the Real Eileen when I should have been making sure that I would be seeing Eileen, whether Real or Fake, another night.

The waitress left, and I turned my attention to Eileen, who was contemplating the maraschino cherry from the soggy mocktail. She looked up. “Seriously, why did you order this? I’m sure you didn’t care if I was legal or not. Did you think that I was too prissy to drink? Or were you just trying to be funny?”

I kept my voice as even as I could. “I wanted to see what you would do with the cherry.”

For a moment I wasn’t sure she got it; she did not look flattered or amused or even disgusted. She regarded the cherry for a moment, bit off the fruit, and put the stem down beside the glass. A tiny grenadine-pink stain started to appear on the napkin.

The waitress appeared again, and for once I was glad to see her. I took the check and ignored her as she chirped her instructions for paying her and thanks for coming to A.J. O’Whatchamacallit’s have-a-great-evening-bye.

I read the check and reached for my wallet, and looked up to find Eileen leaning across the table and craning her neck, trying to read the check. She was holding money.

“Sit down,” I commanded her.

“You paid for the bowling,” she protested.

So it wasn’t a date. My heart sank as I realized it; the sensation surprised me, and not in a good way.

I gradually became aware that Eileen was still squawking, so I made her work for it a little bit longer and finally let her leave the tip. She was a little too generous, I thought, so while her back was turned I pocketed the surplus. I’d get it back to her somehow, I told myself.

But when? There she was with her coat on already – that girl moved way too quickly sometimes – I grabbed my jacket and got her out of there before she could notice the amended tip.

We stopped in the entry to button up. The outside door flew open and a gaggle of college kids straggled in, one at a time, bringing the frigid wind in with them. Eileen shivered and reached for her hat; I glared at them and remembered that while I’d certainly managed to provoke her and keep her off balance, I hadn’t asked her a thing about her classes or any of the other obvious but reliable possibilities.

The last one hurried in and stopped as he saw Eileen. “Hey,” he said.

She stopped putting on her mittens and looked up. “Oh, hi!”

Great – more information I had failed to collect. I watched them as they chatted about a meeting. Eileen kept the conversation brief and, with a “see you then!”, got the kid moving again.

I watched the door close behind him as he went into the restaurant. They’d stood a good arm’s length away from each other and that casual Oh, hi, didn’t suggest anything more than classmate, but still....

But still nothing. No, it did not bother me, I reminded myself, but I still had to know.

“One of your admirers?” I said lightly.

Oh, please, her look said. “Just a group project.”

I stopped, my hand on the door. “So you’ve found yourself another med student then?”

Eileen rolled her eyes. “I’m not dating a med student.” She pushed on the door and stepped out.

I understood her perfectly: But I am dating someone. I flinched as a gust of wind caught me in the face, and I followed her out into the cold.

We picked our way across the sidewalk. The temperature had dropped significantly while we’d been in the restaurant and the wind had picked up, stronger and with a damp, bitter edge, and it occurred to me that it would have been a chivalrous touch to have left her in the restaurant while I warmed up the car. Oh well; too late for that. Too late for a lot of stuff. I felt the stupid irrational feeling that was not jealousy, that was not disappointment or resentment or anger, welling up again. I ignored it until it went away.

Eileen stopped and turned as a gust of wind flung a spray of blowing snow in her face. She’d pulled her coat tightly around herself.

I caught up to her. “Good Lord. We’re going to need coffee and brandy just to make it across the parking lot.”

“And a dollop of whipped cream for me,” she said earnestly. “Oh that sounds so good.”

“Just whipped cream? No coffee or brandy for you? That St Bernard’s going to be so disappointed.”

“I won’t turn down brandy.”

“But you will turn down coffee.” My clinical brain perked up, welcoming this change of topic. “What’s up with you and that decaf, anyway?”

“I told you, it doesn’t agree with me.”

“Well, what does that mean? Does it make you jumpy? Give you headaches? Make your stage fright worse?”

“No, it makes my stomach hurt. A lot,” she added, cutting me off.

She sounded a little defensive. Had she ever been accused of malingering? I noticed her right hand resting briefly on the right lower quadrant of her abdomen.

“So one cup of coffee’s enough to cause severe abdominal pain.” We reached the car, and I opened the passenger door. “Here, get in. What about Coke, does that set you off too?” She nodded. “I’m sure this sounds like a crazy idea, but did you ever seek medical attention for this?”

“I did, a few years ago. He didn’t find anything; he said I was probably just really sensitive to caffeine.”

I closed the door. “Really sensitive to caffeine”: now that was a real masterpiece of diagnostics. As I walked around the car, I wondered who she’d seen. Someone at the student health center? That didn’t make sense; even those quacks would have sent a culture to the hospital lab, and all she had on file at the hospital was a throat culture. A doctor in Briony? Maybe some old family practitioner who accepted chickens in payment? Whoever it was, why didn’t he find anything? Probably because he didn’t look very hard. And why hadn’t Kopp at least gotten her to get a second opinion? Her damn pride, probably: Oh, it’s nothing, really, I’m fine.

I opened the driver’s side door, turned on the engine, and cranked up the heat. Eileen looked over. “It’s not that bad,” she said.

I ignored her and thought for a minute as I reached for the ice scraper. “Is it worse when you’re having your period?”

She didn’t answer right away.

“Don’t be a prude, Abney,” I admonished her.

“I’m not a prude, it’s just… personal. And yes,” she added sulkily.

I got back out, leaving her to stew while I scraped the windows and pondered. I didn’t have much data: no labs and, to my regret, no physical exam. Not even a decent history or review of symptoms: if Eileen got all embarrassed about Aunt Flo, there was no way I was going to be able to get her into a chat about her bowel habits.

And since we were now personally acquainted, there was no I could – or should, technically – be her doctor. It was a shame – it was an interesting case, and I didn’t want somebody stupid mucking it up, particularly one of the other residents. And then there was that stupid Kopp in the picture.... So no clinic. Maybe I could get her in to see Doyle….

I finished scraping the windows and got in the car. Eileen was still looking abashed.

“Thanks for warming up the car. And really, it’s not that bad.”

“’It’s not that bad.’ You get horrible stomach pain from drinking a Coke and you’re telling me it’s really ‘not that bad.’ ” I looked up at the mirror and started backing the car out of the parking spot.

“Well, it isn’t. I can live without Coke, you know. And it’s gotten better,” she insisted. “It was really bad last year; I couldn’t even eat chocolate.”

“I didn’t know females could live without chocolate.”

“They can if they have to.”

I glanced over. We were still in the parking lot, and the lights gave me a good view of her face. From her expression, I could tell she wasn’t kidding around. Suddenly I thought of how miserable she’d looked at the softball game last spring, sitting in the stands with David Kopp, and felt another surge of the feeling that was not jealousy.

Eileen was still looking off into last year. “That was awful,” she reflected. “Sometimes it even hurt to walk.”

I stopped the car.

“ ‘It hurt to walk,’” I repeated. “You live in the same town as the largest research hospital in the state, and all you have to do to get there is get on the damn bus. And you didn’t.” Probably because she didn’t want to find out what was wrong. “Okay, when it hurt to walk, was it your legs that hurt or your stomach?”

“Why are you asking me this? It’s better now.” She was starting to look frightened, and I couldn’t tell if it was from my anger or from her just not wanting to know.

Maybe it was both. I didn’t care. “Just answer me,” I commanded.

“My stomach.”

“And did you have to walk funny sometimes to keep it from hurting? Kind of hunched over?” She nodded. “Show me.”

She looked back at me, stunned. I put the car in park and got out. When she saw I was serious, she opened her own door.

I met her on the other side. “Okay, show me.”

She was too bewildered to protest. A couple of shuffling steps, her stance a little wide and her hand pressed to her belly, and I’d seen enough -- what I’d known I would see.

“All right, Abney, back in the car. It’s cold out.”

As I went back around to the driver’s side I felt a blaze of brutal victory. I’d figured out several little mysteries – the decaf, the ex, the reality that Eileen had been too cowardly to face. Which meant that I’d figured out a little more of the reality of Eileen.

I wondered, with idle cruelty, how the little diva would take what I was about to tell her. My anticipation felt dirty and ugly -- almost sadistic.

I didn’t care. I opened the car door and got in. Eileen just looked at me. I put the car in gear and started to drive.

“So…?” she finally said.

We pulled out of the parking lot. “I think you know.”

“I thought I did, but you seem to think it’s something different, so would you please just tell me?”

As we passed a streetlight, I took a quick glance at her face: agitated, frightened…. and I waited another beat or two, just to draw out the tension a little longer.

“You have a venereal disease,” I finally announced.

And oh, the look on her face – her jaw dropping in shock and denial, her face blushing cherry-pink…. And even as some small part of my brain screamed at me in vain to stop already, I savored my triumph.

“Chlamydia, probably; there’s been a lot of that going around lately. It’s not that big a deal. College town like this? It’s more common than the common cold. We see it all the time in the clinic, and those are just the morons who were too embarrassed to show themselves at the student health center.

“Of course, the real morons are the ones who don’t show up at any clinic. For God’s sake, Abney, even if you didn’t want to admit to yourself that you might have cooties, did it ever cross your mind that with that kind of abdominal pain you might have had something seriously wrong with you? What if you had appendicitis?”

“I knew it wasn’t my appendix,” she muttered.

“Oh really? Did you think you could catch diagnostic ability from your med student, too?” My conscience was starting to get a little shrill; I distracted myself by paying careful attention to the road. We were getting close to the university.

“Well, what makes you think you can tell something like that just… just from looking at me?”

I looked over my shoulder and finished changing lanes before I answered her. “That little walk you were doing is a classic sign of pelvic inflammatory disease. It’s even got a cute name: the ‘PID shuffle.’ When you didn’t get the initial infection treated, it spread to the rest of your reproductive system and caused so much inflammation that even the ordinary little bounce it takes from walking was painful.”

She stared out the window for a couple of blocks before she spoke up again. “If I really do have this… disease, what do I do?”

“You need to get an exam. You should be getting that done every year anyway. Since the worst of the pain’s gone, your body’s probably fought off the infection on its own, but you probably have some scarring. That’s what’s causing your stomach pain. If you still have an active infection, they’ll give you antibiotics.”

I gripped the wheel a little tighter. “You should also tell… whoever it is you’re dating.”

She didn’t say anything. At the next stoplight, I looked over to try to get a read on her. She was staring straight ahead, her arms folded and her lips pressed tightly together.

We reached the main drag and started getting into the main campus, passing the newer classroom buildings. It was late, but there were still plenty of windows lit.

“I’m going to need some directions here,” I said.

“Sorry. Take a right here and then a quick left.”

I made the turn. “But that’s the campus center.”

“Yes. That next left is a driveway. If you could leave me off there that would be good.”

“It’s late and it’s cold. Which way’s your dorm?”

“It’s not really convenient to drive. If you could leave me off here…”

“Where’s your dorm?”

Please. Just leave me off here.”

Then it hit me: she didn’t want me to know where she lived. I took a deep breath and grudgingly made the turn into the brightly-lit driveway.

She had already unbuckled her seat belt. I pulled the car over and grabbed her coat sleeve before she could open the door. “Abney. It’s late. Are you sure you’re going to be all right?”

She turned to face me. Her eyes were rimmed with red and filled with humiliation and hatred. “I’ll be fine. Really.” She pulled her arm free and opened the door. When she was out, she turned back around, one hand still on the door handle.

“Thank you,” she said coldly. “Bowling was fun.” I braced myself, expecting her to slam the door shut, but she was content with a fierce push. I watched her as she walked quickly up to the entrance, fighting the wind all the way, pulling off her right mitten as she approached the door – so she could get at her key card, I supposed. She paused at the doors – yes, there was the key card – and then I saw the doors open. I drove off, not waiting to see whether or not she looked back before she closed the door behind her.

I seethed all the way back to my apartment – at Eileen, at that punk she’d met at the restaurant door, at David Kopp, and especially at myself. Once I was inside, I threw my jacket on the kitchen table and went straight to the microwave to heat a mug of water. When it was done, I added a tea bag and a slosh of whisky and sprawled on the couch, half listening to Carson and then to Letterman as I swirled the toddy, watched my cigarette burn, and mentally reviewed the evening. It had started off so well. When had I blown it? At the bowling alley? At the restaurant? Sure, I’d pushed her buttons and gotten to see an Eileen I’d never seen before, but for what? Now I was never going to see her again.

Oh well. The prissy little diva had gotten her introduction to reality; a course of erythromycin, and she’d be no worse off than most of her classmates. And it was fine.

I finally shut off the TV and headed off to brush my teeth and go to bed. As I pulled up the covers, I heard the wind whistling outside and I suddenly thought of Eileen again, shuffling in the parking lot. How long had she lived with that, shuffling from class to class? How on earth had she managed to sing?

And why hadn’t she seen a doctor? It didn’t make sense. And then it hit me: she didn’t see a doctor because she hadn’t thought anything was wrong – because she was used to it. She had seen a doctor – a few years ago. That was before she’d gotten the PID. And she’d said she’d known it wasn’t her appendix….

I turned on my back and stared at the ceiling. I was going to have to see Eileen again, whether she wanted to see me or not.

I wasn’t able to get back over to the campus until Friday evening. I hadn’t bothered trying to call her – I knew it would just be a waste of time. Instead I headed to the practice rooms.

Room by room, I read the schedules posted outside the doors, looking for the ABNEY that would tell me when she’d be there. As I worked my way down the hall, I heard a faint brittle jangle: a harpsichord.

I shook my head. Scarlatti on a Friday night was kind of pathetic. Not as pathetic as what I was doing, of course, but still….

No luck on the odd-numbered rooms, so I moved on to the evens. Finally, I found her name – for nine to nine-thirty a.m. on Mondays. I wrote it down – it was better than nothing – but it would be weeks before I’d see a Monday morning off, and decades before I’d be up at nine to nine-thirty on a Monday morning off.

As I worked my way down the hall, the harpsichord music changed to bursts of annoying, random-sounding chords with the occasional wandering run here and there. I tuned it out and kept going.

I found her name for another slot: Thursday, four to five-thirty. That could work, I thought, and then I saw the other names under hers: it was for an ensemble. Great.

Two more rooms, and then it was on to the next hallway. I heard footsteps from somewhere and stopped to listen; they grew fainter and then I heard the crash bar as whoever it was left. Must have been the harpsichordist.

There were only a few rooms on this corridor. I found her Wednesday morning practice room, noted it, and turned the corner.

I hadn’t been down this hall before. The rooms looked larger. One of them had the door open and the lights on. It looked like it had finished walls instead of painted cinderblock. Curious, I walked over to check it out. It was the harpsichord room.

The instrument’s lid was up. Curious, I walked in to get a closer look at its action. As I entered the room, I noticed a music stand next to the bench. There was a score on it, a long one, annotated in pencil, its ends flapping off the sides of the desk. As I looked around, I noticed a backpack neatly stowed on a chair against the wall.

The harpsichordist was probably coming back. I snooped at the workings of the instrument and looked longingly at the keyboard. Did I have time to try it out? I –

A startled gasp came from the door. I wheeled around. Damn my luck – it was Eileen, standing there in her coat, looking aghast.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

A dozen smart answers came to mind; I discarded them all. I only had a few minutes before she ran out or called the cops. “Looking for you,” I replied simply

“Did you know I was here?”

“No. I was looking for your practice rooms to see if I could catch you next week.” I looked around the room. “What are you doing, anyway?”

“Working.” She came in, warily, and started to take her coat off. “So why –”

I cut her off. “Listen, about the other night—”

“Don’t. You did me a favor, actually.” She walked over, closed the door, and turned to face me. “I did what you told me to do. And you were right, they said everything you did.” She chuckled sadly. “Including the part about how I should have gone to the doctor instead of eating Advil and waiting for it to go away.”

“That’s why I’m here. There was something else. Are there any organs I have that you don’t? Besides the obvious, of course. What about your appendix? Do you still have one?”

“No. No, I had it out when I was thirteen. How did you – “

“You told me, of course. I bet it ruptured.” She nodded. “You recovered, you went back to school, you forgot about it, a couple of years went by, you got into high school or maybe college, tried to live on coffee and Diet Coke, and found out that they made you sick.”

She stared at me and finally nodded again.

I looked at my shoes and then back up at her. “You probably are sensitive to caffeine, but that’s not the real problem. I think you have adhesions. Your appendix ruptured, you had peritonitis and developed bands of scar tissue around your intestines and maybe even your girly parts.” She winced. “It must not be too bad, if you can usually drink decaf and eat chocolate. Caffeine stimulates the gut, and even decaf has a little caffeine in it. But it’s bad enough that when you have a strong cup of coffee… I bet there’s other symptoms that you didn’t tell me about. Does it make you throw up? Do you get the runs a lot?”

She looked away, and I figured it was time to shut up and not push it. “You need to get a laparoscopy, get someone to look inside and see what’s going on. You could get it done over at the hospital.”

“The doctor at the health center said the same thing – that I should get that…. that test.”

“You should listen to him. That stuff you got last year could have gummed you up with even more scar tissue.”

Eileen stared off into the corner of the room. I started to walk to the door.

“Wait,” she said. “Please.” She draped her coat over the back of the chair and stood there for a minute.

“This helps me a lot,” she finally said. “It makes sense. And it’s going to be a lot easier to break this to my parents when I tell them I should have this thing done.

“Why did you come back?”

“You needed to know.”

She looked away again. “I should apologize to you. I didn’t want to believe it and I took it out on you. You were right. You didn’t have to be so mean about it, but you were right.

“I should also apologize for something else.” She lifted her backpack up onto the chair, rummaged through the front pocket, and pulled out a small, thin book – a magazine. I caught a glimpse of the cover. It was Chess Nerd News.

Eileen flipped through the magazine. “I thought I was being clever, trying to catch you about the chess thing. You’d recognized the magazine, so I figured you must have been a serious player at some point. It seemed like such a silly thing to hide, and I just thought it might have been fun to play a game or two.” She found what she was looking for and folded back the pages. The binding was still stiff. “This came today.” She handed me the magazine. “I think I understand now.”

I looked at the article -- something about rooks. It was the byline that caught my attention, as it had hers: M. House, Contributing Editor.

“The M stands for Mark, doesn’t it?” she said. “There’s a blurb at the end that says M. House lives in Washington.”

I’d already started to skim the article. The dull, precise style was pure Mark. I hadn’t known he was writing.

I handed the magazine back to Eileen. “Even if it seemed silly to me, it obviously wasn’t silly to you. I should have left you alone,” she said. “I’m sorry I pushed you so hard.”

She put the magazine away, walked to the music desk, and picked up her pencil. I was about to be dismissed.

I thought furiously. No date: that ship had sailed, and I’d probably been banned for life from that cruise line anyway. But I’d grown used to knowing that Eileen was out there and that she’d even tolerate me a little. It had been something different, something to look forward to, and I didn’t want to lose it. At this moment, she seemed pretty calm and hadn’t called security on me; it wasn’t much of a chance, but it was still a chance. And if I didn’t take it, I’d never get another.

“I never said I didn’t play.”

I looked up at her. No triumph, no anger; just waiting to hear what I’d say next. “Maybe we could break out a board sometime,” I continued. “If that’s why you were asking.”

“I’m not that good a player.”

Somehow I doubted that; she’d skewered me pretty well on this chess thing and she hadn’t even been trying that hard. “You must be that good a student; you’re the one carrying the book around.”

She looked down at her score, considering. “Maybe we could sometime. I don’t know when; I don’t have my calendar with me,” she hastily added.

“I’m waiting on some stuff myself. I could call you.”

“That would be okay.” She took a deep breath. Only her right hand, frantically twiddling her pencil, betrayed her agitation. “I should get back to work now.”

I nodded and walked to the door. I turned, my hand on the knob. Eileen was still standing next to the desk. “Good night, Abney,” I said.

“Good night.”

As I turned back the way I’d come, I heard her shut the door to her practice room. I didn’t stop to look back. The only sound was the squeak of my shoes as I headed back to the exit. I pushed open the stairwell door, went up the short flight of stairs, and headed back out into the night.


Blogger Dr. Gregory House said...

Yes! This is great!
YOU are great! :)

September 01, 2006 3:35 AM  
Anonymous Auditrix said...


September 01, 2006 10:11 AM  
Anonymous maineac said...

Happy to see Eileen again. That was lovely. Loved seeing House goad her, the way he would. Loved the little medical mystery. I also love your non-flashback House, who always seems so melancholy and detached from everything around him.

Also loved "conversational judo"--very nice!

So good to see you really writing again. MIssed all your regualr posts.

September 01, 2006 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Benj said...

Fabulous update - your writing ofEileen is so superb - I'm honestly as interested in her as House and I never feel that about OC's. Magnificent detail and House analysing every move and motive in their 'chess' game is perfect. Nice twist with the STD and their reactions- you've kept her character quallty as riveting. Get so absorbed in this fic and this is a such a great update, pure class - cheers!


September 02, 2006 7:43 PM  
Anonymous Auditrix said...

Maineac, Benj, thanks so much!

Maineac -- I missed writing. I was blocked a little, but mostly it's just been a busy, busy summer.

September 06, 2006 1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the comments you have already received and want to add this...

I love the truthfulness of the writing and believability of the story. The structure, the plot and characterisition are so intricate and compelling. The experience of reading it was entrancing, placing me unseen and observing House and Eileen within their world.

You did what only the best professional writers can do. You convinced me that the world I visited in your story was utterly genuine and the world I actually live in quite false.

It took me a while to return to reality. Thank you. Oh thank you.


September 28, 2006 8:42 AM  

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