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9. Reorientation

How can something go from 'breezy' to 'pretty shitty' within the space of a fortnight?

Wilson stands at the window of his room staring out at the road flickering in the afternoon heat, at the houses dropping away down the street, at the blue sky streaked with nimbostratus. It's a lovely early summer afternoon in Los Angeles; too hot for his taste, but better than the rain that will soon hit Philly according to the weather forecast. This isn't Malibu Beach or Beverley Hills, but there's no denying that the people living here are a lot more chillaxed than along the East Coast. Two days with Amy and her fiancé, and already he's feeling overdressed and uncool, and he can't even begin to count the number of surfboards he has seen strapped to car roofs. More to the point, he's feeling disappointed and hopeless. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is working out as planned.

It started off with House sabotaging his nuptial plans. He'd taken that little setback in his stride at the time, since Cuddy's consent hadn't been a given anyway — and the more he thinks about it, the more he wonders that he was so sanguine about his odds. His only excuse is that he was too fatigued at the time to calculate them realistically. He'd had it all mapped out: they'd be a little family, and if he died during Joel's childhood, Joel would still have Cuddy and Rachel. Nevertheless, even though his heart came out of the fiasco pretty much intact, his plans for providing for Joel's future lost some of their momentum.

After an initial phase of glumness he'd come to the conclusion that he needn't abandon every aspect of the scheme. Cuddy, other than making cryptic remarks about House's level of asshattery, hadn't seemed fazed or embarrassed by Wilson's romantic aspirations (if one could call them such). She'd picked them up, given them a good shake, and then tossed them into oblivion, and that had been that. So, he'd moved on to Plan B — which maybe he should have implemented right from the start, because if he had, he'd probably have been spared Cuddy's revelation and having to deal with House. Plan B entailed instating Cuddy as Joel's future guardian in the case of his death and getting Amy's consent for the arrangement. Not a major change, given that he would have needed Amy's consent for 'Plan A: Adoption by Cuddy' anyway, the only drawback being that if Amy chose to protest against Plan B at any time before or after his death, chances were that she'd prevail in court, whereas Plan A would have taken matters out of her hands the moment she consented to an adoption. That made Plan B considerably fairer — for Amy. (Fairness towards Amy, however, has ceased to be a consideration of importance in his eyes …)

And then Plan B combusted in a mess of allegations, confessions and confusion — in short, in typical House-ian chaos. House, not he, is the father of the little boy gurgling in the travelling cot next to him. It took Wilson longer to recover from the shock of losing his paternity than from the disappointment of not marrying Cuddy (perhaps because it wasn't that much of a disappointment); in fact, he isn't sure he has recovered as yet. He still sees Joel as his son. And he still feels betrayed, by House, by Amy, by Cuddy, and by life. He, Wilson, wants a child — he has wanted one for a long time, even though he dismissed his desire for progeny as being both unrealistic and selfish — and House, who'd sooner keep roaches than kids, is the one who gets a son, a healthy, loveable, perfect little guy. Karma sucks big time!

Quite apart from the emotional roller coaster ride that he's been through, it has put him into a tight spot regarding Joel's future. Were Joel his biological son, he'd feel bad about planning for his future in a manner that basically banishes Amy onto the outer fringes of Joel's planetary system. Nevertheless, he'd go through with it, telling himself that since Amy won't or can't commit herself to Joel, it's his duty as the boy's father to ensure that Joel has a stable childhood. That line of reasoning has collapsed. It's one thing for a father to make plans for his biological son that marginalise the boy's biological mother; it's another for James Evan Wilson, a man who is no relative whatsoever and whose custody is based on false premises, to make decisions that potentially remove not one, but both biological parents from the scene.

One day Joel will have to know the truth, and then what will he tell him? Can he say, 'My boy, I'm not your father, but I chose to raise you miles away from your mother, and should I die, you'll be placed in the care of a woman who doesn't think highly of your mother and can't stand your biological dad's guts. I took it upon myself to make these decisions in your name and your biological mother's (who, BTW, doesn't know I'm not your father) because … um, because …'?

No, not really an option. Leastways, that was what he thought when he arrived in LA. After two days in the company of Amy and her partner — soon-to-be husband, if she is to be believed, but Wilson can't detect signs of imminent nuptials — he's revising his opinions once more. He came with the avowed intention of facilitating Amy's contact with Joel, because if he isn't the father and House intends to shirk his duties, then Joel should at least see as much of his mother as possible. House would tear his reasoning to pieces, saying that it made no difference to Joel whether Wilson was truly his father or not, but — House is no legal authority and his grasp of morals can be sketchy. Wilson has a sneaky suspicion that obtaining and retaining child custody under false pretences is tantamount to kidnapping, and there's no doubt that he'd never have obtained primary custody or parental rights if the judge hadn't believed that he was Joel's biological father.

Sadly, after two days at Amy and Tyler's place, Wilson is convinced that even if he moved next door to them (which the powers above prevent!), Joel wouldn't see much more of his mother than if he stayed in Philly. Amy's attitude towards her son is ambivalent at the best, and the last vestiges of maternal concern disappear completely when Tyler frowns his disapproval at her. She holds Joel every now and then, whenever Wilson is busy and Joel gets restless (and Wilson has taken care to appear busy at regular intervals to facilitate bonding), but she doesn't offer to play with him, feed him, change his diaper, bathe him, or put him to bed, let alone spend any time with him by herself. Wilson is as much a single parent here as he is in Philadelphia, if not more so, because in Philadelphia he has the babysitter and Cuddy. Nor have Amy and Tyler gone out of their way to accommodate him; the living area and the kitchen aren't baby proof, and Tyler leaves everything lying around where Joel can get at it. Joel isn't mobile as yet; the best he can do at present is turn from his back onto his stomach, but it's a matter of days rather than weeks before he starts rolling everywhere, and then he won't need to have beer cans, TV remotes, empty chips bags, etc., within his radius of action. Wilson would like to believe that Amy and Tyler would be more accommodating if it were necessary, but so far they haven't indicated in word or deed that Joel's safety and comfort are any concern of theirs. They're going on with their lives as if Wilson and Joel weren't there.

Joel, who has been lying on his back, rolls onto his stomach. Stemmed on his elbows and peering myopically around him, he burps, and a blob of pureed carrot drips onto the blanket.

"Gah," he says, looking up at Wilson.

"Great!" Wilson says heavily. "Just great." He picks Joel up, takes a wipe, and cleans his chin. Joel rewards his efforts by turning his face away, hiding it in Wilson's shoulder.

"The Orange Badge of Fatherhood," Wilson says, surveying the stain on his shirt. "I'm very grateful to be the recipient of this singular honour, and I'd like to thank my family for their unfailing support, especially my son Joel, who never hesitated to challenge and encourage me."

On hearing his name, Joel breaks into a toothless grin. Wilson reluctantly grins back; it's going to take more than a smile to lighten his sombre mood. "You know, you're a loser," he says, stubbing Joel's dimpled cheek with his nose. "You have two healthy and able parents, yet neither of them seems interested in raising you. Now you're stuck with me."

The front door bangs and voices drift over from the living area. Amy and Tyler must be back from their grocery shopping.

"Show time," Wilson says to Joel, carrying him into the living area. Tyler is carrying grocery bags in from the car while Amy is sorting the contents into the refrigerator.

"Do you want to eat the hamburgers today or tomorrow?" she asks Tyler.

"Don't care," he says, walking over to the television and switching it on. "Shoot, the ball game has started already. Had a good day?" he asks Wilson in passing.

"Yeah, and you?" Wilson responds. His day was as uneventful as the one before. Besides, Tyler tends to ask questions without waiting for the answer.

"The usual. Fat old ladies who think that if they shake their booty to Amy Grant twice a week, they'll look like twenty again." Tyler, who is a fitness trainer (or 'personal trainer', as he prefers to call himself), is bridging the time till his career in Hollywood takes off by working in the fitness room of a country club in Pomona. He sprawls on the couch. "But it pays, so I'm not complaining. And I get to meet people who count. There's this MILF who comes regularly; her old man's a producer …"

Wilson zones out. Tyler's tales are full of people who are eager to further his career. So far, their supposed willingness hasn't resulted in concrete benefits.

"Hey, baby, wanna watch the game with me?" Tyler shouts to Amy.

"In a sec. James, would you like something to drink?"

"No, thanks."

Amy comes over with a beer for Tyler and orange juice for herself and sits down next to Tyler. He puts a possessive arm around her, staring at Wilson challengingly. Wilson sighs inwardly. Those two kids don't seem to realise that he has no interest whatsoever in Amy. His sole agenda is Joel, but they're so self-absorbed that Joel's needs don't even register. Joel is being fed, burped, and bathed, he has someone to take care of him, so why waste two thoughts on him?

Tyler is such a kid himself that he can't imagine that another guy might not be interested in getting a pretty woman (his woman) into bed. In fact, if he did realise it, he'd probably feel insulted by Wilson's lack of interest in his sexual property. Tyler likes showing off his personal assets: his perfectly formed abs, his girlfriend, his job — he talks endlessly about it when there isn't a game on television, so Wilson is very thankful for baseball. And there are Tyler's aspirations, his career, his financial prospects. Wilson tries to remember if he was like that at the age of twenty-five. Third year of med school; yes, he'd been a pain too. It had been all about getting the ideal residency at the best hospital and rotations in departments that carried a lot of clout, and boasting about all that to less fortunate students. Naturally he'd been subtler about it than Tyler, but he must have pissed people off big time in his years at med school.

Wilson makes a bottle for Joel — Amy doesn't join him in the kitchen niche even though he's juggling the boy and the formula — and then sits down in an armchair to feed him.

"Doesn't he eat anything else?" Tyler asks.

Wilson glances at him, trying to figure out the intention behind the question. "I've started him on solids, but he's not enthused. Mostly he spits out whatever I feed him with a spoon or he swats at the spoon."

Tyler nods wisely. "Gotta feed them right, otherwise they're preprogrammed to be obese. You wouldn't believe how many kids are obese these days. You don't sweeten that bottle, do you?"

"No," Wilson says shortly. "It's formula, so it's foolproof. Even you could make it."

Either sarcasm is wasted on Tyler or he's wise enough to ignore it. "Great," Tyler says. "Amy, you better get some advice from James before he leaves."

Wait, what? Do they think he'll leave Joel with them when he goes? Are they so casual about the kid because they think they have all the time in the world to enjoy his company? Wilson's stomach gives a nasty little lurch. If Amy cuts up stiff, will he be able to convince a judge that Joel has already formed a close bond with him? Oh God, she could demand a paternity test, and if she does, he's screwed!

Amy blushes. "I … I wasn't going to tell him," she says to Tyler.

Tell him what? Wilson's stomach is making odd churning noises.

Tyler's arm tightens around Amy. "Amy's pregnant," he says, pride and possessiveness warring in his voice.

"Pregnant," Wilson echoes stupidly. Joel is barely five months old and Amy is pregnant again?

"Yeah," Tyler says with studied casualness. "We're starting a family. No sense in waiting till we're old."

Okay, so he did understand Wilson's dig earlier on. Wilson decides to ignore Tyler. "You're pregnant," he says to Amy. She nods. "Is that wise, so soon after Joel? And you aren't even settled yet."

Tyler interrupts him. "It isn't like she'll have to look after your kid and ours at the same time. And we are settled, sort of. I've got a good job, and I've had a few offers with potential, great potential. My career is kick-starting right now." Amy looks down and doesn't say anything.

Wilson registers that Tyler refers to Joel as 'Wilson's' kid, as though Amy wasn't his mother. He also notes that Tyler is speaking for Amy. He addresses Amy directly again. "Amy," he says gently. "You couldn't cope with Joel. Do you really think a baby is what you need right now?"

Amy looks up. "Oh, that," she says. "It'll be different this time. We … I was stupid before; I shouldn't have had Joel . … Tyler and me, we've known each other forever. It's gonna work. We want a family together, right, baby?"

"Right," Tyler affirms, giving Wilson another challenging stare. "You can't blame her for panicking when she first had Joel: she was on her own, the kid was screaming non-stop, you were dying. But I'm here to take care of her now."

Where were you when she was trying to cope with Joel? Wilson thinks. "What about Joel?" he asks out loud.

"What about him?" Tyler says, a hint of aggression in his voice.

"Where does he figure in your plans?" Wilson asks, willing himself to remain calm and patient.

"He's got you," Amy says, innocent eyes trained on him. "You're doing great!" she adds encouragingly.

He's aware of that, but his question was aimed at how she intended to fulfil her obligations, not on whether he was fulfilling his.

"I won't really have time for him," Amy says. She continues hurriedly, "Not with another baby to take care of. I'm so grateful that you're — you're being so good about this."

Wilson stares hard at her. She has the grace to flush and look down again.

"You've got a girlfriend, though, to help you, don't you?" Tyler remarks.

Wilson raises his eyebrows. Where'd Tyler get that idea? "No," he says carefully.

"I thought you're moving into a big stone house with her," Tyler says, a hint of envy in his voice. The apartment that he and Amy are renting isn't exactly spick and span, and the neighbourhood isn't the kind where you'd willingly roam the streets at night.

"Oh, Cuddy," Wilson says. Maybe Amy told Tyler about Wilson's fake engagement to Cuddy, the ruse that allowed her to donate her liver to him. "Cuddy isn't my girlfriend. We're … just friends."

"You misunderstood that," Amy says to Tyler. "Dr Cuddy isn't James's type."

Good to know, Wilson thinks.

"They're more like buddies," Amy explains. "Besides," she adds, wrinkling her nose in distaste, "she's kinda bossy."

"Oh, a queer," Tyler says. "I get it. Not like you, all soft and cuddly." He and Amy exchange a long kiss.

Wilson doesn't like … . The list of his 'don't likes' is so long that he doesn't know where to begin. "She isn't a lesbian," he begins before catching himself. Cuddy's sexual orientation is beside the point and she doesn't need him to take up arms for her. What he needs to do is slap those two down. "But surprise, some women don't want to take up with a miserable old alcoholic with major health issues." In your face, Tyler Brand! You may think you're a great catch, but your girlfriend isn't exactly picky.

"She's helping you with the kid, though," Tyler says.

"Yes, and I have a babysitter."

"So you'll be fine even if Amy can't chip in, won't you?" It's a statement masked as a question. The message is clear: Tyler doesn't want Joel in Amy's life, and Amy will do whatever Tyler wants.

"Yes, I'll be fine," Wilson says. "This visit wasn't about me needing help. I wanted to give Amy an opportunity to catch up with Joel, that's all."

Tyler withdraws his arm from around Amy to pick up his can of beer. "I think a clean cut is best for everyone," he says.

For you, undoubtedly, Wilson thinks. "Amy?" he asks.

"Oh, I don't mind seeing Joel every now and then," she says quickly without looking at Tyler. "But —"

"But she can't help financially," Tyler butts in again. "She won't be working in the near future, and you can't expect me to pay for someone else's kid."

Wilson would like to smash his nose, but Tyler is about six inches taller than he is and he's all muscle and bone. "I don't need child support," he says, his voice as chilly as he can make it. "I'm returning to work on Monday."

"What, tomorrow?" Tyler asks. "I didn't know you're leaving that soon." There's no regret in his face or voice.

Wilson has already opened his mouth to correct him, but then he thinks better of it. There's no sense in staying: Amy doesn't want (or doesn't dare) to bond with Joel.

"Yes, I'm catching a flight this evening," he says, hoping he can reschedule his flight. If not, he'll move into a hotel. This has proven to be a complete waste of time and effort, and in a hotel he'll enjoy a higher level of comfort than in this tiny place with its iffy air-conditioning and loud traffic outside.

Amy looks surprised, Tyler pleased. Again, Wilson has to hold back. His smile doesn't reach his eyes. "We'll leave in half an hour. I hope that doesn't inconvenience you."

"No, that's okay," Tyler says. "We'll run you down to the airport."

Now that he has what he wants he can afford to be generous, Wilson guesses. "Thanks, but I've already ordered a cab," he lies. "I have to pack a few things." He looks around, but there's no clear space on the floor where he can put down a blanket for Joel, so he puts him down on the couch next to Amy. "Can you keep an eye on him while I pack?"

He's gone before Amy can object, into the guest room to call for a cab, pack his bags, and fold the travel cot. Then he gets his toothbrush and his shaver from the bathroom. When he returns Tyler blocks the way to the guest room, looming in the doorframe in all his muscled glory.

"I'll take your bags," he says, grabbing the travel cot and the smaller suitcase in one hand and Wilson's larger one in the other. "You take the kid."

He's out the door before Wilson can protest that he can manage, leaving Wilson with very mixed feelings. He's not supposed to exhaust himself or carry heavy items, two medical injunctions that are near to impossible to implement with an infant around, and he knows that if he plays the strong guy now, he'll regret it later. But having to be beholden to someone half his age with a muscle-to-brain ratio of 1000:1 irks. He grabs his jacket and a small bag with baby supplies and follows Tyler.

On the couch Amy is bent over Joel, talking to him but not quite touching him. Joel is watching her with wide-open eyes, giving her a toothless grin as she croons at him. It's the closest Amy has come to natural interaction with her son since his arrival. When she notices Wilson she quickly draws back and rises.

"Watch out," Wilson says. "He can roll off the sofa."

Amy jumps a little, turns to Joel indecisively, then picks him up gingerly. She stretches out her arms to Wilson. "Go to Daddy," she says to Joel.

"You can hold him a little longer," Wilson offers.

"No, no, Tyler says you're leaving now."

Wilson debates whether to pretend to need to use the bathroom so as to facilitate mother-son-bonding, but then decides that it's futile. He nods and takes his son.

"Great," Amy says. She gives Joel a little artificial wave. "Bye-bye, Joel. See you soon!" Wilson gets a filial peck on the cheek.

Tyler is waiting outside at the curb. "When'd you say the cab is coming?"

Wilson makes a show of checking his watch. "Uh, in five minutes," he says, hoping that the cab will turn up by then.

"Good, coz I still wanted to talk to you," Tyler says. He looks down at Wilson as though sizing him up. "I'm just trying to do what's best for Amy."

Wilson can feel his chest constricting, his blood pounding in his head accompanied by a thudding in his ears. He notes that his fists are clenched, his knuckles shining white, his sparse arm muscles chorded.

Tyler must have noticed too, because his gaze drops. "Look, she was crying all through the last three months of the pregnancy, saying she shouldn't have kept the kid and that she'd made a giant mistake, and things didn't get any better after the little man was born. Amy's always been emotional, but this?" He trails off, shrugging expressively.

"You think another kid will fix the problem?" Wilson asks coldly.

"Dunno. But if she doesn't bond straightaway, I'm around to make sure she and the kid are okay."

Wilson looks pointedly from Tyler to Joel.

Tyler gets his meaning. He stiffens. "No offence, but there's just so much I'm prepared to do for another man's kid, and that guy is high maintenance. You should be grateful to me: I persuaded Amy to offer you the chance of taking him. She was all for having him adopted by strangers. Y'know, a childless couple or something."

"She couldn't have done that without my consent," Wilson points out.

"No?"

"No."

"Oh." Tyler digests that. "I didn't know that. She seemed sure she could."

"Now that we've gotten the question of gratitude out of the way, can we go back to disliking each other?" Wilson asks, mentally kicking himself the moment the words leave his mouth. Quite aside from the foolishness of provoking someone who is pumped full of steroids, he isn't benefitting Joel by antagonising his step-dad.

Tyler rolls his eyes. "Geez, if you're going to be that way! But to my way of thinking you're not gonna do Amy or Joel a favour by pushing this. She'll get attached to the kid, there'll be tears every time he leaves, and the long and short of it will be that she'll want him back."

The subtext is clear: if you want to keep your son, stay away.

"I'm not saying you should break off all contact," Tyler continues. "Just — keep the visits short, so Amy isn't pulled to and fro."

"Right, 'short'. Got it," Wilson says.

Tyler nods his approval.

"And how often do you think we should visit?" Wilson enquires with deceptive calm.

"Maybe … twice a year?" Tyler suggests, impervious to undercurrents.

And he can well afford to be, Wilson thinks. In Tyler's eyes, he's only half a man, out of shape, ageing, and dependent on immunosuppressants to stay alive. "Let me discuss this with Amy," he says.

"Sure. She won't say any different. I've cleared this with her." Tyler's indifference isn't pretence; if anything, it's smugly complacent.

Impotent fury bubbles up in Wilson. Why did he father a child with a woman who is shallow and utterly spineless, dominated by a bully of a boyfriend? Except, he didn't. House was the moron who rode him — correction, Joel — into this mess. Then again, Amy hasn't given any sign that she isn't okay with whatever Tyler decides in her name. It's definitely within the realms of possibility that she's letting Tyler do the dirty work for her, bouncing him out to the curb. If she wanted more contact with Joel, she could have told Wilson so sometime during his visit. But there's been no initiative on her part, no 'When will you be back?' or 'Shall we Skype sometime?' Much as Wilson would like to cast Tyler as the villain of the piece and Amy as the helpless victim waiting to be rescued — and wouldn't he just love to let House loose on Tyler's case! — the evidence sighted so far points to the conclusion that removing Tyler from the scene won't solve his problem.

Thankfully the cab pulls up at the curb before Wilson's frustration reaches the point where he'd deliberately provoke Tyler into beating him to a pulp. (He's beginning to get how House does that and why, but he still possesses last vestiges of sanity that tell him that emulating House in this respect is Not A Good Idea.) On the way to the airport he mentally berates himself for setting his expectations too high. He'd come to Los Angeles with the avowed intention of making Amy face the possibility of his early demise, from where he'd hoped to lead into the topic of custody for Joel. And secretly he'd also hoped to tackle the subject of Joel's true parentage. He hasn't managed to get any of these items onto Amy's agenda, let alone hold a meaningful discussion about them, and he doubts that this will change anytime soon. This wouldn't matter if he were hale and hearty and Joel's bio dad. Unfortunately, he really, really needs to make provisions for Joel soon, and in such a way that House isn't excluded. How the hell is he supposed to do that without Amy's cooperation? He has come out of this weekend without anything to show for it, no closer to resolving all those open issues than when he left Philadelphia.

There's no help for it; he can't sit around waiting for Amy to come to terms with her motherhood and his mortality. His (or rather, Cuddy's) liver could fail any day, and then he'll go down fast. He'll have to plan without Amy, no matter how unethical that is. What possibilities are open to him?

He supposes he could pressure House into doing a paternity test, confront Amy with the result, and force both of them to take a stance, but he doubts that the result will be felicitous. Both House and Amy tend to go into panic mode when cornered: House will probably run for the hills; it's anyone's guess what Amy will do, but so far her reaction to stress has been uniformly bad. Nope, honesty and openness will have to wait for a few more … years, Wilson estimates. Then there's his original plan, marrying Cuddy, which crumbled in an unappetising mess on the floor of a Parisian hotel lobby. He supposes he could resuscitate it, but the reason it collapsed in the first place still holds: House doesn't want his son in Cuddy's custody. Wilson actually gets that, regrettable though it is. Having to deal with your ex on a regular basis is difficult enough when the reason is a mutual child that already happens to be in the custody of that ex. Making House deal with his ex (whom he could otherwise well avoid) by placing his son in her care would be pushing it very hard indeed.

He needs an option that doesn't depend on Amy or involve Cuddy.

The next flight to Philly doesn't leave for another four hours. He's in Hudson's, getting Joel a new squishy book (Joel has chewed/sucked large chunks out of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, so no more board books until he shows the due amount of respect for the written word), when his eye falls on a teen vampire book, purple and silver with lots of glitter and sparkle. That must be the one Rachel was talking about, the one Cuddy refused to buy for her because it was 'age inappropriate'. It's among the Top Ten for 'Young Adults', whatever that may mean. It definitely doesn't mean him.

He picks it up and looks at the cover, smiling reminiscently at Rachel's enthusiastic rant. "Wilson, the guy on the cover looks exactly like you — except he's much younger!" She isn't all that wrong; he did look like that when he was in school. In fact, he has lost so much weight since his thymoma that he actually looks somewhat like that again. His hair is now streaked with grey and doesn't flop over his forehead sexily anymore (it still has to regrow to its original length), his cheeks are sunken rather than fashionably slim, and there's the slight matter of crow's feet around his eyes, but other than that he's still quite the chick magnet.

Joel whines impatiently.

"Sorry, you're the chick magnet," Wilson tells him. "I just bask in the rays reflected from your glory. But let me tell you that your dad, in his youth, was quite the heart throb. What, you don't believe me?"

Joel's whine escalates to a wail. He twists in his stroller, looking up at Wilson and stretching out his hands for whatever is distracting Wilson from attending to his needs here and now. Wilson, resigned, gives him the book. "Hold this while we find something for you," he says, pushing the stroller towards the children's section.

Joel clamps the book tightly to his chest, much to Wilson's relief. (Joel's newest pastime is dropping things on the ground and watching Wilson pick them up again.) Then he chortles, lowers his head, and — sinks his gums into the book.

"Oh, f-f-f-frick! If you've imprinted the cover with your gum marks, we'll have to buy it, young man." When Wilson pries the book from Joel's grasp, Joel bursts into a wail of utter bereavement.

"Drama queen!" Wilson mutters, casting furtive looks around him. Everyone in the shop is staring at him accusingly; he's a short step from having social services called on him. "Okay, take it. Take it and eat it, for all I care."

Joel clasps the book once more, uttering a series of satisfied bahs and gahs.

"Your reading choices leave much to be desired," Wilson informs him. "I know from whom you inherited your taste for the low and the trivial. But if you think I'm gonna watch Twilight with you, you have another think coming." He grabs a cloth book from the display and heads towards the cash register. Once there, Wilson jangles his keys in front of Joel's face, going, "Look at what I've got," in a voice that even he finds creepy — he sounds like the Child Catcher in Chitti Chitti Bang Bang, a figure that haunted his childhood nightmares. If Joel had any sense ... .

Luckily he doesn't. Letting go of the paperback — Wilson uses his free hand to stop its downward slide off the stroller — he lunges for the keys, which Wilson relinquishes.

"We've got signed copies, if you like," the salesperson says, scanning the vampire saga.

"Uh, no, that's okay," Wilson says. He's already regretting the wave of paternal guilt that's inducing him to buy the book in the first place. House would have taken the soggy specimen and shoved it between other books at the bottom of the pile, saying that copies which didn't get sold — and there was no way any shop could sell ten copies of such drivel! — would end up in landfills anyway, so it wouldn't matter whether the cover was damaged or not.

"Are you sure?" the cashier asks. "There's no extra charge. The author was here for a book reading a few weeks ago and signed any number of copies." That explains why the store is displaying the book so prominently. "Besides, this copy is damaged. I'll get you a new one." And before Wilson can protest, he's the owner of a brand-new signed copy of Separation (Part I of the Dracul High Chronicles).

"I don't need a bag, thank you," Wilson says to the assistant. "We'll, uh, eat them straightaway." He hands the cloth book to Joel, who promptly stuffs a corner into his mouth and starts sucking on it. Wilson clamps his new purchase between his teeth, scoops his keys up from the ground where Joel dropped them, takes the handles of the stroller, and pushes Joel out of the store. Once outside, he takes the book out of his mouth and subjects it to a close scrutiny. "Signed by the author, huh?" He flips it open and scans the fly leaf. The dedication is written in purple ink, the handwriting neat with little curls at the end of each word.

Hope you enjoy reading it!
Yrs, Melanie Robbins.

"Wait, who?" Wilson fast-forwards to the back flap where there's an author bio with photograph.

Melanie Robbins, he reads, has written a number of teen novels, two of which were nominated for ALA awards. She holds a degree in creative writing from Simmons College. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with two dogs and two daughters, and she loves reading, cooking, and jazz.

Yes, it's definitely her. Melanie Robbins, the girl of his high school dreams, who broke his heart into a thousand shards, sending him into the depths of despondency for the sum total of — two months.

"It's a sign," Wilson tells Joel, "that we're meant to go to Massachusetts. It's time you met your grandparents Wilson. You need family, even if it's only my dysfunctional bunch."

Which is why, two hours later, Joel and he are on a flight to Boston.
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readingrat

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