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[personal profile] readingrat

12. Acclimatisation and Aggravation

He oversleeps, something that rarely happens to him by accident regardless of what his bosses, former and present, believe. Mostly his lateness is deliberate, a middle finger stuck out at the bureaucrats of this world. Today, it isn't premeditated; the joint did a better job of relaxing him than he'd anticipated. He catches himself thinking that he should do that more often, and grimaces. He's in his room getting dressed when the doorbell rings, and a moment later pandemonium breaks out. The timing is a little awkward, because he's at the stage of disarray where he has threaded his prosthetic through his jeans, but hasn't strapped it on yet, so he ends up hopping out of the bedroom on one leg, the other one hanging loosely in his jeans.

It seems Lisa was right about getting herself moving of her own accord: she's fully dressed and in the entryway, yelling at someone at the door. "I have no idea who you are!"

"I am Jiaying," a female voice says. "I clean. I clean your house."

"Oh, no, you don't!"

He closes his eyes briefly, and then hops forward.

"Hello, my morning star!" he says with as much cheer as he can muster at the unearthly hour of eight a.m. "That's your new cleaning lady." After a short pause he adds, "I see you are speechless with delight. She can't clean unless you let her enter, so move!"

Lisa squeezes her eyes shut and takes a deep breath. Probably some yoga technique, but whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be working. "Does she even have a work permit?" she asks.

He gazes at her with eyes widened innocently. "Would she accept employment if she didn't?" he asks.

Jiaying gazes ahead stoically, ignoring their little exchange. "I work for you?" she asks him.

"Sure," he says, giving Lisa's elbow a little tug. With his prosthetic dangling loosely in his jeans, he can't actually pull her aside without tipping over in an undignified manner.

Lisa moves aside ungraciously. "Is there anyone or anything else I should know about?"

"The gardener. He's called Hernandez, I think."

Lisa throws up her hands, turns around, and stomps off into the house.

"She's crazy, feng," he confides to Jiaying. Jiaying smiles blandly as she edges past him.

"Where are the car keys?" Lisa calls, irritation lacing her voice. "I need to leave."

"Ready in a sec, snookums," he replies, patting his pocket to make sure he still has the keys.

"I can —"

"… manage. Yes, I know." The moment Jiaying is out of sight he drops into a chair and pulls down his jeans far enough that he can strap his prosthetic to his stump. When Lisa reappears carrying her briefcase, with Jiaying trailing behind her, he hastily tugs up his jeans again.

"Where are cleaning things?" Jiaying asks. "And what you want clean?"

He looks at Lisa, who merely shrugs.

"Everything," he says to Jiaying in Chinese. "There's a utility room back there." He points in the general direction. "You'll find what you need there. If not, go out and buy whatever is missing."

Lisa rushes past him to the door. He grimaces at Jiaying in farewell, then he hurries out behind Lisa. They complete the first part of the journey in silence.

Then Lisa asks, "What are you doing today?" Her voice is neutral; it's hard to tell whether she's making polite conversation (the ability to do so would be a good sign), is sincerely interested (which would also be a good sign), or wants to be sure that he won't get in her way.

"Gotta prepare a lecture," he says. When he lectures in person, he tends to play it by ear, but if he's stuck here for another few days, he'll have to post another online lecture, which means he needs a bona fide case. "Need an interesting case. Do you remember any of my cases?"

"Dunno," she says, staring out of her window. "You could go to PPTH and ask Cameron to let you access your patient files."

"I could," he says, "but first of all, I need a rough idea of what I'm looking for, and secondly, I'm not Cameron's bosom buddy at the moment. I get all these negative vibes from her whenever I have to deal with her."

"Wilson's," Lisa says. "You had a patient who presented with a blood clot and … schizophrenia, I think, and it turned out to be a liver tumour and Wilson's. If you don't want to deal with Cameron, talk to Chase. He'll remember the case."

The case doesn't sound promising: Wilson's being misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and an undiscovered liver tumour sounds more like crappy medicine than a truly interesting case. But talking to Chase isn't a bad idea, really. He's been thinking of going that way, anyway.

So, after dropping Lisa off, he programmes the GPS and makes his way out to Mayfield.

"To what do I owe the honour?" Chase asks him. He sprawls on a bench, his face turned towards the sun. His hair, unfashionably short, is greying at the temples, an observation that cheers Pete.

"Wilson's," Pete says shortly.

"Wilson's," Chase echoes, "as in 'the property of James Wilson, MD' or as in the genetic disease?"

"The disease. Had a case once, Lisa said. I need something for a lecture."

"Ah. And I'd hoped that you were here to congratulate me on my upcoming release. Or on my new job. As in, offering me your support."

"Now why would I do that?" he asks with raised eyebrows. "I'm not a charity."

Chase spreads his hands. "Boredom?"

"Right! Wilson's," he prompts.

"That would have been one of my first cases," Chase says, digging in his pockets. He pulls out a packet of cigarettes and lights one, putting the packet away without offering Pete any. "The woman was diagnosed with schizophrenia a few years before; she was brought to the ER because of strong abdominal pain caused by a blood clot. That's where you snagged her."

"What caught my attention? Schizophrenia and blood clots doesn't sound interesting."

"She was too young to throw clots. Besides, you liked crazy. Probably still do."

Still not promising. "Was she duly impressed and grateful? Because I'll need her permission to use her case, otherwise Cameron won't give me the case files."

Chase scratches his head. "The cancer returned and she died a few years later. Her kid should still be around somewhere — though he wasn't your biggest fan."

No surprise there. Kids aren't his thing, really.

"I could talk to him, though," Chase continues. "Explain what really happened. He thought you ratted him out to social services. He was a minor, but he was doing a really great job looking out for his mom, and then social services picked him up. He was right pissed."

"So maybe I did rat him out."

Chase laughs. "No, you didn't. His mom phoned social services herself, but she didn't want him to know, so you took the rap."

He raises his eyebrows. That doesn't sound like him at all.

Chase grins at his reaction. "You liked him; thought he was bee's knees, though you'd never have admitted it. He was intelligent, thorough, and a good scammer. Like Wilson. He even looked like Wilson — more than Wilson's own kid does, that's for sure."

"You've seen Wilson's kid?" he asks carefully.

Chase nods. "He brought him to his last few sessions with Nolan, and he always drops in on me after his sessions. Cute kid; Wilson's a lucky guy. Funny, somehow I didn't think he'd ever have children."

Pete considers asking why, but decides that it's better to drop the matter. Chase's radar is calibrated to home in on omissions and subterfuges, and the way he's emphasising his words indicates that he suspects something is off with regard to Joel.

Chase leans forward to stub out his cigarette. "Get Cameron to give you the contact details and then I'll talk to the guy. Without you his mother would have died seven years earlier than she did, and then he'd have ended up in a foster home for sure, so he should be grateful."

Pete nods and rises, checking his watch. It's one o'clock, the time at which Nolan takes a lunch break, and he knows where to find him. Just outside the gates of Mayfield a footpath branching off the access road leads down to a creek. A short way down the footpath, behind a bend, there's a bench — Pete suspects that Nolan had it installed — where Nolan can be found on fair days during off hours. Nolan's look of surprise when Pete rounds the bend changes to resignation when he recognises him.

"Greg," he says, shifting to make room for him. "What a surprise!"

At least he isn't so dumb as to say that it's a pleasant one. Pete sits down and peers into Nolan's lunch box. The contents aren't inspiring: carrot and celery sticks, a yoghurt dip, a sandwich made of wholegrain bread, apple slices. When Pete pulls a face Nolan says, "My physician insists that I lose weight. My hip joints aren't what they used to be."

"Get new ones," Pete suggests.

"I will, I will," Nolan says, selecting a celery stick. "But it seems that I need to get rid of the extra pounds too."

"Stones," Pete corrects him.

"Have you ever thought about a career as a motivational coach?" Nolan asks sarcastically. Pete takes a carrot stick and crunches it noisily. "Isn't James in California?" Nolan asks next.

"Boston," Pete amends.

"Boston? I must have misheard." Nolan shakes his head ruefully.

"California didn't work out," Pete explains with a casual wave of his hand. "Amy disappointed, so Wilson left again."

He knows what Wilson is up to. Having abandoned his plan to inveigle Lisa into fostering the spawn, Wilson is sussing out alternatives. Amy must have set a negative benchmark in terms of parenting skills, otherwise Wilson wouldn't have given up on her so quickly. Now Wilson is checking out his parents as potential guardians, in case he should bite the dust before he has filled the kid's college fund to the brim, a measure that reeks of desperation. Pete tried to talk to them when Wilson's liver values plummeted, hoping that they'd be able to provide a list of family members who might qualify as donors. From a communicative perspective it had only just beaten talking to a deaf-mute. If they raise Joel, he'll join his uncle Danny in the nuthouse sooner or later. It can't have taken Wilson more than a day to realise that he's wasting his time in Boston. Nevertheless, he hasn't shaken the dust of Boston off his feet and moved on to Chicago, where his brother Michael, the next logical choice, lives. His continued sojourn in Boston means one of three things: one, his brother Michael has informed him in no uncertain terms that he doesn't want anything to do with Wilson's spawn, two, he's flirting with someone (he definitely wasn't alone in that café), or three, he has returned to his original plan of roping Lisa in, in which case he can afford to hang about Boston wasting his time.

"Hmm." Nolan takes another celery stick. "You didn't come here in order to inform me of James's travel itinerary."

Pete flexes his remaining foot, crosses his ankles, uncrosses them again, and takes a slice of apple. "Social call," he mutters.

"Nice try, but you don't do 'social'. You're strictly functional. I'm not judging; I'm merely stating facts. Another fact is that you're in Philadelphia even though James isn't here. That means your visit isn't about him. … You aren't involved in any way in that diagnostic project that Dr Cuddy is starting at her hospital, are you?" Nolan says with a hint of worry.

He shakes his head. "No. I'm steering clear of that shipwreck."

"Shipwreck?" Nolan's interest is piqued, and so it should be. If he's releasing Chase in a few days, he'll want to know whether Chase is heading for stable surroundings.

"Let's just say that Lisa's position at that hospital is somewhat tenuous," Pete says. "I doubt that'll affect Chase, though. It seems to be a power struggle between Lisa and the new dean, one that she's losing, but since he personally approved of the diagnostic project, he's unlikely to let it — or Chase — go."

"And your role in all this?"

"Innocent bystander," he says.

When this draws a disbelieving chuckle from Nolan, he pouts, sticking out his lower lip. He'll have to throw Nolan a morsel or two of information. "I'm here because I happened to barge into a bit of a situation at the Cuddy household, and now I'm stuck there, because Wilson is judging my parenting skills by my ability to stick around and get a handle on the situation. It's ludicrous and completely beside the point, and sooner or later there'll be murder and mayhem!" His voice has risen and his sense of grievance isn't played any more. It's very real. He wills himself to calm down and get his breathing under control, and then he says, "I have no idea what he wants from me, but I'm the last person to be able to help Lisa. I'm the problem, not the solution!"

"In what sense?"

"She has health issues, probably partly brought on by the liver transplant, exacerbated by workplace issues — that wouldn't have arisen if she hadn't agreed to the transplant."

"That's bullshit," Nolan points out. "The transplant may have been your suggestion, but she had a choice. She didn't have to do it. Don't allow anyone to guilt you into taking responsibility for the outcome, health-wise or professionally."

That's true enough, and so he always tells himself. But it's only half the truth. The other half is that he's been manipulating Lisa for the past year or so, first into donating her liver, then into keeping her mouth shut about Joel, and finally into falling into his arms instead of Wilson's. He probably did everyone a favour all three times, but that doesn't alter the fact that Lisa has no reason to trust him or to want him around, because there is, unfortunately, no doubt that promoting Lisa's well-being didn't feature on his list of priorities at all. She was lucky, that was all. Next time, she might be less so, and she's only too aware of it. She wants out, out of his life and his plans and his schemes, and he can't blame her.

"You're stressed," Nolan remarks.

"Wow!" He rolls his eyes. "What a superb diagnosis! You're good!"

"And anxious," Nolan continues, unimpressed by his sarcasm. "What are you doing about it?"

"Getting plastered." He waits for censure, but none is forthcoming.

"Okay," Nolan says. "What about drugs?"

"A joint the other night."

"That's all?"

He nods. He'd wanted opiates, craved their power to deaden emotion and take away anxiety, felt the desire to throw himself into their all-enfolding embrace, but he'd resisted. Not because common sense told him that the relief would be short-lived, not because he feared the detox that must follow sooner or later (well, he did, but not enough), but because he remembered only too well the misery that had followed his last detox roughly two years ago. The detox itself had been bearable, since he'd been on Vicodin for less than a month, but he'd been low and listless for a long time, plagued by self-hatred, anxiety, and a sense of insecurity that he couldn't remember having felt before. He'd even cried himself to sleep a few nights (and then some), a memory that he represses as much as possible.

Besides, Wilson would find out; Wilson figured out his last relapse within a space of five minutes. If he caught Pete as much as thinking about opiates or even thinking about thinking about them, he'd make sure that Pete gave the kid a wide berth till all eternity. It's unfortunate that Lisa witnessed his last indulgence, the reefer, but hopefully she won't mention it to Wilson, and from now on he'll be the poster boy for healthy living and good choices — at least while he's on this side of the Atlantic.

He takes the top slice off one of Nolan's wholegrain sandwiches, tears off a piece of the bread, and rolls it into a soggy ball that he places in the palm of his hand. He flicks it towards the creek with a snap of his fingers. Ten feet, maybe. The mallards on the water turn and make a beeline for the bread; Nolan must be feeding them regularly. He rolls another ball. Fifteen feet should be feasible with the right technique.

"Good," Nolan says, placing his lunch box on the far side of the bench where Pete can't reach it. "Let's take a look at the situation: James wants something from you, a proof of good faith, and you don't know how to give it. Does that summarise your dilemma?"

"Goddammit, yes!"

Nolan leans back, interlacing his fingers over his ample stomach. "Now why would he want that?" he asks in a meditative tone. "Why does James fear that you'll abandon your son?"

Pete gets Nolan's problem, patient confidentiality: Wilson has probably discussed the matter with him, and regardless of whether Nolan agrees with Wilson's stance on this or not, he can't tell Pete anything that Wilson said to him. He's prodding Pete into figuring it out himself.

"Because," he says slowly, "because Wilson feels I abandoned him when I induced amnesia in myself. He resented that — still resents it. He threw it at my head when he was diagnosed with cancer. He wouldn't get his cancer treated because staying alive for me wasn't worth the bother. He's afraid I'll disappear from his son's life the way I disappeared from his." He sits up straight. "This has nothing to do with how I treated Rachel when she was small."

"How did you treat Rachel?"

"No idea; you know I don't remember," Pete says irritably.

"I thought you might have talked to Dr Cuddy about it," Nolan says in a mildly suggestive tone.

Pete contemplates that little hint. There's no way that Nolan believes that he has talked about anything of the sort with Lisa, which means that Nolan is suggesting that he do so now.

Nolan adds, "It's always good to know what behaviour patterns to avoid if you want to steer clear of negative associations and bad memories. Besides, you need to focus on the things you can change, not on the ones that you can't. You can't change the past; what's done is done. What you can change is the way Wilson perceives your ability to cope with children. You can also prove that you're able to weather difficult situations if you stick out the week with Dr Cuddy and support her in whatever she's going through."

"You're with him on this," he says heavily.

"I'm not with anyone. If James isn't talking to you, you can't use your gift of the gab to make him see things differently. That being so, you can either dig in your heels or go with the flow. Since you want something that he has, you don't have much of a choice. Correct me if I'm wrong."

When Nolan puts it that way, neatly and succinctly, there isn't much he can say, except his token form of protest. "Who says I want something from him?"

Nolan tosses up his hands. "Greg, spare me! You're wasting my time and yours if you insist on playing the Tin Man at every opportunity."

Okay, that isn't going to work; he didn't think it would. He guesses he wouldn't respect Nolan if it did. "Thing is," he says, "I don't know how much I want. I … don't know how much of a father I can be or want to be."

"'Can' or 'want', which is it? Two words, different meanings," Nolan points out.

He looks at Nolan with dislike: he came here for help, not to be placed under a magnifying lens and examined like a particularly nasty bug.

Nolan leans back again, one could almost say, 'happily'. He's definitely in his element. "Let's look at the matter from a different perspective."

Pete raises his eyebrows. "There's a different one?"

"There's James's and there's yours. So far, we've looked at what James feels, desires, and demands. Let's look at you."

"I told you I don't —"

Nolan raises his hand. "Let me finish my thought process. I'm slower than you are, but every now and then I, too, have an idea worth considering." He drops his hand again. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you weren't always bothered about the circumstances surrounding Joel. The situation escalated about two weeks ago, but it wasn't merely Dr Cuddy's interference that made it escalate. You said or did something before, something that made her aware of your paternity. Knowing you, that was deliberate." He pauses questioningly.

Was his indiscretion towards Lisa deliberate? He supposes so; Lisa had been on the right track, but it wouldn't have been difficult to divert her into the woods again.

"All of a sudden, you felt a need to acknowledge your paternity. So, what changed?" Nolan asks.

What changed that evening two months ago when Wilson entered the apartment with a baby in tow?

"Wilson obtained custody." It's the only fact that changed that night. Everything else remained the same. "Lisa found out about Amy and me the day Wilson became Joel's primary custodian."

"Let's follow that lead: something about James being granted custody bothered you. Do you think he's less capable of taking care of Joel than the mother, Amy, is?"

A moron can see that Wilson is by far the better parent, so he shakes his head.

"Are you worried that James's addiction issues will affect his parenting abilities?"

Again, he's pretty sure that Lisa will catch that if it should become a problem. Chances are that Amy in a sober state is more of a wild card than Wilson even when he's shit-faced. He shakes his head again.

"His cancer?"

Well, that's worrisome, but it was so already before the kid appeared as a permanent fixture in Wilson's life. In fact, it's somewhat less worrisome now than it was before, because if anything, the leech will give Wilson a reason to monitor his own health and take measures to preserve it — as far as that is possible.

"No," he says, plucking his lower lip. "I don't think it's connected to Wilson."

"Okay." Nolan draws out the word. "Maybe it's connected to the change in Joel's circumstances, namely that he is in your proximity from now on. Where and how did you visit Joel before James brought him home with him?"

He looks at Nolan blankly. "I didn't. There was no reason to."

Now it's Nolan's turn to stare. "You … never visited him? You'd never met him before?"

"No."

"Ah!" Nolan's voice reverberates with smugness. "I think that answers our question."

He doesn't like the direction this is taking. Nolan is insinuating that personal contact with his offspring induced a sense of responsibility or obligation in him, but in fact, nothing changed during that meeting. He'd known before that Joel was his son. That knowledge alone should have sufficed to make him protect his genes; it shouldn't have taken a face-to-face confrontation for him to buckle up and face his responsibility. The fact that it took him so long to accept his liability is irrevocable proof that he won't be a good father.

That's Wilson's whole point, so they've come around in a full circle and are back where they started.

He gets up abruptly. Nolan follows suit, closing the lid of his lunch box and swinging into step beside him as though they'd agreed on some secret signal to leave the place. When they reach the top of the path where it rejoins the road to Mayfield Nolan says, "You're castigating yourself for not acknowledging your child sooner."

He looks down at a spot a few inches to the right of his foot. Then he says, "Wilson is right not to trust me. So far, nothing I have said or done indicates that I'll be of any benefit to … to his son."

"We don't know whether the situation would have been better if you had been upfront about your paternity right from the start or, say, from his birth onwards. Chances are that it would have been worse."

That's what he's been telling himself. That has been his justification all along.

"Greg!" Nolan calls after him as he turns towards the car park. "I'll be happy to share my lunch box with you anytime."

He hesitates, then he nods a short acknowledgement. Talking to Nolan hasn't exactly helped, but on the other hand it hasn't done any harm either. And who knows, perhaps Nolan will put in a good word for him with James. He turns this thought over in his mind. Was his aim in coming here not to gain any clarity for himself, but to manipulate Nolan? Would it matter if his motives weren't entirely pure?

He's on his way back to Drexel (or so he hopes) when his cell phone rings.

"Hello?" he says irritably. Driving with a prosthesis while trying to follow Homer Simpson's driving instructions is challenging without additional distractions.

"It's me, Rachel."

"Hello, 'Me, Rachel'," he says, trying to tone down the irritation. "Your mother is as much at work today as she was yesterday, and calling me on my cell phone won't change that."

"I know." There's a pause. "I wanted to talk to you."

"Where'd you get my number?"

"You gave it to me, remember? Before you arrived. ... It's awful here."

There's a moment of silence. This is where a good parent, or any caring adult for that matter, would ask why it was awful or voice their commiseration. He doesn't.

"What are you doing?" Rachel asks.

"Driving," he says, taking a left turn at the last moment because taking the call made him miss the GPS instructions. The driver of the oncoming car blows his horn; he flips him the bird in return. "Idiot! … Not you; the other driver."

"Oh. You're not supposed to use the phone while driving."

"Right," he says with heavy sarcasm; the light version doesn't work on Rachel. "Shouldn't have called you. My bad."

"Can you call me when you reach … wherever?"

He hesitates, then he says, "Yeah, sure."

"Okay, bye then."

"Bye," he mumbles, already concentrating on the GPS's next instructions. God, but Homer is bossy today!

When he reaches Drexel he prevaricates, wondering what to do. He can return Rachel's call, but no matter what her problem may be, he can't solve it. With a sigh he picks up his cell, pulls up the list of recent callers, and hits the dial button.

"Hello?"

The person taking the call isn't Rachel. At a rough estimate the speaker is well over sixty. Judging by the similarity in accent and intonation she is Lisa's mother, Arlene Cuddy. Arlene the Hun. Alzheimer Arlene. He considers disconnecting the call, but trying again later won't help him. If Arlene (as far as she can still think clearly) or her caregiver/companion get the idea that they're being harassed by an anonymous caller, they won't let Rachel anywhere near the phone. His only option is brazening his way through the call.

"Hello, this is Brad Johnson, Rachel Cuddy's home room teacher. Is that Julia Cuddy's place?" No reply. That woman must be beyond salvage already. He soldiers on. "I heard that Rachel won't be returning to school this week, so I wanted to give her some tasks to do while she's gone."

There's a muffled sort of harrumph at the other end.

He continues valiantly, "So, if I could talk to her, please?"

"You," says Arlene Cuddy (if it is her, but he has no reason to assume otherwise), "aren't Rachel's teacher any more than I'm the President of the United States."

"Sorry?" he says with feigned innocence. It's a pity Arlene can't see his face; he certainly deserves an Oscar.

"Gregory House! There's no way I could ever forget that voice, not in a hundred years!"

He makes a valiant last-ditch effort to salvage the situation. "Gregory who, ma'am?"

"Greg House, don't try to make a fool of me! I may be old and my daughter may think I'm senile, but I'm not so far gone as to believe that Rachel's teacher would call from a British number!"

If there's an Oscar for stupidity, he's on the short list. He didn't think to hide his caller ID, which means his number with its British country code is showing on the phone's display. (And Arlene isn't as far up the road to Alzheimerville as Lisa chooses to believe, but that's neither here nor there.)

Arlene is on a roll. "I don't know why you want to talk to Rachel, but I don't want you talking to my grandchild. Ever! And I don't care what Julia's position is on the matter, much less Lisa's, who is a complete moron where you're concerned. Do you remember what I threatened to do to you if you ever hurt Lisa?"

"No, ma'am, but I can make an educated guess." Probably something that features a grapefruit spoon, his balls, and a lot of gratuitous violence.

"Don't be facetious and don't you try that amnesia number on me! You can con Lisa and Julia, but you won't get past me. I haven't had an opportunity to carry out my threat, but if I get the chance now, I won't say no."

There's a click and then he's left holding a beeping phone. He sincerely hopes that Rachel will fare better than he did when faced with the Grand Cuddy Inquisition regarding why the near murderer of her two daughters is phoning her residence, but somehow he doubts her ability to brazen it out. Lisa is so not going to be happy. He goes for a very long run to take his mind off the suckotage of the day, takes a long, hot shower afterwards, making a right old mess of the bathroom (so that Jiaying will feel needed), and then heads out for the city centre again.


"Lighten up," he says to Lisa on the drive home.

"You gate-crashed my therapy session," she says dully, not for the first time.

"In the interest of your health," he counters.

"You learned nothing of interest. Hey, you need to turn off at the next intersection! Construction site ahead, remember?"

Yes, sort of, but have they reached it already? Throwing a quick glance over his shoulder, he pulls over sharply into the left lane.

"I learned," he says carefully once he's sure that the car whose lane he cut into has managed to brake sufficiently to avoid a collision, "that your therapist considers SSRIs neither indicated nor necessary."

"Could have told you that. Did tell you that."

"I prefer my information first hand. Patients lie. You don't care anyway; if you did, you'd have told your therapist not to divulge anything."

"Yeah, like you wouldn't have hacked her files if she'd refused."

True enough. He'd been reckoning with as much and had already contacted a computer science major who'd done him a favour or two when he'd needed Wilson's medical files, so he'd been pleasantly surprised when Lisa, after getting over the initial shock of seeing him comfortably ensconced in her therapist's waiting room, instructed her therapist to tell him what he wanted to know.

When they reach home, Lisa goes to get the mail while he parks the car in the garage. She comes back from the mailbox, frowning.

"Do you know anything about Wilson having things in storage?" she asks turning one of the envelopes she's holding over. "This is labelled URGENT, but it could be an ad, I guess."

He tweaks the envelope out of her hand. It doesn't look like junk mail and the 'urgent' label is stamped manually. The return address is that of a storage unit in New Jersey that seems vaguely familiar.

"When I asked Wilson whether he had any furniture of his own, he said he owned practically nothing and would have to buy everything he needed," Lisa says.

Pete remembers an early autumn afternoon almost two years ago: a drive to a storage unit near Princeton, Wilson hovering while he rooted through his former belongings, a baby grand that responded to his touch as though it knew him — which it did.

"Crap!" he says, tearing open the envelope. His eyes fly over the words of the letter, one layer of his brain taking in their literal meaning while another tries to grasp their significance.

Dear Sir,

In your letter dated 06/15/2017 you requested the termination of your lease of Storage Unit H364356CC at the next possible date. As we notified you on 06/17/2017, your lease will end on 06/30/2017 at 12 p.m. Any items remaining within the unit after that hour will be removed from the unit and put into the Unclaimed Property facility until such time as you pick them up, at an additional charge of $50 and a fee of $100 for moving the items from your unit to the Unclaimed Property facility. Should the items remain in our possession for longer than a month, we will take legal steps to dispose of them. We will not be liable for damage or loss of items that have not been collected before the lease expires. Please note that the unclaimed property facility is not climate controlled.

Yours etc.

"Fuck!"

"What's up?" Lisa asks.

"That double-dealing bastard!" he says, digging out his cell phone. "Tomorrow's the thirtieth, right? … Hello? James Wilson, Storage Unit H364356CC. I'm afraid there's been a mix-up; I didn't mean to terminate the lease."

It takes a moment until he's connected to the 'facility coordinator' and another one till the coordinator has found Wilson's correspondence. Lisa shrugs and goes into the house.

"You want to keep the unit?" the coordinator asks.

"Yes!"

"But you cancelled the contract. We have your letter terminating the lease. We sent you a confirmation email, which you acknowledged on — let me see — on June 18."

"I … thought it was a different unit. I have another storage unit in another facility and I got them mixed up. I must have cancelled the wrong unit," Pete improvises. "Can't I keep this unit?"

"Let me check." A keyboard clacks in the background. "I'm sorry, but the unit is taken from July 1. We don't have many climate-controlled units; there's a waiting list for those and they are taken immediately. I can offer you a unit without climate control that's the same size."

"Okay, I'll take that," he says, grimacing.

"You'll have to move your things tomorrow though," the coordinator says, "by noon."

"You're kidding!"

"The contract states clearly that —"

"Fuck the contract!"

"Our removal service can move your things from one unit to the other. The charge is 100 dollars, as stated in —"

"Yeah, okay. Do that."

"Okay." Fingernails clack on a keyboard. "I've reserved Unit L745372 for you and the removal service will move your things at … 11 a.m. You can pick up the key card during our office hours. Oh, and if there's anything in the old unit that's heat or cold sensitive, I'd advise you to come and get it."

"Yeah, yeah!" He disconnects the call, glowering inwardly, and follows Lisa into the house. Wilson must have cancelled the lease right after he found out that the kid wasn't the fruit of his loins.

Lisa is on the phone. He can guess whom she's calling, so he beats a strategic retreat into the kitchen to bang about with pots and pans. But no matter how vigorously he chops herbs, he can hear Lisa's raised voice. He has definitely put his foot in it this time.

Then there's silence. He continues chopping until the basil turns into slush, but there's no sound from the living area. Finally he goes to take a look. Lisa is on the couch, her head in her hands. She looks up when he stands before her.

"I honestly don't know why Julia puts up with Mom's crap," she says, "but I've had enough."

He has no issues with Arlene Cuddy getting a portion of the blame for today's fiasco, so he doesn't comment. Lisa doesn't expect him to do so anyway. She continues, "Apparently one of Rachel's teachers phoned. It must have been Mr Jones, her science teacher, but Mom thought it was you. Heaven knows where she got that idea!"

He scratches his brow with his thumbnail. "Maybe he sounds like me."

Lisa rolls her eyes. "I doubt it; he's a soft-spoken guy. Mom is paranoid, and now she's terrorising Rachel, telling her that you're a danger to society who'll murder all of us in our beds. Rachel thinks she's done something wrong and won't talk to me on the phone because she's worried I'm mad at her. And Julia believes it'll all sort itself out somehow!"

"It probably will," he says, sitting down. It's not like there's much they can do about the situation.

Lisa snorts. "I doubt it. Julia doesn't come down hard enough on Mom when she oversteps the mark. I think she even believed Mom at first. I told her that you're twenty kinds of irritating, but you'd never do anything that stupid."

"No?" He'd be flattered if her confidence weren't misplaced.

"Why would you call Rachel? It serves no purpose and it gets Rachel into a heap of trouble, so no, you wouldn't," Lisa says with certainty. "I need to go to Princeton to pick Rachel up."

"Isn't that a bit radical?" he asks, sizing up her state. She's more energetic than she was the previous days, but a drive to Princeton and back, coupled with a confrontation with her mother and possibly with her sister, isn't wise.

"You got a better idea? Rachel is half convinced that I'm terminal. Now she believes that if my depression doesn't kill me, you will. She wouldn't talk to me, but I could hear her sobbing in the background. Rachel isn't a child who cries much. I need to bring her home."

He sighs. "I have to go up to Princeton tomorrow anyway, to the storage unit. I'll pick her up on the way back."

She considers his offer with pursed lips. "Make it on the way there," she finally says. "Julia can take her along to her workplace, and you can pick her up from there. That way there's no danger of you running into my mother. Besides, I don't want Rachel to spend more time with my mother than is necessary."

"I'm preferable to your mother?"

"Oh, yes!" she says with feeling. She must finally have registered his doubtful expression, because she gives him a tiny smile — the first one in all these days — and adds, "You're good with her, you know."

He shrugs. "It's an easy age. Too young to be critical, too old to need constant attention."

"As opposed to a four month old?" she asks knowingly. When he doesn't answer she adds, "You weren't half bad with Rachel when she was young."

That's so diametrically opposite to what Wilson said and Nolan hinted at that he doesn't even bother to hide his disbelief. "I've heard differently."

Lisa shrugs that off. "Don't listen to Wilson," she says. "You did just fine. I still remember the first time you babysat Rachel: you weren't enthusiastic at all when I asked you, but by the time I came home you were so invested that you were on your feet half the night, looking in on her whenever she made the slightest sound, changing her soiled diapers, and making sure I didn't have to get up. It was sweet. I have no idea why Wilson always made snide comments about your abilities, because I never saw any justification for them. You managed somehow, and Rachel took to you."

Try as he will, he can't picture himself as an enthusiastic babysitter at heart. "You must have had something I wanted very badly," he says.

Lisa doesn't pretend to misunderstand him. "I did." She looks at him dispassionately. "So does Wilson: he has custody of Joel. If you could do it for me, you can do it for him."

Perhaps he could; he isn't wildly enthusiastic about it, but how difficult can it be? The problem is, in Lisa's case the want was mutual. He, too, had something Lisa wanted (though the heavens only knew why she did), so she had a reason to put up with him and give him access to her child. He has nothing whatsoever that Wilson wants.


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