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Chapter 20: Merriment in Mayfield

Saturday dawns bright and clear and with no sign of the rain that would put a timely end to Wilson's stupid excursion. So Pete steels himself, smiles brightly, and says he'll go too if he gets to choose where they'll have dinner afterwards.

Wilson smugly says that (a) he doesn't need him to accompany them because Cuddy will come too as soon as she has collected some papers from her workplace, and (b) there'll be a picnic-cum-barbeque in the evening, so they won't need to go anywhere for dinner. And if Pete wants to come along to Mayfield, he should just say so instead of beating about the bush.

Pete grits his teeth, but gets his sunglasses and his flat cap.

Wilson, Pete and the kids all go in Wilson's car so Lisa can follow them at her convenience. It's difficult to gauge Rachel's mood because Joel sings loudly all the way. Wilson says that he's singing 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', which (according to Wilson) is Joel's favourite song at the moment. When Pete suggests that the tune might also be 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' (Joel sings without intelligible lyrics), Wilson admits that it's possible. However, he arbitrarily excludes 'Ode to Joy' and 'The Bad Touch', claiming that Joel doesn't know those songs.

"What do you think I sing when I put him to bed, 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'?" Pete asks.

"What's 'The Bad Touch'?" Rachel pipes up from behind.

"You 'n' me, baby, we ain't nothin' but mammals," Pete chants, jerking his head and shoulders back and forth rhythmically to the lyrics.

Wilson's response to Pete's musical performance is lost in the ensuing cacophony: Joel, resenting Pete's intrusion on his solo, ups the volume painfully, while Rachel holds her hands over her ears, yelling, "Shut up! Shut up!" Everyone is glad when they finally reach Mayfield.

The entrance is festooned with roughly a hundred balloons in patriotic red, blue, and white and with a big banner stating that everyone is welcome to Mayfield's Open Day. Despite these professions of hospitality, there's tight security in place: their car is checked and they are issued day passes. Attendants in neon vests try to direct them to a temporary parking lot until Wilson flashes Rachel's disability parking badge at them, upon which they are waved through to the parking lot in front of the building.

Wilson has barely disembarked when a staff member runs up to him and envelopes him in a tight hug. "Dr Wilson, it's so good to see you again. And is that your son? What a darling!"

Within moments a crowd surrounds Wilson, all hugging and back-slapping him. Pete wordlessly dumps the kids in their various vehicles and unpacks baby paraphernalia.

"We've got an arts and crafts section for kids," someone says with a nod towards Rachel.

"Shall we go there?" Wilson asks her. When Rachel nods, Wilson grabs the grips of her wheelchair and pushes her in the general direction of a group of tents.

Pete figures that it's his job to look after Joel while Wilson does penance for real or imagined wrongs towards Rachel by keeping her amused.

"I'm onto you!" he mutters darkly at Wilson's back. "I know what you're planning."

He pushes Joel's stroller towards a bouncy castle that is visible from the parking lot. When Joel gets bored with that, they move on to a ball pit. The going is slightly tougher at the ball pit insofar as more kids have arrived by now, kids who trespass on what Joel considers his property. Joel, who has a clear concept as to which part of the ball pit is his territory (roughly one-fourth of the entire area) and which balls are his (any ball that the other kids pick up), does not as yet have a realistic take on his strengths and weaknesses.

"You do not bite a kid who is double your size and triple your weight," Pete informs him drily, wiping snot and tears off his face. "And you do not bite any kid whose parent is within sight, period. Let's find something else to do."

Luckily, Joel is willing to be distracted by food and knows where to find it. He goes through the changing bag, scattering its contents around him until he finds a box with apple slices.

"You gonna eat that?" Pete asks skeptically. He finds a bench where they can sit in peace.

"Appa," Joel says.

"Your pronunciation leaves a little something to be desired."

Joel takes a chunk out of the first slice and grins delightedly. "Appa," he repeats.

"And your conversational arts have scope for improvement."

Having finished the first slice, Joel says, "More!"

"Okay, that was clear enough." Pete hands him the box.

Three slices later, his mood vastly improved, Joel turns his attention to the other contents of the bag. He finds a book, which he carries over to Pete.

"You're here among bouncy castles, trampolines, giant slides, and pretty chicks, and you want to read a book?" Pete asks.

Joel nods. "Book." He climbs onto Pete's lap.

"Fox in Socks," Pete reads. "God help me!"

But the deity is deaf to his pleas. Half an hour later Pete knows why: the deity requires a human sacrifice in order to be placated, namely the idiot who bought Fox in Socks and read it to Joel so many times that Joel knows exactly what words are on each page. He insists that each and every word be read. He notices when you try to turn two pages instead of one. He's onto you immediately if you try to abbreviate the tongue twister about the three free fleas who fly through three cheese trees (sic!) to a manageable length, his hand slapping down on the page while he yells, "No! Flea! Flea!"

After three readings Pete's tongue is fuzzy and his brain is mush. "Let's find Wilson," he suggests.

Joel doesn't want to sit in his stroller. He trots along beside Pete until … he doesn't. Pete, homing in on what he hopes are the same tents as the ones Wilson was headed for with Rachel, suddenly realises that he's alone with the stroller. When he looks back the way he just came, he spots Joel spread-eagled on the path, staring intently at something in front of him. Next to him is Nolan, regarding the boy with an amused expression. Pete abandons the stroller and sprints back as quickly as his prosthesis will allow him.

"Hello, Greg," Nolan says. "Family day?"

Pete blows a raspberry at him.

"Bug," Joel says, pointing a chubby finger.

"Yeah, it's a bug," Nolan says, smiling.

Pete squints down at the path. "It's an ant."

"Bug," Joel repeats.

Pete turns on Nolan. "It's no wonder that this institution is choc-a-block full of long-term patients with poor prognoses, since you treat your patients by confirming their delusions."

"That's not quite what I did here."

"It's not any old bug, it's an ant. 'Bug' is not a scientific classification."

"Your son's problem isn't bad science. His problem is that he hasn't mastered the code that we adults use to communicate. I'm establishing a common base. Once that's done, the code can be refined."

Pete hates it when Nolan is right.

"Oh-oh," Joel says.

Pete looks down. The ant has stopped moving. Like Joel, it is now spread-eagled on the path.

"Oh-oh," Joel says again, looking helplessly at Pete.

"You killed it; there's nothing I can do about it now. What do you think," he says, turning to Nolan, "is he a future psychopath?"

"This is where you lead him away from the scene of the crime before he starts finding pleasure in his new discovery that ants stop moving when you squash them, and at an opportune moment you teach him that life is sacrosanct."

"Except when it ends up on our plates."

"Let's find James," Nolan says, rolling his eyes.

Pete grins. He likes it when Nolan gives up the noble fight.

"Hey, buster," he says to Joel, who is poking at the dead ant with one finger. "Our agenda wasn't murder and mayhem, but finding Daddy."

He has to pick Joel up by his overalls and set him on his feet before the kid drops his preoccupation with the corpus delicti and remembers his dad.

"How's it going?" Nolan asks, strolling alongside them.

"Fine," Pete says warily. "Same can't be said of you, I hear."

Nolan chuckles. "I'm retiring so that I can focus on my other interests. I'm writing a book on the effect of medication on creative ability."

"You're kidding!"

But Nolan isn't kidding. He has decided to write up wishy-washy observations backed by numbers so soft that they won't withstand statistical criteria, let alone scientific ones, in the hope that this will be a valuable contribution to 'understanding the sufferings of patients whose loss of abilities can't be measured in terms of intelligence or mobility'. Neither Pete's rational arguments nor his scathing sarcasm seem to affect Nolan's determination to bless the world with another example of totally crappy science. Pete is relieved when Joel, calling Daddy, stumps off across the grassy expanse in front of them. Wilson and Lisa are spreading a picnic blanket about two hundred yards further on. Lisa looks up and spots them. Dropping her end of the blanket, she marches towards them.

"Oh-oh," Pete says. He has a fair-ish idea what this is about.

Lisa gives Nolan a curt nod and a brief greeting before taking Pete's arm and dragging him a few token feet to the side. "Guess who called me this morning?"

"Umm," Pete says.

"Rachel's principal. He said 'Rachel's Uncle Greg' dropped by. Rachel's Uncle Greg? Pete, what did I say about Rachel's school?"

(The pause is rhetorical, he assumes.)

"I said to drop it. I said it was none of your business. None of Your. Fucking. Business! Which part of that didn't you understand?"

"Has she been expelled?"

Lisa tugs her fingers through her locks, not for the first time today judging by their appearance. "Pete, it doesn't work that way. What did you do?"

He clears his throat. "Explained that the tale of how a disabled kid was victimised by a bunch of craptastic teachers could go viral on the net. Pointed out that it would be bad publicity for a school that prided itself on its social focus and culture of awareness. Asked him how it was that his staff could do as they pleased with no control or monitoring. Wondered aloud how an unwritten school agenda that propagated achievement at any price was compatible with the school's declared aim of supporting and nurturing children of all backgrounds and abilities. Showed him an email I'd drafted to the Board of Governors and asked him whether I should click the send button."

"Oh. My. God!" Lisa says in quiet awe (or maybe it's quiet despair).

"What did he say to you?" It seems polite to ask, now that he has given her his version of the interlude. (The short version, to be precise. There's an extended version, in which he shows the principal Lucas Douglas's findings on how the school's new science wing was funded and enquires whether he should go to the local newspapers with the information, but Lisa, having gotten the general gist, doesn't need minor details.)

Lisa twists a lock of her hair. "He said you were a 'lovely gentleman', a 'wonderful person' and that he 'appreciated' your efforts to explain the situation to him."

"See? Someone appreciates my inner beauty!"

"And that he'd give Rachel's teacher a dressing down and make her apologise to Rachel. That he'd relieve the percussion-band teacher of his duties. And that the school will provide home teaching facilities until such a time as Rachel feels confident enough to return to lessons."

"Then … that's okay," Pete half asks, surprised at the relief that washes over him.

"Don't be naive, it doesn't suit you! Do you seriously believe that Rachel will have an easier time at school if the percussion band collapses just before a major performance and her class teacher hates her guts?"

"She can stay at home until …"

"Until Junior High? Puh-lease! Besides, we'll be blackballed in the entire Philadelphia area. I'll have to bribe some school to take her after this. This sort of thing gets around."

He looks away. "Have you asked Rachel how she feels about this?"

"I didn't want to ruin her day," Lisa says flatly.

"She has a ghoulish disposition; she'll enjoy having her teacher apologise to her. Make the teacher do it in front of the whole class."

"Ghoulish disposition," Lisa echoes. "I'll have them write that in Rachel's next report. You!" She pokes him in the chest so hard that he catches hold of her hand to stop her from repeating the attack. "Next time … next time, just don't!"

He releases her hand when he's sure she has calmed down. "I won't," he promises.

"You will," she prophesies darkly as she turns back to the picnic blanket.

Nolan, Wilson, and the kids have abandoned the picnic paraphernalia and are strolling along the path towards a provisional stage where the members of a band, presumably the former Mayfield Madmen, are doing a sound check. Lisa doesn't follow them; she lies down on the blanket with Joel's changing bag as a pillow, clasps her hands behind her head and closes her eyes.

While Pete hesitates, caught between Scylla (more time with the kids, potentially on a one-to-one basis), and Charybdis (currently lying on the picnic blanket), the lead guitarist counts, "One - two, one - two - three - four," and the band pounds out 'Jailhouse Rock' with more verve than talent. That decides it. Pete opts for the blanket and the picnic basket that Wilson packed in the morning, 'just in case'.

Turns out that Wilson hasn't prepared so much for a scarcity of food as for a paucity of kosher and low-carb options. Vegetable sticks (carrot, celery, cucumber, peppers) with dips abound. The salad bowl reveals a brown rice salad smelling of ginger and soy. (What happened to potato salad or coleslaw?) A further Tupperware container holds something green and creamy that could be a dressing if there weren't so much of it. Pete dips a finger into the green mush and licks it experimentally. Odd, distinctly odd: avocado with a hint of lemon and cumin, but what the hell is it supposed to be?

"Cold avocado soup," Lisa says, opening one eye.

Disgusting! As a dip it would be sufferable, but as soup? "Who's supposed to eat that?" Pete asks.

"Rachel."

"Does she know of her good fortune?"

"She specifically asked Wilson to make it."

Pete continues his exploration of the basket, filing away in his head the anomaly of Lisa dozing on a picnic blanket when she's swamped with work. As far as he can make out, she only has a small purse with her, no big bag with laptop, files, or other work-related items. Hadn't she come here later because she had so much work that she needed to go in to pick some up?

"How come you haven't brought any work?" he asks, moving napkins and paper plates aside to check what's at the bottom of the basket.

"I handed in my resignation today," Lisa says without any intonation.

He wouldn't have thought that she had it in her to surprise him, but this time she has managed. How could he have missed something as vital as Lisa intending to chuck her job in?

"What happened?" he asks, rummaging around as though her revelation was an everyday matter.

"I handed in a proposal for the new Public Health degree. It was shot down." She's silent, her arm draped over her eyes.

"So? Write a new one."

Lisa sits up and looks around without meeting his eyes. "They pulled their own proposal out of the drawer. It consists of renaming existing Health Care courses so they sound like they're Public Health courses and offering so many electives that there's no need to create anything new that specifically targets Public Health students. It's a sham! The course is aimed at drop-outs from the Health Care course. In other words, if you're too dumb or too irresponsible to become a nurse – especially the latter – why not let you loose on the public with a degree in Public Health?" She hugs her knees. "I was basically told to spruce up their proposal and then teach all the courses for which they can't find teaching staff. That wasn't what I'd been led to believe I'd be doing when I accepted their job offer."

No spare ribs (okay, given Wilson's present kosher leanings he wasn't expecting any, though it would have been nice if Wilson had thought of him), no buffalo wings. The sandwiches are vegetarian, sporting carrot and avocado (again!) and alfalfa sprouts. What happened to Wilson's legendary club sandwiches? Pete finally finds some samosas. They're vegetarian too, as he discovers on biting into one, but at least they taste of something, and the avocado soup works as a dip for them.

"What are you going to do now?" he asks around a mouthful of samosa.

"I don't know yet."

She has a CV with more holes than a Swiss cheese, has recently gotten herself fired, and she kicks her job without having anything else lined up? That sounds like something he would do, but not Lisa. "You're an idiot," he opines.

Apparently that's the wrong thing to say. She gets up wordlessly and follows the others to the stage.

The band, after a passable rendition of 'With a Little Help From My Friends' (it's difficult to sing worse than Ringo Starr), has now embarked on a version of 'Stand By Me' that sounds more like a rehearsal than a performance. A few people in front of the stage are dancing singly or in couples. It's uncoordinated and messy, like most of this Open Day. Wilson is hopping around with Joel on his arm, looking utterly goofy. When Lisa reaches them, Wilson puts Joel down and they swing him around between them. Lisa likes dancing, Pete remembers. Now that he isn't hampered by Joel's weight, Wilson's movements are more elegant and coordinated. When the song is over, Wilson calls something to the band, which promptly launches into 'Walk the Line'. Wilson lines Joel and Lisa up, gives a few instructions to some of the other dancers, and after a few tries they manage something that is recognisable as a line dance, despite Joel generally getting into everyone's way. At the end of the song the band goes straight into a repeat, while more and more dancers join the line.

Pete looks around for Rachel and spots her stuck on the grass at a picnic table near the dancing area. Rachel can manoeuvre her wheelchair over smooth surfaces and slight inclines, but she isn't strong enough yet to manage soft, uneven surfaces. She's struggling, rocking to and fro, but the wheelchair won't budge. Wilson, coordinating the line, and Lisa, trying to keep Joel from getting under people's feet, haven't noticed. A few people watch Rachel, but make no move to help her. Pete sighs, rolls sideways and uses his remaining leg to lever himself upright, then he walks over to Rachel and tugs her wheelchair back onto the path leading to the picnic tables.

"You're in a rut," he says.

He expects a put-down or a sassy comment, but she stares straight ahead saying nothing. He moves in front of the wheelchair so he can see her face. It's blank.

"Where were you going?" he asks.

There's a long moment of … nothing, then she points to where Wilson, Lisa, and Joel are dancing. Right, she was going to be a ballet dancer when she grew up, wasn't she.

"I wanna go to Mom," Rachel says, her chin quivering a little.

He risks a quick glance at the dancing area. The band is playing 'Rock Around the Clock'; Wilson and Lisa are kicking and stepping like professionals, the other dancers around them gradually stopping to watch. A half circle of spectators forms around them, clapping and cheering them on as Wilson grows more daring, lifting Lisa up and swinging her between his legs. Lisa is laughing, the first genuine expression of joy on her face that he has seen over the past days. Joel is bouncing up and down near them, clapping his hands too, though not in time with the music, in acute danger of getting bowled over by the dancers. Too bad; the kid will survive. If, however, he pushes a tearful Rachel to the dancing area, that'll be the end of Lisa's time-off from life in general and Rachel in particular.

"Do you know how to do wheelies?" he asks.

"No-o?"

"But you've seen people do it."

"Yeah, in rehab, when I was small. There was a boy who did it all the time."

"You should be able to cross the grass if you tip back into a wheelie. Then your front castors won't get stuck."

He looks at the wheelchair. It'll be tight, but he'll fit. "Out you go, then I'll show you."

He knows he can do it: he can't remember the months he must have spent in a wheelchair after the infarction and the amputation, but he can remember only too well the first weeks in London after his memory-altering surgery, stuck in the psychiatric institution without a prosthetic, waiting for the NHS to supply him with a new one. (The one he'd had before the electroshock therapy had to be abandoned so that it — and he — wouldn't be traced back to the USA.)

So, he lifts Rachel out of the wheelchair onto the ground before lowering himself into her seat.

"Your legs are too long," Rachel says, distracted from her original agenda.

"I'll cope," he says, gripping the wheels and giving them a few experimental twists to get a feel for the wheelchair. Definitely better quality than the one in which he raced through the corridors of the Maudsley Hospital in London: it's basically a sports wheelchair with handles added so it can be pushed when needed. The wheels are big and slightly slanted to allow for quick manoeuvres and spins, and it's a lightweight chair. Doing a wheelie should be a doozy.

He scoots his buttocks back, grips the top of the wheels, and leans back until he can sense that the front castor wheels, though still on the ground, are free from weight. He holds the position for a moment to get the feel for it, then slowly readjusts his weight so that the castor wheels lift off the ground about half an inch. After counting to ten he lets himself down again. Rachel claps. He gives her a mock bow, then repeats the movement a few times, each time faster, lifting the front wheels higher. Finally he tries forward propulsion. This is the tricky part: turning the wheels forward with your hands without succumbing to the temptation of moving your upper torso forward too, away from the equilibrium state that keeps the castor wheels up.

Once he's sure he has his balance completely under control, he propels the chair off the path onto the grass, only stopping and reversing again when he has covered roughly ten yards. Rachel's admiration would be balm to a more wounded soul than his. He vacates the chair and lifts her back into it again, saying, "Your turn." Lisa will probably kill him for teaching her kid wheelies, but that can't be helped.

After about twenty minutes of practice, with him behind the wheelchair to stop it from tipping over, Rachel can get her weight off the front wheels, but she finds it hard to lift them off the ground without losing her balance.

"I can't do it!" she complains.

She's not exactly your poster girl for motor skills. If she were, she'd have been bumping down stairs long ago. Still, it's not a lost cause.

"It'll take a while," he admits, "but if you can do it, then you can go down curbs by yourself and possibly even stairs."

The band is having a break (hopefully a long one), there's muzak from the loudspeaker to fill the silence, and Lisa, Wilson, and Joel join them. Wilson is wiping his brow looking winded, Lisa seems relaxed, and Joel is hungry.

"'Na-nana," Joel says, sounding like a Minion.

"Right," Wilson says. "Your master hurries to be at your service. Let's have something to eat."

Pete opts to skip the family meal, wandering around in the hope of finding something hot, greasy, and spicy. There's little chance of finding beer on the grounds of Mayfield, but a cool, sugar-loaded soda wouldn't be bad either. Once his basic needs have been met, he returns to where the others are finishing their frugal repast.

Wilson is digging around in Joel's changing bag looking frantic. "House, I'm sure I packed a book for Joel. Have you seen it?"

"Fox in Socks?" Pete asks, sinking down ungracefully on the blanket. What's wrong with a picnic table, he wonders.

"Yes."

"I tossed it."

"You … what?"

"Beastly boring book in bag,
Beastly boring book in bin.
Book in bin,
Greg with grin,
" Pete recites.

"Wow, that rhymes!" Rachel crows.

Wilson is somewhat less impressed. "Grim Jim wipes grin off Greg's chin. That rhymes too." Turning to Pete he asks, "How am I supposed to put Joel to sleep without the book?"

"With his nap-time bottle?" Pete suggests with his best 'duh' look.

"He's eighteen months old, for heaven's sake! I've weaned him off the darn bottle."

"Plain case of teat envy," Pete postulates. "You're pissed that you don't have a tit to suck on."

"Boys!" Lisa reprimands them, but without heat. "Where did you toss the book, Pete?"

"In a trash can over …" Where exactly? He looks around, trying to remember which part of the park Joel and he had come from when they joined the others. It's hopeless; he wasn't paying attention to where he was going while talking to Nolan. He finally comes up with, "There was a ball pit nearby."

Rachel jiggles up and down in the wheelchair. "Wilson, I know where the ball pit is. I can show you!"

"Okay," Wilson says, rising. "We'll find the book while House puts Joel down for his nap."

There's no doubt about who is getting the better deal. Joel moans, whines, and wriggles around, tired to the bone but unable to drop off. A sip of beer would solve the problem, but of course there's no beer to be had for love or money.

"Give him to me," Lisa finally says, "and go away. You make everyone around you fidgety."

He hands the squirming bundle to Lisa and walks a short distance away. Lisa lies down on the blanket, tucks Joel close to her body, and croons in his hair. It takes a while, but Lisa is obdurate and Joel finally nods off, thumb in mouth. So, apparently does Lisa, because when he creeps back again, her breathing is even and her eyes are closed. He looks down at her frowning, then he picks up her purse. When he opens the zipper her eyes fly open.

"What are you doing?"

"Going through your purse," he says, "obviously!"

She props herself on one elbow, observing him. "Why are you going through my purse? I'm not one of your patients. … Pete, I'm fine! Quit obsessing! Don't go through my things, don't hack my medical files, don't terrorise my therapist, who doesn't deserve having to deal with you as well as me, and … just don't!"

When he ignores her she huffs. "Look, I'm tired to the bone because I hardly slept last night, wondering whether to hand in my resignation, and then drafting it, that's all. Quitting my job isn't something that has come out of the blue, hitting me over the head with a two-by-four. This is planned. I'm doing it deliberately in full knowledge of the consequences. Now shut up and go away! I want to sleep. And wake me in half an hour, otherwise I'll be unbearable the whole afternoon."

So he goes to a nearby picnic table from where he can observe the sleeping pair — let no one accuse him of leaving the runt unsupervised — and empties Lisa's purse out on the table. (She said he should leave; she didn't say he shouldn't take her purse with him, and it's safer with him than with her, where any passing thief can snag it.) Its contents are uninspiring. No medication, nothing. The call list on her phone is unremarkable.

Someone sits down opposite him. He looks up, ready to chase the intruder away with a well-placed insult.

Nolan smiles in greeting. "James asked me to tell you that he has found the book, but that it's covered in trash, so you're to buy a new one at Barnes and Nobles on the way back. And he's taking Rachel to the chess competition in the main hall."

"Since when do you play messenger boy?"

"Whenever it amuses me to do so."

"Should a therapist sow dissent among his patients?"

"I'm retiring. Neither of you is my patients any longer, so I'm free to jerk you around as much as I please," Nolan says with an impish grin. "From now on, Greg, it's tit for tat."

Pete spreads the contents of Lisa's purse — cell phone, keys, pen, wallet (he hasn't gone through the wallet yet, but the last time he did, its contents were boring), lipstick, powder case, tampon, emery board, tissues, sales slips — and sorts the items alphabetically. Nolan purses his lips, glancing from Lisa to him and back again.

"How's Dr Cuddy?" he asks.

"Physically? Fine. Liver's been given the okay."

He could also sort the things by colour or size. That would make more sense than sorting them alphabetically, because an alphabetical order is related to the language in which one names the objects, not to the nature of the objects themselves. Alternately, he could order them according to use or usefulness, although 'usefulness' is not an objective category any more than alphabetical order is. Colour it is then.

"And mentally?"

"She says she's fine in every respect."

"But you don't believe her."

"I …" Pete hesitates over the wallet, which has a multi-coloured pattern. It could go with green or with purple. "How would you define 'fine' in terms of mental health?"

"The ability to cope with the demands of everyday life?" Nolan postulates.

"Check." Pete looks up from his sifting and sorting. "That's all?"

"It's a starting point. What would you say?" Nolan asks, steepling his fingers.

"I'm asking you."

"Then, having human connections, a social network."

"Check." She has Wilson, Rachel, the curtain climber (though he doesn't really count yet, being barely beyond the invertebrate stage), and Julia.

"Happiness," Nolan offers next.

Pete places the purse on his lap and rakes the contents inside.

"You believe she isn't happy," Nolan says/asks/states.

He doesn't believe it; he knows it.

"Is that your fault?" Nolan asks.

He shakes his head slowly. "I … don't know," he finally says. "I don't think so."

If he's in any way to blame, it's for of sins of omission, not sins of commission — or so he hopes. Perhaps he should have warned her that closing an eye (or two, as it were) to Chase's issues would wreck her career. He'd seen it coming; one look at the situation in that hospital after Ryan Andrews took over as dean had shown him that the power distribution was in flux, with Lisa on the edge of a vortex. Maybe he should have put the thumbscrews on Chase and made him seek treatment. But he hadn't considered Chase to be his problem: he could work with Chase either way, and when drunk, Chase was more amenable to being manipulated than when sober. (Chances are that Lisa would have gotten fired any which way.) Then there's something about the whole Chris Clark episode that fills him with unease, even though he can't put his finger on the source or nature of his suspicions. And maybe, just maybe, he should have taken the whole matter of finding a new career for Lisa into his own hands instead of leaving it to Wilson, who is so busy staying in tune with his feminine, maternal side that he has lost his bite.

"Then why make it your problem?" Nolan asks.

Now that is a really good question, though he has no intention of telling Nolan so. The answer is surprisingly simple; nevertheless, it takes him a moment to overcome his unwillingness to verbalise it. "Because ... I want her to be happy."

Nolan, equally surprisingly, lets that answer stand uncommented. Pete, who has been staring at Lisa asleep on the blanket, turns to look at him. He's aware of Nolan's low opinion of Lisa, though the psychiatrist has never voiced it. She manages to rub a surprising number of people the wrong way simply by being Lisa. "Isn't this where you advise me to let well be and stay out of trouble, as in, stay away from Lisa Cuddy?"

"As I mentioned earlier I'm not your therapist any longer, and I never give advice to friends. I've found that the secret to keeping the few friends that I have lies in not telling them what to do."

"So you'll allow me to take the road to hell in all amicability."

"If that's what you want to do, I'll support you in any way I can."

"And say, 'I told you so,' when it all goes down the drain."

"Should it 'go down the drain', I'll be there to pick you up and dust you off," Nolan corrects him gently.

Pete can't help grinning. "So the difference between patients and friends is that you coerce your patients while you manipulate your friends."

Nolan smiles a slow, lazy smile as he rises. "Takes a thief to catch a thief, Greg. I'll leave you to it. I have a few more hands to shake and backs to pat."

Pete returns to the picnic blanket and lowers himself carefully. Joel has turned onto his back with his hands on either side of his head, a light sheen on his forehead. Lisa is still curled up on her side facing Joel with one hand under her cheek. When the half hour that she set him is up, he plucks a long blade of grass. A better man would gently nudge her shoulder or maybe brush the hair aside from her forehead. He tickles her under the nose with the grass. Her nose wrinkles in automatic reaction, her face puckers up, and she sneezes. She sits up slowly, flinching when she becomes aware of his proximity. He chews on the blade of grass pretending innocence. She leans forward to take a bottle of water out of the picnic hamper, giving him a decent view of her cleavage.

He watches her throat move as she swallows the water, the pharyngeal muscles contracting sequentially. "What are you going to do about a job?"

She puts the bottle down. "I don't know yet," she says, twisting the lid to and fro.

"Did you do your yoga session this morning?" he asks, assessing her tenseness.

"Which part of 'staying awake all night and writing resignation letters' didn't you get?" she enquires snappishly.

Definitely wound up. "Surya namaskar," he orders.

She stares at him incredulously. "What, do yoga here?"

"No one's watching and no one cares. This place is full of nut-jobs; people will think you're another one and look away politely. First pose: Tadasana." She continues to glare at him, so he extracts the water bottle and lid from her hands and gives her a nudge. "Hop; up you go. Get cracking!"

She gets up and tentatively takes the first pose of the sun salutation.

"Breathe," he reminds her. Imitating her psycho yoga instructor he intones in a monotonous voice, "Urdhva Hastasana."

She brings her arms out to the side and joins her hands above her head, leaning back into the pose. He nods his satisfaction to no one in particular, pacing himself as he guides her from pose to pose. (Her yoga instructor always kicked him out of the living area during yoga sessions, but there's limited privacy in a house with an open-floor layout.) After a few poses he has slipped into an easy rhythm, relaxing as he watches her through half-closed eyes. He lies back on the blanket, his hands folded under his head, enjoying the warmth, the peace, the unhurried, fluid motion next to him as Lisa completes the sun salutation. Without hesitation he guides her through a workout that ... what exactly? From where does he know that workout? It isn't the one her yoga teacher uses, but it comes naturally to him, and from the looks of it Lisa knows it too.

Lisa ends the routine with the Savasana pose and stretches. "Thanks," she says quietly.

He fidgets, finally asking, "Did we used to do this when we were ...?"

She sighs, avoiding his gaze, as she always does when the past comes up. (While Wilson refers to The Past with a mix of nostalgia and exasperation, Lisa prefers not to look back.) "You'd watch while I did my morning session — if you'd stayed the night and were up in time. And yeah, those poses were my morning routine at the time, in case you were wondering."

He nods.

She sits with her arms loosely clasped around her knees. "I'd like to ... take a break. Go on vacation. Not think about work for a few weeks."

It's the first sensible thought she's had ever since Philadelphia Central collapsed around her head. He refrains from pointing this out, however.

"Where do you want to go?"

"I've always wanted to see Cambodia," she says dreamily. "Or Venice."

"So what's to stop you?"

She gives him a nasty look. "Last time I checked, I had a daughter."

"Leave her here. With Wilson." Who can indulge in a last bout of surrogate parenting before he moves to Boston to be with Melanie, the rising star of teen fantasy lit.

"I can't leave Rachel, not when she's upset and vulnerable."

He's inclined to tell her that Rachel's mindset isn't likely to change anytime soon, not with her slowly catching on that life has screwed her over big time and with puberty approaching in giant steps, but that would serve no purpose. Lisa needs a short-term perspective, not a long-term vista of suffering and horror. "Take her with you. It'll solve the school problem in one fell swoop: she can't attend classes because you're taking her on an 'educational' trip."

"Yeah, that'll be fun!" Lisa says sarcastically. "Which do you think is more wheelchair friendly, a Venetian gondola or the Killing Fields?"

He busies himself getting the box of samosas out of the picnic basket while he wonders how to phrase what he's going to say next.

"I'd go along," he says tentatively.

She twists around to stare at him.

"Not on a gondola," he hastens to clarify, although an unbidden memory surfaces: Lisa in a rowing boat on Bristol's backwaters, trailing her hand in the water, her head thrown back, laughing at something he said. "Just to help out with the logistics of transferring the kid from one location to another and getting the sightseeing done."

Lisa blinks, once, twice, and then a third time. "So what's the catch? You don't do 'no strings attached' deals," she finally says.

"More like chains than strings," he mutters through a mouthful of samosa. Chain. Ball and chain. Odd, where subconscious associations will take you. When she raises a questioning eyebrow he says, "You've gotta put up with me. I'd say that's a major drawback."

"Why would you offer? What's in it for you?"

"Can't it be me being nice? I'm a helpful guy."

She kneels in front of him, moving into his personal space. "What are you trying to do: keep me away from Wilson or from Joel? What's your agenda?"

"You wrong me!" he says with mock pathos (although in truth he is a little hurt).

When she merely lifts an enquiring eyebrow he elaborates, "I don't need to keep you away from Wilson. He's so busy screwing Melanie that if we don't watch out, he'll get stuck in her. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Not so metaphorically speaking, he'll move there if I don't stop him."

She rocks back on her heels, visibly shocked. "He's thinking of moving away?"

"It's the only explanation for Wilson's guilt-fuelled paternal binge with Rachel. Wilson is thinking of moving away, and he's aware that he's the closest thing to a father figure that Rachel has. But not to worry: I'm fixing that. I have Melanie's number. Wilson won't be going anywhere."

"Like you 'fixed' the problem at Rachel's school," Lisa says with foreboding.

"Yeah, roughly. I'm gonna make Melanie an offer she can't refuse," he says, imitating Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

He'll call Melanie and inform her in no uncertain terms that it's possible to write vampire tales from anywhere in the country, including Philadelphia, and that he, James's/Jimmy's/Jim's spouse, will take umbrage if she should encourage James/Jimmy/Jim to move his primary residence to any place outside the confines of Philadelphia, PA. That's the kind of thing he's good at: making people face up to the choices they've made. Rachel's headmaster chose to appropriate scholarships for underprivileged kids in order to finance his science wing. Melanie chose to fuck a married man. That's their bad, not his.

Lisa shudders theatrically. "You're creeping me out." And as an afterthought, "Someone should warn Melanie."

"You think anyone will profit from Wilson moving to Boston?" he asks her seriously.

"It would suck — for us, Rachel and me. You couldn't care less where he lives as long as the place has an international airport."

That's wrong on so many levels that he doesn't even know where to start. For one, if he wanted to see her, he'd have to divide his US time between Boston and Philly. For another, it would upset her to lose Wilson; she's gotten used to having him around.

"Hello? Are you still with me?" Lisa asks, flapping a hand in front of his face.

He realises that he hasn't refuted her logic except in his mind. He shakes his head to clear it before saying, "I've kinda gotten attached to the steps that lead from your deck into the yard. And I need the creak of the swing set to fall asleep at night."

"Oh, puh-lease! You're acting like a cross between a Mafia don and Bob the Builder. There has to be a reason, as someone I know likes to say."

"Maybe it's my way of thanking you for helping with the kid." He nods at Joel, still blissfully asleep.

Lisa takes a deep breath. "That's sweet of you — but don't bother," she says. "I'm not sure I can deal with your particular brand of gratitude."

He leans forward and plucks a stray leaf out of her hair. "Maybe I enjoy being here," he says, examining it. Zelkova serrata, Japanese Zelkova. He looks up to find her regarding him through narrowed eyes.

"Are you flirting with me?"

He gives her a lopsided grin. (She sure took a long time to catch on.) "And if I was, would you mind?"

Now it's her turn to rummage through the picnic basket, her head practically immersed in it. Her voice is muffled. "Like in Paris? I'd love a reprise! 'Fool me twice' and all that."

Crap, he'd forgotten Paris, storing it on his hard disk in the folder labelled 'To be deleted' and generally pretending to himself that it hadn't happened. (Besides, it was small fry compared to drugging and kidnapping Wilson to get him into hospital for cancer treatment or dumping a changeling on him.) "Lisa, I —"

"Don't!" she says sharply, extracting her head from the basket. "We're good like this. It's working. Just let it rest!"

He can practically see the crack between them widening into an unbridgeable chasm unless he does something to stop its progress. The easy camaraderie of the last weeks, the give-and-take, the teasing — it'll all be over if she withdraws into her shell and gives up on him. He should have had it out with her about Paris ages ago. But that's not who he is; he much prefers sitting situations out, waiting for them to go away. "Paris was —"

"I know what Paris was. You were on a roll and I was collateral damage. I get that. But I'm not getting involved with you again. We work better like this: no emotions; no stress."

He catches hold of her hand. "I can do better; I know I can."

She freezes in the act of withdrawing her hand, an odd look on her face.

"Yeah," he says, not relinquishing his hold and caressing her knuckles with his thumb. "Paris was crap in every respect, but I've been trying."

And he has; since spring he's been attempting to prove, not to her but to himself, that he is more than the sum of his fuck-ups. That he can get a handle on this parenting thing if necessary. That if Wilson should die, he'll be in a position to take over and get the critter through childhood and adolescence. And if he can do that, he can do anything.

Lisa's expression is still frozen. Acquiescence looks different.

"Besides, you owe me a chance," he points out.

"I ... do?" she says, looking uncertain and rattled.

"You ratted me out to Wilson, told him Joel was my kid without giving me a chance to tell him myself. Shoved me up shit creek without a paddle." He doubts that anything would have changed if Lisa had waited for him to 'fess up, but there's no harm in playing her guilt complex.

"Oh, that!" Lisa says, relaxing visibly and looking down at her hand in his.

"What did you think I meant?" he asks, interested by her reaction.

She shakes her head. "Doesn't matter. Doesn't make a difference." She withdraws her hand and rises, turning away from him. "You don't want ... me. You said so yourself."

Empathy isn't his strongest point, but that doesn't mean other people's feelings don't register. Lisa is emanating hurt and low self-esteem in tsunami-size waves. Some of that is down to that god-awful mother of hers, but he's painfully aware of how their break-up after the Ghastly Gala at PPTH and his subsequent avoidance of her affected her. He gets up too.

"Lisa," he says slowly and with emphasis, "it's never been about not wanting you. It's always been about not wanting to be me."

"Then what has changed?" she asks, whirling around to face him, her hands on her hips. "You've been giving me a wide berth for years, so something must have changed. You always have a reason."

It's a legit question, one he'd have asked if he was in her place. He scratches his chin. "Whether I'm with you or not doesn't change who I am."

"You don't want to be reminded of who you were, if I remember correctly. Don't want to be confronted with your past."

He sighs. He hates it when he has to explain himself. "I don't like certain parts of my past."

"The parts that include me."

"The parts that include me doing horrible stuff to you," he corrects her. "Being Peter Barnes was great: no regrets, no major fuck-ups. Not a stellar bloke, but not bad shakes either. But he was a lie; Peter Barnes doesn't exist. I'm Greg House, whether I like it or not: the guy who topped a major relationship fiasco with a violent rampage. An epic fail, with a capital F. ... But if Pete Barnes doesn't exist, then the guy you flirted with in Bristol, who took you to pubs and rowing and sightseeing, with whom you went dancing — that one is Greg House too. Greg House isn't all bad."

He tips up her chin so that she has to look at him. "You said it's all about shades of grey and that Joel can work with a D. Can you work with a D? Because that's what it boils down to: an occasional B, mostly Cs and Ds, and every now and then an F. It's never going to average out to an A."

She looks at him doubtfully, skittishly. He's reminded of Joel who, having taken an involuntary plunge into the deep end of the swimming pool during one of his lessons, now hesitates at the edge of the pool before going into the water, scared and eager at the same time. So far no one, not even Wilson, has suggested that Joel should opt out of swimming altogether. The comparison holds in more than one way, he figures. Lisa, too, once dived into deceptively calm water, only to be pulled down by the undercurrents. She knows the dangers now, while he has grown shallower, more translucent.

"What's in it for you?" she asks him.

He considers looking her up and down with a leer, but drops the idea. She's too tired and rattled for cruder brands of humour. Instead, he releases her chin in order to pull her close and bury his nose in her hair.

"You smell nice," he murmurs.

She laughs breathlessly. "That's not a reason."

"It's a very good reason," he contradicts her, his hand moving up her spine to caress her shoulder blades. "If we're to spend whole nights together it's a prime consideration. I can close my eyes, I can use earplugs, but I can't stop breathing."

"Wait! How did we get from 'flirting' to 'staying overnight'?" she asks, leaning back in his arm so she can get a good look at him. (She's getting far-sighted in her old age.)

He can't help grinning. "I'm not much good at flirting and dating, and you like putting out."

"So this is about sex."

"It's always about sex or about money. Since neither of us has much money, it has to be sex."

He underlines his words by allowing one of his hands to stray to her butt and cop a feel. She tugs it away with a surreptitious look around her, saying, "You sure know how to romance a girl."

"You don't want romance. You go for a certain type: people like Douglas and Clark — and me. Pushy, pig-headed, lacking in boundaries. The difference between them and me is, they won't put up with your crap. I can and I will. They leave and they don't come back. I will."

She stares at him for ten long seconds, frowning slightly. (Maybe brutal honesty is the wrong strategy.) Then she sighs, leans her forehead on his chest, and says, "Okay."

"Okay?" he echoes, perplexed.

"Yeah." His shirt muffles her voice. "That's probably the most romantic thing you've ever said to me."


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