readingrat: (words_can_hurt)
[personal profile] readingrat

Length:   ~ 14 k
Genre:    general
Rating:   Teen and up
Setting:  pre-series, 1989 or so, University of Michigan
Characters:   Greg House, some Lisa Cuddy
Pairings:   none
Warning:  no romance!
Summary:   We all know that history repeats itself, but — every week? Greg House, a sub-stellar medical student, finds himself stuck in the week of his endocrinology exam with no way out. A tribute to Groundhog Day.

Many thanks to [ profile] menolly_au for valuable input and for betaing my efforts.

The first time it happens, Greg assumes that he's having a bad trip. Still, the feeling of déjà vu is disconcertingly intensive and the experience lacks the dream-like frenzy of previous drug-induced hallucinations. It's not a roller coaster ride straight to hell; it's more like a long, wearisome trek up a slope with a mild gradient, at the top of which you realize that you are still as far removed from your goal as when you set out, separated from it by countless rolling hills and gently dipping vales.

The ordeal that descends upon him is so well camouflaged that he fails to recognize the harbingers: his alarm clock playing ‘Satisfaction’ just like it did a week ago, the steady patter of rain on the window pane even though yesterday's weather forecast predicted unmitigated sunshine, the clatter of Mark puttering around in the kitchen before noon, the mouth-watering smell of a cooked breakfast. The latter is . . . unusual, because Mark restricts cooked breakfasts to times of tribulation, such as exam periods.

Like last week.

Greg waits until Mick Jagger has finished moaning about not getting laid (Get a life, Mick, you aren’t the only one!) before turning off the alarm. He squints at the red numerals. Fucking nine a.m.? What bug bit him last night that he set his alarm to nine? He doesn’t have anything planned for the day — unless one counts ‘packing up one’s stuff’ and ‘looking for a new life’, neither of which he's desperate to do.

All things considered, he is sure that he didn't set the alarm. He doesn’t set it by rote, and last night he'd gotten so plastered that finding his way home and into his own bed had been a challenge. He didn’t contemplate getting up at all the next day. Nine o’clock is his waking hour when he's on the verge of a major life crisis, not when the crisis has already rolled over him, leaving him broken and retching on the shattered planks of his former aspirations.

He idly picks up the alarm clock and examines it. It has passed its heyday; it’s time for their ways to part, especially if it insists on rousing him at an unearthly hour of its own accord. He'll gift it to Mark when he leaves for . . . wherever. The thought reminds him that he has to tell Mark to find a new housemate. He shuffles into the kitchen, wondering why he isn't nauseated by the smell of eggs, bacon, and pancakes. He can’t remember much of last night, except for alcohol in such quantities that he should be nursing a hangover from hell — which he isn’t.

Regardless, he is massively irritated by Mark's cheerful rendition of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. It hasn't improved one jot since the last time he heard Mark sing it, maybe a week ago.

A week ago, like the Stones song on the radio?

He shoves the thought aside as he grunts at Mark to shut it or sing something decent instead. Mark, instead of ceasing his caterwauling, sways and weaves through the kitchen, nodding towards a chair while he piles a plate with food for Greg. It’s all queasily like last week, right down to the egg with the runny yolk.

"What's the occasion?" Greg asks, poking a slice of bacon with his fork instead of impaling and eating it. His appetite has vanished, displaced by a vague premonition.

"Exams?" Mark half asks, half states. "Need plenty of calories and proteins and saturated fats if I'm to survive till Friday. You too. You may have only one exam this exam period, but you not only need to survive, you need to pass your damn endocro ... endorco-ology exam, if you don't want to get expelled."

Mark is referring to the letter that Greg received from the Dean’s office a few weeks ago. Mark often refers to that letter; Greg equally often regrets having shown it to him in a vulnerable moment. The letter is long, because it contains a detailed record of Greg’s various failings and misdemeanors, and it is full of phrases such as ‘a deplorable academic record’, ‘lack of motivation’, ‘irregular attendance’, ‘recurring rudeness toward various members of the teaching staff’, and ‘repeated incidents of fraudulence pertaining to class assignments and project work’. It concludes with the threat of expulsion should Greg put as much as a toenail out of line, get caught cheating (once again), fail to hand in coursework on time, or fail another examination.

Mark said the same words last week (to no effect). Ignoring his repetitiveness, Greg focuses instead on correcting his misapprehension.

"Too late," he mumbles. "Endocrinology was last week. And I fucked it up."

That stops Mark dead in his tracks. "Wait, what? You took what's-it-called last week? How come I never . . . ?" He peers at the planner on the wall. "You put it down for this Friday. Was it re-scheduled?"

Greg swivels around to scrutinize the planner. "What day is it?" he asks.

"Tuesday," Mark says.

"Yeah, I got that. Which Tuesday?"

"The fifteenth."

"Oh." Greg digests this, scrubbing his face with the palms of his hands. Finally he says, "I . . . had a nightmare where I got caught cheating during the exam. Got expelled. A very realistic nightmare. Too realistic."

If the exam hasn’t taken place yet, then he must have dreamed it all: taking the exam, being called to the Dean’s office, being expelled.

"Crap," Mark says sympathetically. "Coffee?"

Greg nods, his heartbeat erratic, his brain in turmoil. On waking this morning he'd been convinced that his medical career had capsized and sunk to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, but now? He's both relieved and apprehensive. His memories of the past week appear to be a figment of his overloaded brain, but there's no guarantee that he’ll fare any better in the week ahead than in his vivid nightmare. Considering that he knows next to nothing about endocrinology, it's a fair bet that his subconscious predicted the outcome of the exam and the subsequent interview in the Dean's office with accuracy.

"So, what's your plan?" Mark asks once Greg is duly caffeinated. Mark tends to hover and worry, which irritates Greg no end, but it's impossible to get Mark to put a lid on it and get on with his own life. Does Greg ask him how he intends to pass Advanced Statistics? No, he doesn't.

He’s too rattled to evade Mark, so he says, "I, uh, sit next to a hard-working chick and copy off her paper."

There isn't much else he can do. The exam is in three days, and even if he had attended classes regularly (which he hadn’t) or had the slightest clue of the subject matter (which he hasn’t), he doesn’t have enough time to revise successfully. He has no notes and he isn’t strong on revising anyway.

"I suppose that might work," Mark says doubtfully.

"It will," Greg says. "There's always some gal with a soft spot for bad boys."

"And if you get caught?"

"I won't."

In his dream he'd gotten caught, but didn’t that always happen in nightmares? He's much too devious to get caught in real life. Besides, in his nightmare he'd cheated off the guy seated next to him — a naïve strategy. Guys are much too competitive to help their fellow sufferers. Heck, he'd never help anyone who was stupid enough to maneuver himself into a tight spot.

"You know," Mark says, "I really don't get why you chose medicine. You couldn't care less about it and you're not . . ." He breaks off, flushing with embarrassment.

Greg obligingly completes his sentence. ". . . not smart enough. Yeah, I know." He pushes his half-eaten breakfast aside.

"You could be if you tried," Mark says, trying to salvage the conversation.

"News flash, Mark! Not everyone gets to be an astronaut and fly to the moon."

He’d chosen medicine because it was guaranteed to please his mother while pissing his father off big time. His dad hates doctors. There's no logical explanation for his animosity; he has no history of disease nor is he the victim of medical malpractice, so Greg figures that one of his mother's lovers must've been a doctor. Maybe it was his biological father — although Greg rather suspects his dad’s best friend, a military chaplain, of having that dubious honor. Still, he isn't about to tell Mark that he fucked up his life big time just to spite his dad, so he mumbles something about underestimating the brain-melting stupidity of medical school.

"You could at least try!" Mark almost yells.

Actually, he did — in the beginning, before it became obvious that he was way out of his depth. No amount of cockiness can disguise that he's much too slow a learner to keep up with the mad pace at med school.

Still, the shock of the morning sits too deep for him to hang around the apartment boozing and smoking dope like he'd done in the dream, so he takes off for the library with the noble intention of drowning himself in information. Unfortunately he doesn't really know where to start. The gaps in his knowledge are veritable abysses; browsing through a few textbooks won't bridge them. He scans the reading room in search of a clue on how to tackle the problem.

He spots a few vaguely familiar students at a neighboring table. Yes, he's sure that two of them were in his endocrinology class: a vivacious brunette whom he mentally dubbed 'Miss Overachiever' because she took notes frantically and frequently asked the lecturer to expand on obscure points, and next to her the brash blond frat boy who puts Greg's teeth on edge simply by existing. He can't place the second girl, a mousey type. Greg picks a random book off the shelf and walks past the group, pretending to be heading toward an empty seat at a far table.

"Symptoms of thyroid storm?" he hears Brash Boy ask. Miss Overachiever answers something that makes no sense whatsoever to Greg, but earns her nods of approval from both her companions.

A study group, Greg surmises. Miss Overachiever is exactly the person he needs to put his plan of cheating into practice; he flashes her a smile as he passes the table, so she'll remember him when he seats himself next to her during the exam. He'll have to keep an eye on her so he can follow her to the cafeteria later and get her a cup of coffee.

Sitting down at a table with a clear view of his victim, he opens the book he brought as a screen. Opposite him a guy with glasses and frizzy hair glances up before returning to his studies. Greg fidgets around until Frizzy Head gives an impatient huff.

"Could you be bored somewhere else, please?"

Greg is about to say something about the library being there for everyone — the lazy, the bored, and the dumb — when he's struck by an idea. "Say, you know the symptoms of thyroid storm?"

Frizzy Head pushes his glasses up his nose. "One, I'm not studying for exams; I’ve been done with that for years, thank God! Two, a fucking pre-med could answer your question. Three, if you don't have anything useful to contribute to the problem of what presents as scurvy, but isn't scurvy, I suggest you jiggle your legs and tap the table somewhere else."

"Looks like scurvy, but isn't scurvy," Greg repeats. "Is that a riddle?"

"The kind where, if no one finds the answer, someone dies. In this case, my patient. So shut up or scram!"

He follows the latter recommendation, loitering in the library cafeteria in the hope that the brunette student will appear. She doesn't, which means that he has wasted most of the day with nothing to show for it. He should have approached her in the library saying something like, ‘Hey, don't I know you from Rounceville's class?’ and gotten into a casual conversation from there — but he doesn't do casual.

The next two days pass in a similar manner. He hangs out in the library, smiles at the brunette whenever he sees her there (and at the Grey Mouse too, as a backup plan), but hesitates to approach either of them. They seem so . . . self-contained, so little in need of contact with him of all people, that accosting them seems presumptuous.

On Friday he enters the examination hall with trepidation. His plan to cheat off Miss Overachiever, which appeared foolproof while in the making, strikes him as optimistic and amateurish now that it's his only option. His feet drag to the extent that he's one of the last to enter the hall, and for a long moment he worries that all the seats around his target will be taken already. But he's lucky: she has opted for a spot in the front near the supervisor's desk, while everyone else drifts toward the back (which is what he, too, would be doing if his plans didn't involve her). He slides into the seat to her left and gives her a grin that's meant to convey intimacy. She gives him a cool nod before returning her attention to the notes spread out before her.

He considers further options. The girl on his other side is chewing gum and filing her nails with a bored expression. Her studied indifference could be an act; she might be brimming with knowledge that’s on the verge of spilling out onto her exam paper. He flashed her a smile too — Plan B, and all that — which she reciprocates with an annoyed eye-roll. Since her heart is not about to melt into a puddle at his feet, he returns his attention to Miss Overachiever.

"Well prepared?" he asks, because that’s the kind of question Mark would ask.

She huffs without looking up. "I don't think I understood what he said about diagnosing pheochromocytoma. Shouldn't elevated metanephrine levels validate the diagnosis?"

He has no idea, so he nods.

She flips through her notes. "Then why did Rounceville say that . . .?"

Whatever their professor said on the subject is forgotten as the supervisor calls for everyone to be seated and to remove all textbooks, notes, etc. from the vicinity of their desks. Miss Overachiever lines up a selection of pens and pencils on her desk and stares ahead in concentration while the papers are distributed. Then, when they are told to begin, she flips the paper over and starts reading the questions, her brow furrowed. Greg follows suit. He doesn't expect enlightenment from reading the paper, but he needs to figure out which questions to focus on and how many he needs to answer correctly in order to pass. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to solve a few of them by himself without having to apply to his neighbor.

He has read about half the paper when he realizes that there's something very, very wrong: he knows the paper, every damn word of it! He has seen it all before, every stupid question right down to the final question mark. It is exactly the same paper as the one in his nightmare.

He sits staring at the question sheet, his palms clammy and his brain catatonic, for what seems like forever. Then he looks around furtively. Does anyone else seem fazed? No, all around him students are bowed over their desks scribbling like mad, pens scratching across the paper as though every word counted. Which it would if this was real.

But it can't be! If this was actually happening, then his fevered dreams predicted the exact wording of the questions in this exam. The mind may work in mysterious ways, but there’s no way he in his abysmal ignorance could subconsciously have crafted an entire exam paper.

There’s only one possible explanation for his prescience: last week was real; this week is a horrible dream. He intends to wake up from it as soon as possible.

He pinches the back of his hand, but to no avail. Then he tries the inside of his arm where the skin is tender. No success; he's still stuck in the hall surrounded by sweating students and the stink of despair. This is ridiculous! He picks up his ballpoint and jams it into his thigh, but his jeans absorb the brunt of the thrust. Other than a blue mark on his jeans and potentially a small bruise on his thigh, his status remains unaltered.

Desperate times require desperate measures: he reaches across to his neighbor's desk, takes one of her superbly sharpened pencils, and as she swivels her head towards him in amazed protest he rams the point into his right leg as hard as he can. The point slides easily through the cloth of his pants, punctures his skin, and delves into the muscle of his thigh. The pain is so exquisite that he can't suppress a short, sharp grunt, but contrary to his expectation, the room doesn't dissolve. If anything, it becomes clearer, every sound magnified, the colors and contours heightened. The pencil is stuck in his thigh, while the blood that is welling up around it stains his jeans. The girl next to him is rigid with shock. He grins at her, pulls the pencil out, and repeats the procedure on his other leg. Something has to give, and it won't be him! (Besides, this isn’t really happening, so he can self-harm as much as he likes.)

"Excuse me, we need some help here!" he hears Miss Overachiever call. When he pulls the pencil out of his thigh this time, he feels slightly nauseated.

"Are you okay?" The supervisor is looming over him, looking confused and challenged.

"Absolutely peachy," he growls.

"Jesus!" the supervisor breathes when he realizes what Greg has done to himself.

"I think he needs a break," Miss Overachiever suggests in a tone that brooks no contradiction.

"Right! . . . Why don't you come over here and have a glass of water?" the supervisor asks, gesturing toward a water dispenser in the corner of the hall.

Greg rises, pretending to stumble in pain so that he can drop to his knees next to the bag of the bubble gum chewer. While pushing himself upright again he slips a hand into her purse and extracts the nail file that she dropped into it when the exam commenced. In a few quick strides he crosses over to an electrical outlet in the wall and sticks the nail file straight into one of the holes.

Mark, visiting him in the hospital on Monday afternoon, kindly brings him the university's letter of expulsion. And on Tuesday he wakes, not in the hospital bed, but in his own bed with the radio playing ‘Satisfaction’.

After another dozen 'rounds' he is finally convinced that he is stuck in a rut. The parameters vary depending on whether he attempts the exam, cheats on it, sits there doodling idly, or simply plays hooky, but the net result is always the same: on Monday he gets expelled, on Tuesday at nine a.m. the cycle recommences. Staying up all night on Monday doesn’t help; sooner or later he has something akin to a blackout and finds himself waking up on Tuesday morning — the previous Tuesday morning. (Or would that be the Tuesday morning of X weeks ago?) How he cheats or whom he cheats off makes no difference; he always gets caught. And when he doesn’t cheat, he invariably fails the paper.

The other constant in the equation is the obliviousness of his fellow sufferers. Everyone around him seems unaware of the eternal repetition of a week in their existence. That only allows for one conclusion: it's all taking place in his brain. He has discarded the 'dream' theory, because other than the surreal element of repetitiveness there's nothing dreamlike about his experience. Between Tuesday and the following Monday there are no jumps in time, place, or circumstances, and he is subject to all the usual bodily constraints, right down to taking dumps.

Perhaps he's in a coma or suffering from a complex delusion. He spends a few ‘cycles’ (as he calls the repetitive week) in the library researching mental diseases and brain injury. Frizzy Head shows signs of irritation when Greg, carrying an enormous pile of books, descends on his corner table and occupies the lion's share of it, so Greg withdraws to a secluded nook of the library. He emerges only when hunger or exhaustion force him to the cafeteria or bed respectively. His hideout is nowhere near the medical section, being right in the middle of foreign languages, so he has to plunder the medical section and carry his booty through half the library. He never bothers returning books to their shelves; they are returned as if by magic on Monday night, so that he has to get them again on Tuesday.

A few weeks of research in the neurological section serve to dispel any vestiges of optimism. If Greg has a brain injury and is lying in a coma, then he's screwed, stuck in limbo with no way of freeing himself. His only chance of redemption lies in the diagnosis he'd rather not entertain: mental disease.

Since he can't stand shrinks it goes against the grain to consult a psychiatrist. The first two don't want to prescribe meds without attempting therapy sessions first, but he doesn't have the patience for such crap. Talking won’t solve his problem. The next cycle he fakes a referral stating that he has participated in months of therapy with no sign of improvement, upon which he gets a scrip for the 'good' stuff.

"Remember, it takes about ten to fifteen days before you'll notice signs of improvement," the prescribing physician adjures him.

What are ten or so days in the never-ending cycle of life? he thinks as he pops double the recommended dosage just to be on the safe side.

There's just one small hitch: his time loop is shorter than the time needed for the medication to kick in. He wakes up on Tuesday morning to the Rolling Stones — and no pill bottle on his bedside table. There’s nothing he can do about it. He hides pills around the place, he slips an extra scrip into a library book, he tapes a pill box to his leg, but no matter what he does, Tuesday dawns pristine, untouched by his efforts to leave an imprint of his previous sojourns on it. He tries different meds and even electroshock therapy, he mixes and matches, he switches to herbal remedies. All is in vain. (Besides, he isn’t sure whether he’s really taking the pills or whether they too are a figment of his imagination. Any sign of physical adjustment to the medication disappears along with his pill bottles.)

In despair, he agrees to the therapy sessions that his psychiatrist is so keen on, and having decided to give it a try, he wants as much in as short a time as possible.

“I’m afraid I can only offer you one session a week,” his shrink says, studying his calendar, “since you say you’re not suicidal.”

“Suicide didn’t work, so I gave it up,” Greg explains.

“You attempted suicide?” the man asks carefully, giving Greg a hard, assessing stare.

“About twenty times.”

“Ah. . . . I think I can fit in another two sessions this week. Tell me about your suicide attempts.”

There isn’t much to say. Suicide is an epic fail in this universe.

“When I manage to off myself, I wake up on Tuesday morning like I always do.” With the notable exception that he has vivid memories of the last moments before his death: the sickening interval between leaping from the twentieth floor and hitting the ground, the claustrophobic horror of water filling his lungs as he drowns, the panicked seconds while he asphyxiates dangling at the end of a rope. “When it doesn’t work, I land in the ER, getting my stomach pumped, my bones set, or whatever.”

Basically, suicide plays out as a choice between accelerating the inevitable return of Tuesday —because he wakes there immediately when he ‘dies’ regardless of whether he orchestrated his demise on Monday — or spending part of the week in the hospital. Even the library is more attractive.

During the third session his shrink gets around to discussing the putative cause of his ‘condition’.

"So, this examination is central to your issues, the key element, so to say," he ruminates.

Not really. The key issue is getting expelled. The circle closes, so to say, the day Greg is summoned to the Dean's office to be told that he has no future at the University of Michigan. (If he doesn’t go, then the Dean’s office calls the apartment and persuades Mark, who is obsequious to the point of stupidity, to pick up the letter of expulsion.) But for all intents and purposes, failing the exam is identical to being expelled.

When Greg offers no audible comment the psychiatrist continues, "Suppose you were to pass the examination."

It's Friday afternoon, and this morning he was caught cheating (for the umpteenth time). The fraud opposite him knows that, because Greg told him about it. Therapy sucks: this guy is just humoring him, because there’s no way he believes Greg’s story — Greg wouldn’t believe it either if it weren’t happening to him.

"Next week, or the week after, or when?" Greg asks.

"I'd say it doesn't matter. Any one time." The man is smug as anything.

"I won't." Pigs might fly.

"Why not? What's to stop you from passing it, now that you know the questions and can prepare for them?"

Greg blinks. Pass the exam legitimately? He has attempted to pass it by cheating with increasing sophistication, but so far he hasn't tried preparing for it, because he only has three days between the beginning of the cycle and the exam . . . Oh god, but he's an idiot!

He rises, grabbing his backpack.

"I’ll see you on Wednesday," the shrink calls to him as he opens the door.

Oh no, he won’t! In the very unlikely event that Greg escapes his virtual imprisonment, he will never return. Ever.

He spends two cycles in the library, this time with the exam questions before his mind’s eye as he leafs through endocrinology books. Then he gives up once again.

"Suppose you had to pass my endocrinology exam," he says carefully to Mark, "and you had all the time in the world, how would you go about it?"

"I’d attend the lectures," Mark suggests, "and take notes."

Not helpful. That ship has sailed.

"Get the books on the reading list and work through them," Mark continues.

That's what he attempted the past two weeks, but the experience was dampening. He isn’t able to glean relevant bits of information from the plethora of facts, statistics, and definitions with which the books flood him. He can’t seem to filter or discard irrelevant chunks of information. At the rate he is progressing, it will take him a minimum of ten weeks before he has a chance of passing the exam. He doesn't want to wait ten weeks. What if this crap starts all over again for every exam that he has to take? He’s only in his first year of med school; his studies could drag on forever!

"What else can I . . . would you do?" he asks.

Mark shrugs. "Join a study group and go through old exam papers, if you can obtain them."

The latter is easy. The only exam paper that counts is stored in his brain. . . . Again, there's a slight hitch.

"Uh, how do you join a study group?"

Mark stares. " Have you never . . .?"

No, he hasn't. He isn't the kind of guy who attracts company. Nor is he the type whom others want in their study groups. He’s a parasite who can’t repay by contributing knowledge in turn.

“Just . . . find one and ask if you can sit down with them. Go to the library. You know where the library is, don’t you?” Mark asks.

He’s about to tell Mark that he has spent months in the library when he realizes that from Mark’s perspective this isn’t true, so he shuts his mouth and departs.

“Take donuts with you!” Mark yells as he goes out the door.

The only study group he knows is the one with Miss Overachiever, Brash Boy and Mousey Girl, therefore they are his best option. Never mind that they don’t know him; he knows enough about them to get a foot in their door. He stops at the cafeteria to pick up a bagel with cream cheese, a turkey and cheese sandwich, and a donut with chocolate glazing, and then he makes a beeline for their table.

“Mind if I join you?” he asks, depositing his offerings on the table: the donut in front of Brash Boy, the sandwich next to Mousey Girl, and the bagel with a flourish right on Miss Overachiever’s notes.

“Who are you?” Brash Boy challenges him.

Mousey Girl squeaks, “Food is prohibited in the library. We’ll be thrown out.”

“Never mind that,” Miss Overachiever says, staring at the food. “How the hell do you know what we like to eat?”

He shrugs deprecatingly. “Educated guess. I’m Greg.”

They introduce themselves as Devin (Brash Boy), Tricia (Mousey Girl), and Lisa (Miss Overachiever). He hopes he can remember the names another three days.

“I’ve got a question,” he says. “Patient with type 2 diabetes being treated with glimepiride and something for a runny discharge. What medication could be interacting with glimepiride to cause hypoglycemia?” It’s a shortened version of the first examination question.

His three new study buddies look at each other. He must have violated study group etiquette. Mousey Girl (sorry, Tricia) murmurs, “You’re looking for an antifungal, Fluconazole or something.”

When he starts on a second question, Tricia shifts uncomfortably while Devin interrupts. “Greg, you don’t get to monopolize this study group. Do it our way or leave.”

“Wait,” Lisa says. “Give him a chance.”

She turns to him and explains how they learn: stuff about how it’s a group process and how everyone takes turns to ask questions and how everyone helps everyone else, etc., etc. He zones out for most of her explanation. He isn’t here to help anyone, and if they focused on his questions instead of insisting on asking questions of their own, they’d ace the exam.

He gives the study group a try, but he has the answer to less than a quarter of his questions when Devin loses his temper and kicks him out, while Tricia looks mortified and Lisa sighs resignedly. True, he made his lack of interest in their questions obvious and he didn’t contribute anything to the general discussion, but on Friday they’ll see that his questions were the only important ones, and then they’ll regret that they wasted everyone’s time with their stupid stuff! (But not as much as he does, because they’ll pass while he won’t.)

He takes the exam on Friday for the sake of practicing the questions that he can now handle. (If someone had told him half a year ago that he’d sit for an exam in order to get some practice, he’d have scoffed at the idea. But he’s desperate; anything that can shorten this purgatory is worth a try.) As he leaves the examination hall Lisa steps up to him. “Sorry about Devin and the study group. He isn’t a patient guy. Hope the exam went well for you.”

He mutters something about the exam being the same as usual. She looks puzzled, but then moves on to her real agenda. “There’s a dance tomorrow night at Myer’s. You coming?”

He can’t believe she means him, but a quick 360° glance assures him that he’s the only person in the vicinity. “Who . . . what?” he stutters.

“A dance; a hoedown. It’ll be fun.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

She huffs in annoyance. “Fine, be that way! See ya around sometime.”

He definitely will, though not in the way she thinks.

He gets better at manipulating the study group day by day, so it only takes him two more weeks before he has the answers to the entire paper. A few more weeks of this and he’ll have them eating out of his hand. Except, he doesn’t intend to stick around for any further weeks. This time he’ll pass fucking endocrinology.

Again, Lisa accosts him after the exam: Wouldn’t he like to go to the hoedown?

Why not? he thinks. Getting plastered and ogling scantily dressed girls will be a fitting conclusion to the ‘Purgatory of Endocrinology Examination’. (That subject will definitely not be his specialty!) The dance is more fun than he thought it would be. Not that he has any intention of dancing, but it’s fun watching drunk students in plaid shirts getting thrown off the mechanical bull, and he stuffs his face with caramel apples. A very tipsy Lisa tries to drag him onto the dance floor, but he resists valiantly and soon after makes his escape.

On Monday, he gets the usual summons to the Dean’s office. He walks in jauntily, buoyed by the certitude of having passed the exam. His exam paper lies on the Dean’s desk, his endocrinology professor sits in a chair next to it, the Dean thrones behind it. The Dean gestures toward a chair in front of the desk.

“Mr. House, we’ve asked you to come here to talk about your academic record.” (The interview in the Dean’s office always begins with that line.)

“I’ve passed the exam!” he states.

“Yes,” the Dean admits, “but —“

“But what?”

The Dean steeples his fingers. “Your previous record, Mr. House, leads us to believe that your sudden proficiency is, ah, unmerited.”

Rage wells up in him. “I didn’t cheat. You can’t prove anything!”

The Dean and his professor exchange glances. “No one has accused you of cheating,” the Dean says soothingly. “We suspect that the examination paper was leaked. A number of students have performed better than expected. We have spoken with these students and have come to the conclusion that although they profited from the leak, they didn’t do so knowingly.”

Greg leans back and crosses his arms in front of his chest. They can’t prove that he knew the questions.

“All suspects were able to answer further questions on the subject in accordance with the grades they received,” the Dean continues. “Professor Rounceville will now ask you some questions, Mr. House. If your performance today lives up to your examination grade, then there should be no problem.”

“You can’t do that!” Greg protests. “I’ve passed the exam. You have no proof that my means of passing weren’t legitimate, because I didn’t cheat!”

“You don’t have to answer the questions, and of course you are free to lodge a formal complaint if the outcome of today’s interview doesn’t satisfy you.”

The Dean pauses as though waiting for an answer, but Greg is struck silent. Even if he lodges a complaint right after leaving the Dean’s office, it won’t be settled for weeks. He doesn’t have weeks; he has less than twenty-four hours before he is transported back in time again.

“Derek?” the Dean prompts.

Professor Rounceville leans forward and asks Greg a question. Greg knows when he is beaten. He also knows what song he’ll hear first thing on Tuesday morning.

He’s down, but he isn’t knocked out yet. Next week, he can take the exam without attending a study group first. Then there won’t be any ‘suspicious’ leak of exam questions, because his former study group will wallow in ignorance.

But once again, Rounceville awaits him in the Dean’s office, because ‘his sudden improvement casts doubts on the legitimacy of his performance.’ He is therefore subjected to The Inquisition yet again. Outcome: identical.

No problem: if he could prepare for the exam, he can prepare for The Inquisition too, and what’s another week in limbo in the greater scope of things? He has a number of questions to go on from the two interrogations to date, so he researches those in the library. But when he prepares for growth hormones, Rounceville switches to thyroid hormones. Once he has grasped those, Rounceville pounces on insulin and diabetes. The more he learns, the deeper his opponent delves.

He spends day and night in the library, preempting possible questions and becoming an expert on endocrinology. He soon knows the place from all angles and in every kind of lighting: the dance of dust motes along the slats of early morning sunbeams; the breath-like sighs of the double front doors swinging to and fro in the first morning rush of arriving students; the swish-and-click of the drawers of the index card catalog; the murmuring ebb and tide of students leaving at lunchtime and returning an hour later; the cool blue of late afternoons in the reading room; the unearthly quiet of night when every sound is amplified and disembodied students, each in his own fishbowl of lamp light, float in the darkness like deep sea creatures caught in the beams of a diver’s flashlight. He can tell different publications apart by smell: the chemical tang of freshly-printed glossy magazines; the rich musky scent of leather-bound volumes of medical illustrations; the musty reek of outdated journals banished to the basement; the bland odor of medical textbooks whose pages are thumbed so often that they have a patina of sebum.

One week, passing his (former) study group, he overhears Devin ask a question about thyroid storm that he remembers from his first day in the library. At that time, he hadn’t known the answer.

“Tachycardia, high fever, excessive and persistent sweating,” he says casually, slowing down at their table. “Treat with propylthiouracil or methimazole.” Remembering something they’d discussed in one of the three sessions he’d spent with them, he adds, “And a decrease in renin isn’t caused by a drug that inhibits angiotensin converting enzymes, but by licorice.“

“Wait, what?” Lisa inquires, leafing through her notes frantically.

“We haven’t covered that,” Devin declares.

“Doesn’t mean you don’t have to know it,” Greg throws over his shoulder.

Later, when the other two have left, Lisa comes over to where he’s sitting at what he regards as ‘his’ table now.

“What do you know about the effects of dietary issues on hormone secretion?” she asks.

He sits back, regarding her with a superior smile. “Everything.” He lets that sink in. “Doesn’t mean I intend to tell you anything about it.”

Lisa drives a hard bargain; in the end they settle on a free meal and a six-pack of Budweiser for him in return for two hours of undiluted knowledge. She isn’t half bad once he gets her away from her books.

This week he readily agrees to go to the dance, and when she drags him onto the dance floor he doesn’t resist. He draws the line, though, at allowing her to take him to her place, because no matter how the week plays out, this can’t end well. Awakening expectations that he has no intention of fulfilling isn’t part of his agenda. If he breaks through the cycle, then he’ll leave UMich for some place where they don’t cross-examine students who pass exams. If he doesn’t, then she’ll continue her existence in a universe where the guy she slept with either doesn’t exist or can’t remember sleeping with her or . . . (He hasn’t quite figured out how his reliving the same week again and again affects the rest of the universe, but it’s possible that each week spawns two parallel worlds. Alternately, reality collapses every time he screws up the interview in the Dean’s office.)

When Greg knows everything worth knowing about endocrinology and then some, the interrogations in the Dean’s office diverge into other areas of medicine. While preparing for endocrinology, Greg has sampled a few choice morsels of knowledge from other specialties — but not enough to satisfy the Dean.

Greg puts up a stiff fight in the weeks that follow, because he has no other option; there’s no other way out of Wonderland. Surprisingly, getting the knack of cardiology, pediatrics, neurology, etc. isn’t half as bad as he fears. He’s pretty much at home in the library, he has acquired mnemonic techniques and speed reading skills that greatly accelerate the learning process, and now that he has a solid foundation in one branch of medicine, the others make a lot more sense. Besides, some of it isn’t half as boring as it used to be. He develops a morbid interest in rare genetic disorders and infectious diseases that has him delving into details far beyond any question that the Dean could possibly think up.

He loses count of the weeks he invests in a legitimate quest to survive the exam and the subsequent questioning session, but when the Dean switches from medicine to organic chemistry he finally admits defeat. It isn’t that he considers himself incapable of grasping chemistry, organic or otherwise, anymore. No, it’s obvious that no matter what he learns or how he behaves, the interview will always end in his expulsion.

The next Monday he buys a gun, marches into the Dean’s office, and fires until the magazine is empty. Better a lifetime in prison than an eternity on the campus of the University of Michigan.

Turns out that his weekly reincarnation can’t be aborted by acts of murder or mayhem. Furthermore, prison, even if it’s only for a night before Tuesday comes around again, is as unpalatable as time spent in the hospital after unsuccessful suicide attempts, if not more so. He gets a faint kick out of killing the Dean with assorted weapons such as a samurai sword, a crossbow, and a skull (filled with cement to give it the necessary clout), but after a few times the entertainment value declines.

Part II here


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