Roger was in pain.
The gymnasium’s stereo was rolling
to the rhythm of “… It’s a Small World After All, it’s a small world after all … it’s
a small world after all … it’s a small, small world …”
He was in the second hour of therapy
and still had another to go. He wished the goddamn stereo would fall off the
shelf! He had just come from the hydro pool where the hot water had begun to
loosen his muscles, and now he faced his first attempt to regain use of his legs. Jerry
Wescavich took his wheelchair and rolled it over by the wall out of the way. “Give
it hell, Bozo!” Jerry teased. Roger
ignored him. Maria Colby stood by his side on one side of the parallel bars and
the two women who ran the rehab gymnasium stood on the other.
He had not wanted to get out of the wheelchair,
but they insisted, even as they buckled a pair of lightweight braces onto his emaciated legs.
Roger remembered appliances almost like them from his childhood, and he eyed them with a smoldering hatred. Although these were not the heavy, metal torture devices that had chafed his skin and left scars with their
passing so many years before, they were close enough to be daunting. These were
light-weight. They fit over his sweat pants, and were maneuverable enough that
they did not cause his feet to drag any more than they had while he still lived with pain on the dirty streets of Princeton.
The stereo droned on. “Oooh … I got a loverly bunch o’ coconuts … there they are a-standing in a row
… big ones, small ones, some as big as yer head … give ‘em a twist, a flick o’ yer wrist … that’s
what the showman said … ‘e said ….”
The women had lowered the leg rests
of his chair, and one of them stood close by with a pair of underarm crutches in her hands.
Haley and Nicole lifted him easily out of the chair from beneath his arms. His
feet, encased in new white sneakers, touched the floor at last. The pain escalated,
but they would not allow him to fall back. He took the crutches and fit them
under his arms cautiously, but the women were still there, steadying him and murmuring encouragement.
If the damned music would just tone down,
he might be able to hear them. He stared at them owlishly.
“Turn it down a bit, Jerry!” Nicole called. “Thanks!”
He could feel the blood pounding in his
head with the effort, and it wouldn’t have taken much for him to pass out dead-away right where he stood. He fought it doggedly and dragged ahead, one foot at a time. He
was surprised at the concentration it took just to remember how to do it, and the realization came as a shock that the high-pitched
keening he could hear was actually coming from his own throat. The pain he experienced
as his tendons stretched toward more normal lengths, was horrendous. Tears rolled
down his cheeks in spite of efforts to hold them back. He cursed heartily; a
long string of invectives that made everyone in the room stop and stare at him in astonishment. At least now they would know he was not, indeed, some innocent child!
He might not look it, but he was an adult in every sense of the word. Best
they know it now. They would know it soon enough anyway!
“Oh give me land, lots o’ land,
under starry skies above … doooon’t fence me innnnn …”
Step by tortured step, Haley, Nicole
and Maria led him gently until his body was between the parallel bars, and then removed the crutches gradually from beneath
his arms and placed them to the side nearby. He was standing; leaning heavily
on the bars like a limp scarecrow held up by a stake in the ground, but standing.
Off to the side of the room, Jerry, Jimmy
and Jules watched him nervously, feeling his pain, but knowing this was something he must do on his own if he wanted to experience
as much of the healing process as he was able. He stole a glance at the three
of them, and felt a moment’s amusement. Jimmy’s hand was covering
his mouth, eyes wide and aimed in supplication at the heavy aluminum rafters supporting the ceiling. Jules, beside him, was dancing in mirth, not surprised at all by his partner’s long string of colorful
cuss words, some of which he hadn’t heard since he’d hopped the ship off the island! Jerry Wescavich just stood grinning like a naked ape.
Roger’s body was now supported
on his elbows. His legs felt like they were made of hummingbird feathers, useless
under any weight at all, even within the sturdy composition braces. He felt weak and helpless, and he hurt, and he was getting angry.
And they expected him to walk to the opposite end of the bars, maneuver himself about and return!
fuckers! You’re hurting me!*
He wished he had the nerve to scream it
at them out loud. Clumsily he jerked along, his legs moving in a parody of walking,
his arms taking the brunt of his weight, and he could feel his elbows crunching painfully against the damned hard wood.
“Somewheere … over the rainboww
… waay up hiiigh …”
Somehow Roger made the turn at the far
end of the bars, releasing his grip on one side and smashing it across to the opposite bar before he slipped and went down
like a ton of bricks. Well, not a ton, exactly, even though it felt like it. He snatched his opposite hand away and seized the other bar, jamming his knuckles
in the process and damn near missing it. He cried out in panic, but his fingers
made contact, barely, and he grabbed fast with all his remaining strength. Straightened
up and then doubled over, gasping.
Haley and Nicole stood by, bodies prepared to spring, but they let him find his own way and did not interfere. Across from them, Jules and Jimmy and Jerry held their collective breaths. He was halfway to his goal before his strength ran out and he began to cry with frustration, fear and murderous
hatred. Hot tears ran down his cheeks and he gave voice to the pain, deep rasping
moans that fell from his lips in waves.
“Oh God!” (He didn’t believe in God!)
From the other side of the room came a
sudden, unexpected peal of mocking laughter, and Roger threw his head into the air, searching for its source.
And the band played on …
Across the gym, the thump-step of a now-familiar,
awkward-graceful cadence thundered in Roger’s direction. The stereo was
beginning another song: this time, waltz tempo.
“Wunderbar … wunderbar …
There’s our fav’rite star above …What a bright, shining star … Like our love, it’s Wunderbar
“Turn it up, Jerry!”
Gregory House was hustling, his long legs
covering ground quickly as he crossed the floor. His crippled leg took little
weight. His body was curled forward and most of the weight of his right side
was absorbed by his strong right hand on the cane, muscular right arm and powerful shoulder.
He was wearing blue jeans, gray Nike Shox and a blue button-down shirt that stretched across his chest as though it
had been made for a much smaller man. Sometimes House looked frail, almost fragile. He did not look so today. The shirt was
open at the throat, revealing the black tee-shirt beneath. His sleeves were rolled
to the elbows, exposing sinewy forearms, and his usual sports jacket was not present, nor had he cast it off anywhere on his
He stopped in front of Roger Wilson and
stood there, towering to his full height, an imposing figure filled with haughty, arrogant disdain. Only James Wilson, ever alert to his friend’s theatrics, caught the slight shift to the left and
the weight come off the right leg. If you didn’t know the man and weren’t
watching intently, the move was all but invisible. James held his breath, sensing
disaster in the making. At his side, Jules danced from foot to foot nervously,
probably picking up some of Wilson’s fright and tension
House stared at the young man sagging
and sobbing at the parallel bars. He tipped his head back between his shoulder
blades and allowed the kid to see him laugh. The music, booming through the room
in sensuous three-quarter time, drowned out the sound of his mockery.
Roger saw the meaning and understood
the implications, although his body sagged and wavered with fatigue and pain. He
was being made fun of.
House saw the anger rising in the kid;
saw the mounting hatred in the dark eyes where there had been only compassion and benevolence before.
a piece of work this little fucker is!*
House gathered himself and began to move,
never taking his eyes off Roger. “What’s the matter,
Sweetie? No guts? Can’t cut
it, huh? Even the shriveled up old cripple has bigger balls than you do!” He yelled. His shouts were easily heard
over the music, and as he yelled, the song ended and the gym echoed with residual reverberations of the orchestra’s
final notes and his booming voice. He moved toward Roger’s position at
the bars, his limp heavy, his left hand fanning at the air for balance. Nothing
stopped him. He continued past the young man and the bars; passed them as though
they weren’t there.
House continued to the wall just beyond,
where a rack of crutches hung suspended from individual hangers, easily accessible for use.
His finger played across the rack like a xylophone, looking at the sizes; stopped at a pair marked “6’
3”’. Carefully he pulled them off the hooks and replaced them with
As everyone in the gymnasium stopped
to watch, enraptured, House positioned the long crutches beneath his arms.
Someone gasped. “What the hell’s he doing?” The words echoed
in the sudden silence.
“Play that song again, Jerry!” Cautiously, Gregg looked around, unsure from which direction the question had come. “Watch me … and I’ll
show you what I’m doing! It’s a matter of discipline ... something
I don’t think our friend here …” indicating Roger Wilson with a crutch pointed in the young man’s
direction … “has!”
The music began again. “Wunderbar … wunderbar … what a perfect night for love … Here am I, here you are
… why it’s truly Wunderbar!”
Gregg’s electric eyes pinned Roger
Wilson in place with a stare which would have melted icicles. “Get over
to the end of the bar and take your crutches back from Nicole. Watch me, and
then follow … if you think you can!”
Every eye was upon him as the music swelled. House moved the foot of his bad leg and positioned it so that the heel was resting
on the toe of his left shoe. The piping around the edge of the shoe allowed him to maintain the position with little effort.
He bent his knee and allowed the leg to flex gently back and forth, side to side. He made it look easy. Then he began to
sway in time with the music. Crutch-to-crutch like an ocean wave! Deftly, he shifted the right crutch to a point almost perpendicular to his right shoulder, and followed
through with a graceful sweep of his body, making it look as though he were a trapeze artist beginning an ascent to the apex
of the Big Top.
“… like a bright shining
star … why it’s truly Wunderbar …”
He followed through immediately with the
crutch on the left side, swinging it around behind him and jabbing it with precision onto the floor, just at the point of
his left heel, swung his body in the opposite direction like a ballroom dancer and followed through in perfect cadence, easing
his weight carefully, gauging his balance like a high wire walker. The crippled
right leg swung across in a graceful arc, its heel still guided by the toe of the left shoe, not too far, not too hard, in
a curve that presented the illusion of a combination of ballet, and a modern dance pirouette.
“… Wunderbar … wunderbar
…” The music swelled,
and the man out there on the floor held the growing numbers of his audience hushed, rapt and spellbound.
House glanced to his left, saw Roger Wilson
at the end of the parallel bars, struggling, lurching away from the supports, reclaiming the crutches clumsily from Nicole’s
hands. As the music progressed and rounded into the second strain, House glanced
across again and caught Roger’s crude attempts to sway with the music as it swelled ever outward, his eyes downcast,
face tense with concentration. Gregg smirked to himself, satisfied with the anger
he had generated, and turned his attention back to concentrate on his own movements.
His leg was already pounding, but the song would soon be over.
The bridge of the melody swelled
with full orchestra and a whirlwind of strings and brass at counterpoint. House
paused for a moment, then began to sway again, in the opposite direction; left crutch to the perpendicular, right one planted
firmly behind, and swung around again. Both crutches came off the floor at once
as he spun gracefully on his sound leg, coming about to catch himself at the opposition point on both crutches, and then pushed
off again immediately, in time with the rhythm. He
ended with a graceful swing upward, like a water bird rising into the air, reversing its course with a swoop and a dive to
catch the refrain when the bridge ended and the main melody overrode the string section for the final crescendo.
Woodwinds picked up the last strains and
the song ended in a thunder of tympani and brass. House planted himself like
a tripod for the final chord, breathing heavily, yet triumphant. He lifted the
right crutch and swept it across his middle, bowing to about two dozen frozen co-workers who had gathered by the doorway and
spilled over into the gym.
The silence at the end of the song was
deafening. He looked up and acknowledged them stiffly, nearly losing his balance
when a moment of dizziness set in. He had to hop-step on the good leg to protect
the escalating pain in the right one as he leaned hard on the crutches to hitch across the floor and retrieve his cane.
The applause, when it finally came; when
the crowd finally snapped out of its thrall, was thunderous. And he looked around
as though it had scared him silly. He had only been making a point!
By the bars, Roger stood slumped, but still
upright, sweat suit hanging off him and making him look like a fire plug with outriggers.
House could feel the kid’s eyes on his back, and everyone else’s for that matter. He needed to get out of here!
Roger was subdued when Gregg put the crutches
back and grabbed his cane to leave. “Thanks, Gregg,” the kid said,
much to his credit. “I get it!”
Jules and James and Jerry and a few others
were headed his way, but he had to sit down and take a Vicodin … in that order. But
not here! He did not need recognition or congratulation; he had achieved the
desired goal, and that had been his aim. He ignored them all and hurried back
to the corridor before someone noticed that he’d hurt himself.
Cuddy and the ducklings were waiting outside
the doorway. They were impressed, and chattering and wanting to tell him that
they’d been awed by his performance … and on crutches yet, for God’s sake!
There were wisecracks about Broadway and TV and the Movies … blah blah blah …
He made no attempt to tell them that
if they’d had to spend as much time walking with crutches as he’d had in his lifetime, they’d be crutch-ballet
dancers too! He hurried on past them with only a few muttered words of acknowledgment,
and headed for his office.
House sulked in solitary silence
until quitting time, then clambered aboard the yellow suicide machine and went home.
The ride felt longer than usual. His leg hurt to the point of lip-biting, and it was colder outside than a witch’s
Somewhere in an obscure corner of his mind
he wondered whether Wilson had managed to talk Cuddy into
discharging Roger …
Ah yes … Wilson …