Chapter One: Camera Obscura
"You're sure you left Cuddy a note?"
House glances over at Wilson. Wilson's hands rest lightly on the steering wheel; he's wearing his favorite sunglasses and for once he's turned off the GPS.
"Yes, mom, I left her a note," House says.
"So she knows you'll be gone the whole weekend," Wilson says. "The long weekend, plus the extra day."
"Yes, I left the note," House says again. He shifts around a bit in the Volvo's leather seat, stretches out his legs. "And if you don't shut up, I'll tell you what it said. Relax," he says. "I have lots of time."
He cracks the window so a thin draft of air rushes in. He can already smell the ocean.
Lisa Cuddy sighs as she reads the note again. She'd found it on her desk that morning, a sheet of yellow legal paper slowly uncurling from its rolled-up position inside an empty Bacardi rum bottle sealed with a cork and a glob of red wax. Removing the message was a challenge she briefly thought of solving by smashing the bottle to its component atoms, but no; sadly, she was the designated adult around this place. Gonna need a forceps, she thought, and that was when she noticed she had one. A hemostat, which someone had left resting on top of her OUT box.
I reckon Wilson and I, the letter reads, got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Lisa she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.
She sits back in her chair and buzzes her admin.
"Adam? House doesn't have any vacation days left, does he?"
"Are you kidding?" her assistant says. "This is a joke, right?"
"That's what I thought. Thanks, Adam." She sets the note aside and sighs again.
She wishes the rum bottle was full.
"I'm going to see the lighthouse," Wilson had said, when he took a surprise exit off the interstate. "FYI, any bitching about it won't stop me."
Great, House had thought. Captain History rides again. That was fifteen endless minutes ago, and now here they are at the edge of Port Podunk, slowing down so Wilson can read the big wooden WELCOME TO sign.
"Seems I was wrong," House says, waving at the montage of faded business names. "There's plenty of fun to be found, right here in East Barnacle-on-your-butt!"
"You don't actually have to be a dick about it."
"It's my vacation too, you know. And it's not East Barnacle-on-your-dick unless you've got a communicable disease."
Wilson keeps his eyes on the road, head tilted down, like House can't tell when he's trying not to laugh.
The Very Historical Lighthouse turns out to be closed for renovation, and for a moment, House thinks that'll be the end of this misguided detour. Thing is, he can smell food from somewhere along the beach, and he's hungry, and oh shit.
Wilson just saw some other useless thing.
Wilson goes in alone, because really, House isn't that interested. It's a camera obscura, what else is it going to be? Creaky, historical, and boring. He already knows what it looks like -- a garden shed on wheels, painted like a carnival sideshow. All that's going to be inside is an empty room, a hole drilled in one wall to let the light in, possibly a white sheet tacked up on the opposite wall as a cheap projection screen.
House limps down the sagging little boardwalk and buys two hot dogs at a bright yellow stand from a kid in a very stupid hat. There are two empty tables with umbrellas, and he claims one. He waits in the shade, the slow rush of the waves and the shouts of beach-goers echoing in his ears. The ocean soothes his senses, and it's not until ten minutes have passed and the hot dogs are gone that he realizes Wilson hasn't come out yet.
Still, it's not like he wants to drag his gimpy leg up that pitiful excuse for steps -- it's more of a short ladder, really, which raises the question a ladder to where? So instead he raps on the side of the shed with his cane.
He raps again, harder. "Wilson! Come on!"
No answer, except for a gull that hovers overhead, squawking inquisitively.
"Go away," House mutters. "Hey! Wilson!"
It's clear that Wilson is fucking with him, and not in a very imaginative way.
"Fine," House says. "Fine."
At the top step he hesitates. Here, so close to the shed, the noises from the beach are blocked, and it's ... quiet.
He puts his hand on the doorknob; it's brass and sun-warmed and turns easily in his grasp. The door opens inward, some small part of his brain notices. As if he's entering a home.
And that's when he sees that the shed has two doors. There's the one he just entered, and a second one, wide open, offering the view of a landscape and James Wilson's back.
House would know that hands-on-hips pose anywhere.
"House." Wilson is squinting in the late afternoon sunlight, which is pretty damn strange, seeing as it's mid-morning. He nods back at the shed, which now looks like some kind of garden arbor, grown over with roses. "You walked down those steps."
"Never mind the -- " steps, House starts to say, and then it hits him. What Wilson means. He'd been distracted, confused, and hadn't realized. He tests his weight, all of his weight, on his right leg. It holds him.
It doesn't hurt.
It holds him, and he looks around.
The beach is gone. They're standing in someone's garden, or the edge of a garden, the green grass ending at a border of neatly tended rows of corn, beans, squash, and a bunch of other plants House doesn't bother to categorize. A clothesline stands a few feet away, shirts and socks flapping lazily in the breeze. He turns around. The door he came through -- the Camera Obscura door -- hangs open, and House takes an instinctive step forward, towards it, until he can see straight through the shed.
Straight through to the other door.
The beach is back there, he thinks. The beach, and waves, and hot dogs and seagulls.
He looks at Wilson. Wilson looks back at him. Somewhere, a bird calls. A dog barks.
"House," Wilson says. "Where are we?"
"Funhouse," House replies, but he knows even as the word leaves his mouth that it can't be true. None of this can be true. "Some kind of … trick. Mirrors and … a trick."
"A trick healed your leg?" Wilson leans down and picks something that looks like a dandelion. "This is real, House. It, it can't be, but?" He's looking at House as if he's five years old and he's sure, somehow, his big brother Greg will know the answer.
Big brother Greg wants a drink. "I'm going back," he says. He has to retrace his steps, figure out how the trick is done. He jogs the few paces to the rough stone steps, bounds up into the open doorway, and is struck full-force by a large flapping black thing coming the other way. The collision leaves him on his ass, breathless, with the man in the black coat gasping in pain right beside him.
Coat-wearing man catches his breath first, and says exactly what House is thinking: "You idiot."
"Who's an idiot?" House scrabbles himself into a sitting position and stares at the stranger, who's staring back indignantly. Even sitting on his ass, House has to admit the guy looks pretty pissed.
"You are," the guy grits out. "The two of you, to be precise."
Wilson takes a step forward. "Could you explain -- " he begins, but black-coated guy cuts him off.
"You're not supposed to be here," he says. "You came through without permission. Without tickets."
"Look," House says. "Let's start at the beginning. Who are you? What is that ... thing?"
The guy sits a little straighter. "I'm the Stationmaster," he says. "That's the Station."
"Uh-huh," House says. "And I am the Walrus."
"That cane," says the pushy guy in black. He's glaring at it like it just dug up his garden and pooped in the petunias. "Fashion accessory?"
"Limping is all the rage in Paris this year. You'd know that if you read French Vogue. What the hell is this ... illusion?" He can't say place, because it can't really be one. Illusion it is.
Black-coat man isn't listening. "You weren't limping when you hit me."
"You hit me. And I asked you -- OW!"
House isn't sure what the guy just did; it felt like a needle jab to his shoulder, right through the sleeve. He may have had it coming; he'd let himself be distracted by a lacy pair of panties flapping on the clothesline. The Station guy, who looks like nothing so much as an angry, portly crow, is now scowling at some kind of small silver tablet in his hand. He shakes his head and mutters something to himself that House can't quite decipher, but it is obviously profane.
"You have to go," he insists, brushing dandelion fluff from his pants as he gets to his feet. "Now. And make sure you leave nothing behind."
"Not even Wilson? I swear he isn't mine. He just followed me home."
The man's unforgiving glare lands on Wilson then, assessing him for the first time. A flicker of movement, like a magic trick, and House sees the ... whatever it was that jabbed him, he guesses, in Mr. Black-Coat's thick left hand. A glint of silver between pink fingers, and Black-Coat is marching in Wilson's direction, and suddenly House feels like he's seventeen and playing hooky.
He springs up from the grass, looking for an escape route. "Hey, Wilson," he calls out, "Run!"
To House's astonishment, Wilson does. They're over the fence like Tom and Huck, racing each other down the street toward the shore. The beach is still there, after all.
If anything, it's moved closer.
The place where they stop running may not have a name. The flimsy roof bears no sign.
It's a typical beachside bar, more open-air than permanent structure, with just enough enclosed space to lock up the booze after hours. It reeks of sawdust, of spilled beer and boiled shrimp, with a big margarita machine behind the bar and a bunch of cheap "beach beers" on tap.
But the familiar fluttering string of plastic pennants reads Corazón instead of Corona, and while Tecate still bears its red-and-gold branding, the name on the can says Tecolote. Coors has become Banquet, Molson transformed into something called Antler Ale. Only the Budweiser hasn't changed.
"Maybe it was a bee," Wilson says, but his eyes are tense and it's obvious he doesn't believe a word he's saying. "A ... beach bee. One of those."
"A beach bee?" House says. "Are you even listening to yourself? There were no bees." He takes another pull on his beer -- his nice, normal beer -- a perfectly innocent Budweiser. Above the bartender's head, there's a big green chalkboard with an utterly foreign list of wines-by-the-glass and three different brands of absinthe.
"No," Wilson says. "It -- "
House peels his shirt off and shows Wilson the puncture wound. It's wider than a mere pinprick, more like the mark of a large-bore needle. "He knocked me over, you moron," he says. "You saw him do it."
The bartender stops what he's doing, which is basically wiping down the counter, smearing the wet condensation rings and grime into a smoother dirty glaze. "Hey," he barks. "Hey! Keep your shirt on -- we don't need any more trouble from the rackers!"
"Sorry," Wilson says. "Sorry, my ... friend thought he was ... he'd gotten a bite. Been stung. By a ... by a bug." He takes a conciliatory swallow of beer. "Is there anywhere we could get a ... paper? A newspaper?"
The bartender's steely glare subsides; he reaches under the cash register and pulls out a slim publication.
"It's just the neighborhood rag," he says. "Won't have much news in it, but it'll have the odds at Monmouth Park." He spits onto the washrag and starts cleaning the pint glasses.
The paper provides them with exactly nothing of use. They learn that there's a hurricane about to hit Cuba, which appears to be a U.S. state. They find out that Bentley makes economy cars and it's model-year closeout at the friendly local dealer. They learn that this world has a Dominic's Pizza, and okay, that might be useful. There's even a coupon.
Aside from that, it's boring, boring, more boring, so House leaves the boring to Wilson, who's good at that, and goes to have a look at the beach bar bulletin board, where he's spotted a thing that warrants closer inspection.
It's a typical "lost pet" flyer, a grainy black-and-white photograph reproduced on cheap paper so many times it's lost most of its definition. The phone number to call is in a format House doesn't recognize -- three sets of four digits, not an 800 or 888 number. He plucks the paper off the board and squints at the missing animal. The photo must be distorted, because that can't be --
"Isn't that something?" the bartender says cheerfully. "Somebody's gotta have some money, sure enough, to own a -- "
And that's where House's hearing betrays him, because at first he hears Serbian hound, but that can't be right, so maybe it was service hound, but that's not right either, you don't call them hounds, they're service dogs, but --
"Cerberean hound," Wilson murmurs beside him. "House, he said Cerberean hound."
House looks away from the flyer long enough to glance at Wilson. He's staring at the poster, mouth still slightly open. The bartender is working, doing whatever bartenders do when their customers' backs are turned. He looks back at the flyer.
Six eyes. Three gaping mouths. Three slobbery tongues lolling out from the three separate heads.
PLEASE HELP! The plea is printed in Comic Sans Serif, bold black on white. MISSING FOR 2 WEEKS. FRIENDLY, ANSWERS TO BUTTERCUP
"Myself, I'd rather have a Rottweiler," the bartender says. "Know what you're getting."
"Um," Wilson says.
"These morons, more money than brains," the bartender says. He shakes his head and leans back, every inch of his body language saying what are ya gonna do about it? "Their kids love Harry Parker and so mom and pop spring for a big ole gene-crack, cute when it's a puppy but God knows what'll go wrong with it. Guy who used to come here, he spent fifteen grand on a damn griffin, hit five years old and started upchucking everything it ate. Another ten thou in vet bills, all for nothin'."
"What's the usual lifespan for a griffin?" Wilson can't seem to help asking.
"Fuck if I know. They aren't natural, it can be anything. It keeled over and the guy got his kid a plain old mutt for free outta the want ads. Now everyone's happy but me, 'cause he hardly drinks anymore."
He spits on that damn washrag again, and suddenly House has had enough. He studies the bulletin board again -- sure enough, his eye lights on a different kind of advertisement, this one for seaside vacationers.
PINK SHELL BEACH CABINS, the flyer proclaims, and of course it's even printed on nauseatingly pink paper. FULLY EQUIPPED, REASONABLE RATES! STAY A MONTH OR A WEEKEND!
He yanks the sheet from the board. "This place," he calls to the bartender, "is it close by?" remembering with a lurching sensation that "close" has just become the same distance for him as for any other pedestrian. Because his leg works now.
"Four blocks, if that's close enough. You really wanna rent out a goddamn pink cabin?"
"You clean your glasses with spit," House answers. "I feel strangely free to disregard your opinion." He's waiting for Wilson to give him one of those patented Wilson Looks, but it turns out Wilson's got his eyes glued to the tip jar instead, studying ... oh.
He's figuring out whether, at this particular ... carnival, or whatever it is, the wad of cash in his wallet might as well be Monopoly money.
"They look close enough," Wilson mumbles at last, and House can't quite tell if he's talking to himself or to him. Whichever it is, Wilson hauls out his wallet and extracts a ten.
"Keep the change," he announces, and with barely a glance the bartender scoops it up and disappears it -- not into the register, but into his pocket. He grins at the two of them.
"Thanks," he says, House's line about using spit as a cleaning agent seemingly forgotten. "That's mighty white of you."
Wilson's mouth opens and closes like a beached guppy's. The bartender's face is absolutely, completely sincere.
Huh, House thinks. Isn't this interesting?
Wilson makes a sound somewhere between a grunt and a muffled hmghh.
"Come on," he says. "I ... uh ... yeah. Come on. To the ... to the Pink Beach."
"Pink Shell," House says. "Pink Shell Beach."
"Whatever," Wilson says. "Let's go."
"We are not," Wilson says, the moment they're safely out of the bartender's earshot, "renting any cabins. Pink Shell or otherwise."
"Sure. Let's just go back to the needle-wielding guy with the shed."
"House, we have to get out of here!"
"What do you mean, not yet? This place -- "
"Is different, yes, I got that part." House looks around, breathes in the sea air. He shifts from foot to foot in the sand, balances on his heels, just because he can.
"Let's find out how different," he says. "Let's stay a while."
"Define 'a while.'"
House shrugs. "A few hours. A night. A ... couple of days." He sneaks a quick glance at Wilson to see how he's taking this. "Oh, come on. We're walking around in the living proof that string theory is probably right, and you don't even want to know? You aren't the least bit curious why we walk through a door and suddenly I could play beach volleyball again, if I were a totally different kind of lame?"
There are few sights more satisfying than that of Wilson on the verge of caving, not to House but to himself, when what he wants and what House wants are secretly the same thing.
"One night," Wilson concedes.
House is already thinking he'll need swim trunks.
The ocean would soothe Wilson, if it were the same Atlantic they left behind an hour ago. But it isn't; its seagulls are silent and black, with white wingbars. To the left, as they face the water, a rollercoaster juts above the rest of the skyline.
And the map for the Pink Shell place is stubbornly unhelpful, and what, Wilson wonders, will they do when they find it? No way in hell his American Express card works here.
"Breathe," House says. "All else fails, we go back to the shed. Problem solved."
Wilson watches House walking beside him, the way he used to before The Leg made everything harder than it ever should have been. "If all else fails," he agrees.
The last swallow of beer from his bottle tastes astringent and sour, and he wants something more, something strong that will burn his throat and make him stop thinking. He wants to drag House back, get them out of here before the Twilight Zone turns ugly.
That's assuming this place even exists; that he won't go to sleep and wake up in some hospital, his car crashed and House either dead or standing over him.
"Not sure I want to know," he murmurs.
There's a trash can nearby where he can drop his empty bottle, and if this is a coma-dream, it's a vivid one, complete with the clunk of the glass and the lazy pair of wasps circling the can's metal rim. For one insane moment he thinks of trying to catch one, let it sting him and see what happens. Pinch me, pinch me.
But ... House is all right here, and for the moment, so is he.
It's not until they're standing in the dank little public restroom that Wilson sees what House has done. That wallet House has in his hands is not House's wallet. Or Wilson's. Which means it belongs to that poor schmuck Wilson stopped to ask for directions.
"House!" Wilson hisses. "What did you do? Seriously, you --? You have to give it back!"
"What, and get caught? The object is to pick the pocket, not poke the pocket, if you know what I mean." House thumbs past the bills, turns the plastic pages of credit cards and various forms of i.d. One card catches his eye.
"Look," he says. "Guy who didn't know which way was north's a member of Mensa."
"Can you put off the smug-fest until we're somewhere safe? Take the cash, pitch the rest and let's go."
There are twenties and ones in the wallet, and House hands one of those to Wilson before they walk out.
The portrait on the one dollar bill is Benjamin Franklin.
Things here don't cost what they do back home. Twenty bucks a night for the cabin, a slat-board structure with sand in the cracks and creases, one main room, a bedroom with two single beds, a full bath, two TVs. And a tiny kitchenette that Wilson refuses to even consider using.
"It smells," he says flatly, and while House can't smell anything emanating from the ugly kitchen wallpaper, he's not going to argue about it.
House took a hundred and change off his victim. With the coupon, their Dominic's pizza is only another six.
"Give me a twenty," Wilson says. "I can get to the liquor store and back before the pizza arrives."
"Liquor store?" House hadn't noticed one.
"Two blocks south, left side. It was on the map." He holds out his hand. "Seriously, you can't expect me to cope with, with all this," -- he waves the other hand around the wicker-infested room -- "sober."
"Fine," House decides. "But don't cheap out. No coming back with this world's version of Mad Dog 20/20."
Wilson sneers at him, and since when does Wilson sneer, and he walks out the door. House watches him go and has a moment of irrational terror that not only will Wilson not come back with swill, but that he won't come back at all.
TV remote controls are as ridiculous here as at home. There are buttons marked BLK and COL, one that says SNAP and another, REPT. Half the stations he gets are in Italian, but when he turns the set off and on again, everything comes back in English.
He's just found this world's James Garner playing John Rockfort, not Jim Rockford, when Wilson comes back.
"You look like hell," House says, because Wilson does. He's stooping, closing in on himself, like he's afraid he'll break something if he stands up straight.
"I will be," Wilson answers. He takes a bottle and two shot glasses from the bag he's brought in, sets them on the whitewashed wicker coffee table, and proceeds to pour. "I used to love that show," he says, nodding at the TV. "Kinda wanted to be John Rockfort."
"You mean Jim Rockford."
"Yeah," Wilson says. He's paying more attention to his drink. "Rockfort."
"His life sucked. That was the whole show. Why would you -- unless you're telling me your life sucked worse."
"I thought it did. I was twelve, though." Wilson has parked beside him on the sofa, a horrible overstuffed pink-and-white floral behemoth that shouldn't be as comfy as it is. He seems more like himself now, handing over the second drink, looking for but failing to find anything like a TV Guide. "We should just channel surf," he says. "Could learn something important."
They don't. The only real thing they do learn, when the pizza finally arrives, is that they wish Dominic's delivered across dimensions.
"Dominic's," Wilson says. "The best pizza in two worlds." And then he burps.
"I love you, man," House croons, leaning into Wilson's space like a wasted fratboy.
"You're just saying that to get your grubby hands into my pizza box."
House blinks at him. "Weird. It's almost like you know me."
"Wish I didn't sometimes," Wilson grumbles.
"Liar," House says. "Liar liar, pants on fire."
He's about to pass out. It doesn't matter that there's only a thin sleeping bag between himself and the lumpy, noisy floor of the van. House, when tired enough, can sleep damn near anywhere, sleep through everything. He'll take his turn driving when they get closer to Atlanta, and the interstate truck stops whose sad rows of vending machines will seem like manna from heaven.
The road noise lulls him into indistinct dreams, and then he's awake, instantly, his whole world narrowed down to a dark whirl of horrible noises and the screams of his friends.
Something hits his head, or his head hits something. The faint moonlight through the van's rear-door windows blinks out. He blinks out.
The next light he sees, he sees through water, and he only knows it's water because he's trying to swim, instinct moving his arms and legs but his legs are still tangled in the sleeping bag. He'll use his guitar, he thinks; they don't call it an axe for nothing. But he's still so foggy and the water is pouring into the van, and the van nose-diving, and a snake is dragging him down, no, it's a cord, an anchor. An amp, he thinks, an imp, a devil by the tail, and the water covers his face, fills his nose, his throat, fuck, no. No.
He wakes up coughing and heaving for air, wakes up for real kicking and pawing at the covers.
"What? What the fuck," says Wilson's voice in the dark. "Jennifer?"
Who's Jennifer? House wants to ask, but he thinks he knows, and besides, the taste of drowning is still fresh in his mouth.
"Dream," he says. "Go back to sleep."
"Wait. Wait, no. House?"
"The one and only."
Wilson says nothing more, just gets up and begins shoving his cheap twin bed several feet closer to House's. House doesn't ask why. He thinks he knows, again.
It's close to four in the morning when someone's car alarm wakes him, just moments before the dream would have done it anyway. The same damn dream, every time he nods off. Crandall driving, House in the back, the drift, the lurch as Crandall jerks the wheel left, the momentary weightlessness, and then the water. It's like he expects it now, because while he still wakes up, he doesn't wake up screaming.
House doesn't want swim trunks anymore.
He sits up in bed and turns the TV on and experiments, raising the volume until Wilson grunts, sighs, and starts to ask Jennifer what she's doing before he catches himself and remembers where he is. Who he is. He looks like he's eaten something he shouldn't have, like he'll be sick any time now.
"Move over," he says, and he slides out of his little bed and into House's slightly larger one. "You're having nightmares and I'm having ... I don't even know, but I want it to stop."
"Bring your pillows," says House. "You're not stealing any of mine."
To be continued ...