A companion story to Ghosts
With the approach of Christmas, Luka's schedule had tightened dramatically and without realizing it Alenka found herself counting the minutes until she saw him again like an anxious schoolgirl. It had seemed since the moment of his kiss their relationship had only grown stronger. As she dressed for Midnight Mass she couldn't help feeling how fitting it seemed that they would share the faith that had brought them together on this of all nights.
As she adjusted the collar on the forest green dress she'd chosen to wear, she marveled at the fact that she found so little of the sadness that had dominated the holidays in years past. How was it possible that one man could erase almost ten years of loneliness? Picking up the jeweled barrette from the dresser top she pulled her hair back off her face and clipped it.
How long had it been since she had worried about how others saw her? How long since she had dressed with someone else in mind? She smiled at her reflection with the thought, then picked up the small white box that lay next to where the barrette had been.
It hadn't been easy to decide what she would give Luka for their first Christmas together. She'd found herself worrying over it for weeks, quickly disregarding the obvious of food and clothing. How many stores had she walked through hoping that something would catch her eye as being just right? She'd passed over the unlimited number of knickknacks, browsed far too many books, wavered briefly when his cologne had drawn her to it, then passed on that as well. No, she'd always known it would have to be something that would mean as much to her as it did to him, and her search had continued.
Removing the lid she caught the gold chain with her fingers and lifted the antique crucifix from the small box. She hadn't planned to go into the cluttered junk shop the day she had found it, but as she walked from the El, something in the packed window had drawn her attention and in curiosity she had entered. The elderly woman inside greeted her as if she were a long lost friend, and the store seemed to radiate the warmth of her Grandmother's kitchen on a cold winter's day. It was there she had found it, hidden, almost buried in a small wooden showcase that held trinkets of so many other's pasts.
That their faith bound them together as strongly as their shared pasts was something neither she nor Luka could deny. The fact that he had only rediscovered his such a dramatic contrast to the way she had clung to hers to keep her from drowning in the years before she had found him. What better gift then one which would remind him of that which had brought them together?
She lay the necklace back in the box as he glance fell on the clock on the dresser. Luka's shift was scheduled to end at eleven, with the commute he would pick her up in twenty minutes, time enough to wrap the gift so she could give it to him before Mass.
The plane was dark as Maja woke and in that moment of confusion she knew what she wanted. Sitting up she rubbed the remaining sleep from her eyes, her lip trembling slightly as she unbuckled her belt and crawled across the seat to where her father slept.
"Tata?" She touched him tentatively, her voice quiet, a habit born out of experience. "Tata?" She repeated his name even as he came awake, her eyes finding his in the dim light.
"What's the matter, Beba?" He turned to allow her room to settle on his lap, then folded his arms around her as he lay a kiss on her hair.
"I don't want to sit alone." She lay her head on his shoulder as she slid her arms around him, her actions saying what words had yet to say.
"Did you have a bad dream?" He asked the question quietly as he rubbed her back soothingly.
"No..." The hesitation in her voice caused him to move his hand to her hair.
"Maja...what is it?" Without thought the last vestiges of sleep fell away as his concern for his daughter overrode them.
When she spoke finally her voice held a hesitancy to it. "You won't leave me in Croatia like you had to leave Jasna and Marko..and Mama left Neven..will you?"
Her words hit him with the force of a semi and Luka immediately tightened his hold on the small girl, burying his face against her. "Beba...no...nothing is going to happen to you." How could he have thought someone so young could fully understand?
"Maja...what happened to Jasna and Marko..what happened to Neven..." He drew a breath to calm himself as he struggled for the words to continue. "There was a war going on, but that's been over for a long time." He went back to rubbing her back as he attempted to ease her fears. "Beba...Mama and I will keep you safe, just as we always have. I promise you. " He couldn't stop the catch that broke his voice as he uttered the vow, the knowledge that he had failed in the same promise before still with him after so many years. It's not the same. He forced the thought to override the memory as he lay his cheek to his daughter's hair. "Tata will keep you safe, Beba."
He grew quiet as his daughter toyed with the chain of the crucifix he wore around his neck, giving her time to absorb his words. When her hand stilled and her breathing slowed to signal a return to sleep, he knew the crisis had passed, her fears had been eased...at least for now....
to be continued...