by J.D. and M. Blais
Luka slept restlessly..the oxygen easing the congestion in his lungs but the coughing still interupting his sleep. There were low voices talking, the tones going up and down in the room. As the voices filtered in he stirred, a harsher cough signalling his waking. "You could have put a cold pack on it," he heard William say, almost exasperated. Thinking for a moment that the man was speaking to him, he rose up on one arm and looked around the tent.
William was standing, leaning with one hand braced on the larger table, an expression of both relief and irritation on his face. Claire was sitting on the cot, one of her knees drawn up to her chest. There was a fresh bruise on her temple, right above her right eye, and the beginnings of a black eye. "If it was going to swell, it would have done so already, Poppa."
"Did you even look to see if there were any available?" he asked, roughly, a tone Luka had never heard from him before.
He looked between them, not speaking so as not to intrude, then lowered himself as he was hit with another coughing attack.
Instead of answering, she looked over at Luka, realizing he was awake. "Luka....I'm sorry, I was trying to keep my voice down."
He shook his head and pushed himself up again. "What happened?" His voice came off raspy.
William cleared his throat, trying to be humorous although there was an undercurrent of anger to his voice. "Someone tried to shut Claire up in a more direct way. I could have told them that didn't work," he added.
Luka's face seemed to pale a bit, as if his first reaction was that far worse had happened and he immediately swept his eyes over her for the signs.
She ignored him, unfolding herself from the cot and taking William's spot on the stool. "Don't listen to him. It's nothing. Are you having fun sleeping in my cot?" she said, with a brief smile.
He offered a cough as the preface to answering. "Not considering this fun." His eyes continued to study her as she settled closer.
William hadn't moved from his spot, and there were lines of tension in him. "Don't bother him, Claire. What happened to your shirt, by the way?"
Her jaw set stubbornly, and she didn't look at her dad, but instead at the oxygen tank. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm impressed you got the oxygen tank here."
He caught the avoidance and his stomach plunged. "The Serbs stopped you?" His voice dropped even quieter then it had been. He was sure he was going to be sick as his mind latched onto the worse case scenario.
"I saw you off this morning, Claire," William said, "and you were wearing the pink t-shirt that you liked."
Claire sighed, twisting a little on the stool she could face them both. "Yes, they stopped us. So what? We all came back. With our supplies, I might add."
Luka's breath caught, dread filling his face. "Did they?" The question was barely a whisper.
She let out a breath, crossing her arms over her chest. Her father remained silent. "No," she said, after a moment, although she didn't say anything further.
"But they tried..." It wasn't fully a question and his words held the shakiness of that half doubt.
She didn't bother to confirm it, instead saying, "We got what we went there for."
He felt the bile rise at what to him was the confirmation...then dropped his head as he waited for it to pass.
William stayed by the table, seemingly using it for support. "I'm not going to ask if you thought it was worth it," he said, evenly, "because I know what you are going to say. But I'm going to ask you to stay in the camp for a while. No more little trips." He paused, looking at her. "Okay, Claire?" His voice was slightly stern, but behind it was a little bit of pleading. She merely nodded, stretching her legs out a moment. Luka lifted his head to look at her, but remained silent. He heard things in William's voice, read things in his body language that perhaps only he could, as another father, and wondered if Claire saw it too.
"If it hadn't been me, it would have just been someone else we know, Poppa," she pointed out.
"That's not the point, Claire," he responded, and his voice was getting back to normal. "I'm not interested in 'what ifs.'"
"We're not worth it." Luka made the statement very quietly as he lay back.
"Yes, you are," she said, with a mixture of irritation and worry. "Everyone here is."
He shifted his eyes to her. "And your life is less important?"
"It's not a matter of important, Luka," she answered, turning to face him. "People here are sick and injured, and can't get the help they need on their own. I can help them. And I'm going to." She glanced at her father, then back again. "That's why I came here. It's not right to do nothing when I can help."
He looked at her then cleared his throat. "And getting yourself raped...or worse, will help?"
She swallowed, but returned his look anyway. "Going into the city for supplies did help."
He dragged his hand across his face in frustration before answering. "So it was worth the cost to you?" He found the response once more punctuated by the ragged cough as the congestion loosened.
William finally pushed off the table, stiffly, going over to the smaller table and refilling Luka's glass with water. Claire dropped her eyes a moment as he moved behind her, then looked up again, meeting Luka's gaze.
"Yes," she said, although it was very quiet.
He had no reply to that and simply closed his eyes a moment to register his surrender in the battle.
"What would you have me do, Luka?" she asked, almost begging.
He opened his eyes at the question. "Go where it's safe...no one should have to live through this."
"What about the people who cannot leave? What would happen to them?"
"The same things that are happening to us now..." He dropped his eyes with the comment, then swallowed a half cough.
William spoke up, his voice low and even. "That's enough, Claire. Leave him alone for now." He offered the water glass to Luka.
He raised his eyes to William as he offered the cup, a tenseness to his jaw. "Thank you." Claire fell silent, pressing her lips together, watching the two of them. As Luka took the glass he raised it to his lips, then took a couple sips.
"I brought some clothes," she offered, much quieter.
"Thanks..." He turned to look on the side of the cot for his picture, assuring himself it was still there before looking back to her.
She rose from the stool, going over to an overlooked military duffel by the door flap, then knelt to open and rummage through it. William took the vacated stool, pulling his stethoscope out. "It sounds like your breathing has improved some, Luka," he said.
He nodded at the comment then sat up fully to allow the man to listen. "I think so.."
"Good." He smiled, a little more worn than usual, and placed the instrument against his chest. "Now I get to say I-told-you-so to the others about the antivirals."
Claire pulled out a pair of faded jeans and what looked like some sort of fleece long-sleeved jersey, and brought it over to the cot, placing them on the foot of it.
Luka released the cough he'd suppressed, a still harsh hack.
"The cough will be the last thing to go, of course," William responded. "It's going to persist as long as there is any fluid at all." He moved the scope from his chest to his back at different points.
Luka looked at the clothes unable to withhold his surprise.."They look pretty new still."
She managed a half-smile. "I really looked through everything. We weren't supposed to open anything until we got back, but I knew if I waited, someone else would have gotten everything worth having. A lot is black market," she admitted. "But that's why we went...they had the best to offer. The donated things don't always go very far."
He coughed again, then nodded. "Big money in it..."
"The way of the world," she said, and got a dark look from her father. "I'm sorry, Poppa, but they do have the best stuff."
William shifted his eyes back to Luka, putting away the scope. "How about your throat?"
"Kind of raw..."
"Keep trying the broth for now?"
He rubbed his hand across the two days beard growth...before nodding. "I'll try."
"Claire." The older man said it as a near-command, and she obediently fetched the thermos and mug from the table, pouring the thick liquid into the mug before handing it to her father. William offered it to Luka, as Claire replaced the things on the table, screwing the top back on the thermos tightly.
He handed back the water before taking the mug...then forced himself to take a swallow.
He looked over at his daughter, as his hands set aside the cup of water. "You should have some too," he pointed out. "You haven't eaten since you all left this morning."
Claire stood with her arms crossed, rubbing her hands along her upper arms as if she was cold. "I'm not hungry," she said, reflexively, then couldn't help her sheepish smile as she looked at Luka. He took a couple more sips before lowering the mug, a half smile as she repeated his too frequent excuse. "Um...I guess that excuse doesn't work around here," she admitted, color staining her cheeks. Absently, she ran her fingers over the bruise over her eye.
"Not working for me.." He raised the mug and took another sip.
William sighed, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. "The two of you," he said gruffly, "will be the death of me."
Claire chuckled, relaxing her tense shoulders just a little. "I'll go get something for us from the mess, Poppa."
As he lowered the mug again his face grew a bit more serious. "Is Angelique on you now to send me back?"
William shook his head. "She stops by when you are asleep, and I can tell she is itching to double-check my work, but I've been able to fend her off so far."
"I don't want to make trouble for you..I can go back."
Claire went to step out of the tent, and William called to her, "Stop and get something for your eye, Claire." His voice brooked no arguement.
She glanced back, tiredly. "I will." She let the flap fall down behind her, her footfalls dying away.
Only when she was gone did Luka ask his final question. "Did they rape her?"
William turned back to Luka, his expression tight. "She refuses to say." His face was shuttered, where usually it held warmth, and Luka wondered if William had asked her outright.
"The others won't?"
He shook his head. "I think she's coerced them into mutual silence."
He brushed his hand back through his hair, shoving the shaggy bangs off his face. "She thinks you'll take her away if she talks?"
William sighed. "And she'd be right. Furthermore, she'd be subjected to a medical exam I don't think she wants." He clenched and relaxed his hand on his knee, reflexively.
"She's lucky if that's the worst they did to her..." He offered the comment knowing he had seen patients who'd suffered far worse. "I know that doesn't make it better though."
William lifted his hand and rubbed his eyes, his expression upset. "That's what she would say, too. That it's good it wasn't anything more than that." Luka dropped his eyes to the soup, not sure what else he could say. "I think the others are feeling some level of guilt," William added, leaning forward so he could rest his elbows on his knees, his back bent. "Three men and an older woman, and her, it was just those five. And the other four have avoided me since they returned."
Luka rubbed at his eye before lifting his eyes. "They were lucky...some will take any woman...or girl."
"Yes.....lucky," William repeated, although he didn't sound quite convinced.
"I used to wonder what I would do if they tried to take Danijela...I think I would have died to stop them."
William nodded, glancing up a moment, his eyes dark with something undefinable. "I know what you mean.....but Claire doesn't have any such protector. Just me." He paused, his words heavy. "And I let her go today."
Luka was surprised at the first sign of self-reproach he'd ever heard from William. "The men who were with her..." He stopped before he finished, already knowing the answer.
"That's the question, isn't it?" William answered quietly. "Really, you would think it would be enough. But you never know who is willing to sacrifice their life for yours. Serbs travel armed. No doubt there were guns involved. I'm guessing the others were held at gunpoint...and only a few people would brave that for their fellow human being."
Luka found himself unable to suppress the shiver that ran through him at the thought and he crossed one arm across his chest as he waited for it to pass.
"I think my version of the events is the right one," William said, low. "But the others won't confirm or deny it."
"Most of all, I think she's scared," he admitted.
"She won't talk to you about it?" Luka glanced to the soup with a sigh, wanting to pass it off and instead lifted it to take a couple more swallows.
He shook his head. "It would upset me greatly, and she knows that, I bet. I still wish she would, but...." William watched him drink the soup, and added, "But I think it's also that she doesn't want it to get around camp."
He lowered the mug. "She thinks the others won't talk?"
"Like I said, they seem to be observing some sort of organized silence. They all seem to have agreed not to say what happened."
He rubbed his hand across his face..debating something with himself before speaking. "I should go back so she can be in here with you."
"You mean sleep in here?" he asked, straightening. "I already asked her to, and she won't. She says there's no reason." He shook his head. "She's as stubborn as they come, that one. I think she's still stung about Angelique's lecture, too, about giving you some room."
"I thought she stayed here before I came."
"She did. But she says there's no reason to uproot you from the spot when she's fine on her own."
He let the hand drop but didn't lift the soup again.
"Luka.." He smoothed his grey hair back with a calming gesture. "Maybe it's best to let her do her normal things for now, and see if she opens up. Sometimes that is how she works. Plus....she did point out something important. Those men who questioned you have still been coming and going."
"They want to ask me more questions?" He dropped his head to cough then lifted it again.
William nodded mildly. "They haven't come out and said so, but they did ask both Claire and Angelique where you were."
He released a soft sigh of resignation. "Tell them I'll answer them."
"Well, I wouldn't rush it," he said, with a thin smile. Angelique told them you were away from the camp receiving medical care, but Claire..." He shook his head, amused. "She told them something along the lines of you had gone to Rijeka and fallen off a cliff somewhere."
He allowed a smile to find him at the comment. "I doubt they believed that."
"Oh, you need to hear her spin a good lie. It's a work of art, I tell you. I had to stop her in the middle of some elaborate description of the benefits of salt water."
He ficked his tongue across his lips as his face dimpled with the deepening of his smile..then he shook his head. "Must have been a good way to get out of trouble when she was little."
William gave a little grunt of agreement. "I wasn't nearly so good at seeing through it as her mother was. I was appalled when I realized she was even lying in the first place."
Luka simply nodded, then looked at the mug before raising it again and taking a small sip.
He leaned back, stretching his back a little. "I remember when I confronted her once....I think she was about fourteen. And I asked her if she really believed what she wastelling me. And she looked right at me, all serious...." He paused, shaking his head a little, and Luka realized suddenly that William was fairly close to tears. He couldn't say how he knew, only that he did despite few signs. "Right at me," the older man continued, "and said, Poppa, that's the trick of telling a good lie...you have to make yourself believe it first, before you tell it."
He shook his head in disbelief then took one more sip before lowering the mug.."That good enough?" He tilted the mug revealing a little more then half still in it.
William gave him a half-smile. "What, do I need to count your sips now, young man?" he chuckled.
His face reflected the concealed chastisement. "I just don't have an appetite."
"It's not that much, Luka." He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the last of his tension. "It will help the antivirals work."
He released a sigh then reluctantly raised the mug and took several more swallows. There were footsteps outside the tent, and Claire ducked back in, holding two bowls of something in her hands. There was a fresh bandage taped over her brow. Luka glanced to the door as he took another sip then lowered the mug, relaxing when he saw it was Claire. She handed one of the bowls to her father, and took something from under her elbow...a pair of what looked like sneakers. "See, all fixed up," she said, pointing to the bandage with her now free hand.
William took the proffered bowl. "Good," he said, eyeing it.
He watched the exchange quietly...forcing yet another swallow down.
She looked to Luka, finding a spot to sit on the opposite cot. "Look what you are missing out on," she teased, though it was still a little strained. She held up a spoonful of the food. "Couscous..."
He shielded another cough.."So I see."
"You sure you don't want any?" she asked, as William ate a spoonful of his own.
"I'm sure...I don't know if I can get through this."
She smiled, taking a spoonful. "You'll manage," she said around the mouthful. "I have faith in you." Her eye was swelling a little now, but she didn't seem to notice it.
He gave her a half smile then nodded to the sneakers. "You're collecting shoes?"
William snorted before she could answer. "She does it at home," he said dryly.
Claire smiled, sheepish, but said, "Those are for you. I had left them at the Jeep."
He took a final sip then set the mug by his leg as he sat back. "Me? I have those boots.." He didn't bother to say they were a size too big, although he was perfectly aware.
She gave him a patient look. "Well, now you have two pairs of shoes," she said simply.
"Thank you..." He offered the gratitude softly due to the cost of them to her.
She merely nodded, drawing up her knees again as she ate, looking down at the bowl.
To be continued...