By M. Blais and J.D.
Claire ducked into the tent, dropping off supplies she was carrying, and walked over to his cot. She could see the hunch of his shoulders, his back to her, where he lay looking at something. The remains of breakfast was sitting untouched on the small table by the bed. "Hey, Luka," she called gently, "are you awake?"
He released a sigh as his name was called, and covered what he was looking at with his hand. She had a brief glimpse of a battered photograph. "Yes."
She briefly moved the plate with a finger as she noticed it. "You didn't eat...."
He did not turn over to look at her. "I'm not hungry," he answered, remarkably in English. His tone suggested that was merely a favor, and to expect no more from him.
"Mmmm," she said, noncommittally. "We already had this argument. Your body is hungry." She sat on the floor next to the cot, getting comfortable and showing no sign of leaving.
He slid his hand in the pocket of his pants, hiding the picture from her with the act. "What do you want?" he said sullenly.
"I want to sit here and talk to you." Her tone left no room for disagreement, but she knew she would compromise, to get him out and about. "I'll accept a trip outside as a substitute."
"I told them, I don't want to go outside."
"Told who?" she asked.
She figured as much, from their looks alone as she'd entered. "Ah. Well, I didn't talk to them. I still think a trip out would be good. It's more comfortable than the floor."
"No one said you had to stay." He still made no effort to look at her directly though he has kept his words in English. His voice was still hoarse with the pneumonia.
"That's true," she allowed. "I'm staying because I want to. Didn't I say I wanted to talk to you? I'm just trying to persuade you to go outside with me." He gave into a brief coughing jag in lieu of answering. She patiently waited, though her expression became less cheery as it went on. It wasn't getting much better, as she had hoped. "Do you want something to drink?"
"No." The single word was all he mustered.
"Will you go outside with me?"
"Why can't you just leave me alone?" His voice trembled with fatigue instead of anger, despite the harshness of it.
"Because I can't," she answered, trying not to let worry creep into her tone. He'd see right through that. "You won't get any better if I do."
"Why is it so hard for everyone to understand I have no reason to get better?" He sighed again, and with a groan forced himself to sit up. He lifted his injured leg off the bed and turned so he could put his feet on the floor.
"Then I'll have to find you a reason." She scooted back so he had room for his legs, then rose to her own feet. "Need any help?"
"Are you coming outside with me?"
He finally lifted his eyes to her. "I never said I was going outside." This time an undercurrent of hostility was present, even though his accent was very heavy and the English broken.
"What if I said please?" she offered, meekly.
He came close to rolling his eyes, and settled for rubbing them instead. "Don't you have something better to do?"
"Right now? No." She sighed a little, sitting back down on the floor, back in the former position. This might take a while, she admitted to herself. Apparently it didn't pay to be optimistic.
"You going to sit there all day?" he asked, wearily.
"As long as you stay in that cot, yes." She watched him, her eyes frank and serious.
He released another exasperated sigh, then grumbled something unintelligible in Croatian before reaching for the crutches. She simply watched him, patient, as he moved forward and used them to get to his feet. It took a minute for him to steady himself before sliding them under his arms.
She stood. "Going outside? That's a great idea."
When he stood, it was obvious the clothes he wore were the same as from the other day. The pants and shirt were at least a size too big, and the length of the sleeves and legs several inches too short. He took another moment to catch his breath, which only sent him into another coughing run. She stifled her immediate concern as he started for the door, his eyes on the floor in front of him.
When he reached the door he stopped. Claire could see him fighting with himself, fighting with his desire to turn around and just go back to the cot. "C'mon, it's not that bad out there," she said gently.
Her words seemed to nag at him, and he set his jaw, nudging the door with his shoulder and moving through it. She stepped through after him, closing it. He only went as far as the bench outside then sat again.
Small steps, she reminded herself. She moved around him and sat at his other side. "Thank you. I really didn't want to sit on the floor all day."
Quietly, he pointed out, "There are plenty of people here that want company..."
"If they want company, then they already don't need me," she countered. "They have their reasons to want company. I worry about those that don't want me around. I worry about those that don't have their will to live."
"What does it matter?" He still did not look at her, absorbed with the motions of setting aside his crutches. It was as if he could will her away by sheer inattention.
"You matter to me."
"You don't even know me," he scoffed.
She looked at him. "What if I told you I was honoring someone's dying wish?" He pulled his eyes from the ground in front of him and finally looked at her. Her eyes were somber. "Who's picture did you hide in your pocket when I sat down?"
"No ones." His eyes flickered a little, but his expression remained unreadable.
Archly, she said, "I wouldn't have figured you for a liar, Luka. What happened to your family?"
He lowered his eyes under her frank gaze, his face tightening before he answered. "They were killed."
"And you survived."
He swallowed. "Yes."
"Tell me about them. Were they good people, kind? Did they love you?"
He shifted the injured leg as he leaned back. "I don't want to talk about them." Very quietly, he added, "I can't."
"Very well," she relented. "But I think they probably did, and I think they wouldn't want you to simply waste away like this. So, if you won't honor their wishes, I will. I won't let you just give up."
His voice remains quiet. "I tried to live without them. I can't anymore."
"You can, and you will," she insisted, low but urgent. He slid his hand to his pocket, as if touching it was a way to still touch them. She knew what was held in there. "Can I see the picture?"
Luka continued to look at the ground in front of him, not sure how to react to her words. When she asked to see the picture, he was at even more of a loss. If he showed, she would want to know more, and if he didn't she would persist
until he did. There was no way he could win in this. With a sigh, he slid his hand in his pocket and withdrew the small black and white photo, letting his eyes drop to it before he reluctantly passed it to her without a word.
She took it very gently, cradling it in her hand. "What are their names?"
"Danijela...and my daughter was Jasna." He spoke the names quietly, his eyes still on the ground before him.
She merely nodded, holding the picture in her palm for long moments. "Did you take this picture?"
He shook his head. "No, a friend did...I had my son." He let the statement trail off as he drifted into revealing more then he had intended.
"Marko." The name was barely audible.
She nodded. "You and he had gone off for the day, I take it." It was a sheer guess, but she so badly wanted to keep him talking.
He lifted a hand to wipe welling tears before they fell, moisture she missed seeing because of the shock of hair that fell before his eyes. "No, it was Jasna's birthday. He was too young...I was holding him while Danijela was helping Jasna with her presents."
"When was it taken?"
"A little over a year ago."
She nodded, absorbing that. Two children, dying while they were so young. And his wife… "Thank you for telling me," she said, quietly and reverently. "And showing me the picture."
He wiped his eyes again, still looking directly in front of him. "Yeah."
She sighed, low. "For their sake, that's why I can't leave you alone."
He looked over to her with the comment. A crease of confusion showed between his eyes. "I don't understand."
"You asked why I couldn't just leave you alone, I'm assuming to die," she started to explain. Her words were more emotional than she intended. "You didn't believe me when I said I cared.....so they are my other reason. I don't believe they'd want you to do this to yourself. And since they didn't get to live out their lives, for them I want to make sure that you do." She managed to sound very matter-of-fact as she said the last, but her eyes held a very faraway, sad look in them.
"I should have been with them that day," he insisted, affected by her words. "If I had stayed...."
"You would have died, too, I imagine."
He nodded, unable to disagree. "At least we would be together."
"But that didn't happen, Luka."
He glanced to the picture as she held it, then swallowed. It looked different in her hand, foreign. "No...it didn't."
Her voice got a little quieter. "As much as you want to have died with them, I think they would be just as happy you didn't. I like to think they would be happy you survived; that you didn't come back before you did. That at least one of you got away."
He swallowed again. "If I had come back sooner I might have saved my wife, or my daughter."
"You don't know that. You won't ever know it." She handed the picture back to him. "Can you walk with me a little?"
He took the picture, brushing his finger over the two faces. Then he lifted his eyes to her, wanting to refuse yet again. One person he barely knew wasn't going to make him care again. Everything he said was true, and just confirmed
his desire to let it all go, to sleep and not wake up.
"Just a little bit," she said, simply.
Perhaps he didn't have it in him to refuse any more. He slid the picture in his pocket and reached for the crutches. She waited for him to get situated, before she rose. He used the crutches to brace himself as he stood, then placed them
under his arms.
"Is your leg any better today?" she asked, as he struggled for the right balance.
"It's all right." He adjusted the crutches, then looked over to her. Standing fully again, the ill fit of the clothes even more apparent.
She started them on a path out of the worst foot traffic, more like meandering around the camp. "Tell me what you are going to do after this place..."
"I don't know." He dropped his eyes to the ground in front of him, not really looking anywhere but where he was walking. He recognized her words for what they were, an effort to draw him out more. What did he care for the future?
To be continued...