By J.D. and M. Blais
She paused for a long moment, giving him a chance to say more, then said, "I don't think we both can stay here forever."
He looked at her from the corner of his eyes. "You can go home." His tone left it unsaid that he couldn't, but they both knew what he meant.
"My father lives here now," she answered, mildly, refusing to fall into that trap. "And my mother is dead. So....no, not really. I can go to a new house, sure." She shrugged. "Just like you can."
"Your father won't stay here," he persisted.
She glanced at him. "I wasn't aware you knew my father."
"I don't," he gave in, "but you're not Croatian...so he is probably just helping here."
"You're right. We're both Americans." His pace was slow, his gaze back on the path in front of him, and he showed no indication that he heard that. She kept pace with him, quiet for a little bit. "What were you doing before the war?"
He started at the question, and looked over to her. "I was going to school...it's why we were in Vukovar."
He was forced to return his attention to the path as he skidded the crutch on an imbedded rock. After the small stumble, he caught himself with a grunt. "I was studying to be a doctor."
"Ah...." She hesitated, surprised, then said, "Why not go back to that?"
He was quiet too long before answering, and when he did his voice was strained as he tried to not let his explanation get hold of him. "I had to leave the hospital...when the Serbs moved in. I was told that those who stayed were killed. Patients..doctors, it didn't matter. There's nothing left there."
"I see." She waited, trying not to be too pushy for once. "There are other places to study.....other schools."
He stopped, his gaze harsh on her. He glanced down at himself, the leg, the crutches, the poor clothes, then back to her. For the first time, he realized she couldn't be any older than he was, and most likely younger. Idealistic, like he used to be. Her eyes were clear and unclouded by anything like grief. He slid his hand in his pocket to pull his picture out. "This is all I own," he said, roughly. "I can't afford to go back even if I wanted to." He put the picture back, hiding it once more from any prying eyes.
Quietly, she said, "It's not always a matter of money.....you never know. But for now I guess I can't argue with you."
He forced himself to look around them. Pain was making itself known in his chest, his lungs, and he had mistaken it for heartache this time. "I think I need to sit down," he gasped.
"Can you make it back to the tent?" They had walked in a short path, and it was a little distance ahead of them. He offered a nod of his head though he was obviously winded. She disregarded his words, even though she asked for them, and pointed to a smaller bench that was positioned
outside a nearer tent. "Here, this is closer."
He flicked his eyes to her but didn't argue. He said he could make it back, but now he was afraid his words were a lie. He moved towards it and sat with a groan as he stretched his leg out in front of him.
"I'll go get you something to drink." Without asking him, she moved off, to where she knew she could get water.
He leaned back and closed his eyes as he waited for his breathing to ease. Ceasing movement made him lethargic, exhaustion overriding his senses, and he gave in to mild dozing. It seemed as if he had done no more than leaned back, before the sound of a young child calling to another jerked him awake. A brief look of confusion marred his face as he acclimated to where he was again. The camp, the
He rubbed his hand across his face then glanced to his side. Claire simply sat beside him on the bench, holding a cup of water. It said something of his sleep that she had gone and come back without his waking. It was apparent she'd been watching him for a little, although the expression in her brown eyes was inscrutable. Automatically, she touched his shoulder, and said "It's okay, you just fell asleep."
He nodded. The weakness bothered him a little, but not enough for him to care. "I keep thinking I'll wake up one of these days and none of it will be real." She didn't answer, her face drawn, just held out the cup of water. He knew she waited to see if he would add to it, but he merely laid the crutches against his good leg and took the cup. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," she replied. He raised it to take a sip, then lowered it again. It did make a difference, however small, to his dusty throat. She sighed, then said, "I guess I shouldn't have made you walk so far."
"Not your fault." He toyed with the cup a bit.
"It's okay, I know how irritating I can be. You don't need to spare my feelings." She managed a small smile, attempting at humor.
"They've been on me to do more," he admitted. "I just .." He dipped a finger in the cup as he searched for the words he wanted. "I would stay inside if they would let me."
"I know. I wish it were that easy. I know you want to be left alone. But you won't heal like that." She sighed a little, for the first time seeming upset. "I don't like forcing you, but I'm worried if I don't, you'd never get up again." It bothered her more than she wanted to say. He drew a breath, not yet
ready to admit the truth in her words. "If you want to go back now, we can."
He took another drink from the cup to steel himself, before handing it back to her and forcing himself to his feet. She held the cup, rising herself and letting him have room to move. It took moments to readjust the crutches. She saw him glance around them, noting if anyone was watching before starting back the way they were came. "You're here to be with your father?" His words were almost too low for her to catch.
She looked at him, surprised he asked her a question about herself. "Yes and no," she said slowly. "I wanted to try being in the field, out of school. I chose this place because he was here."
"It's nothing like it was...before..." He grew quiet again, shocking himself with the attempt at conversation.
"What was it like?" she asked, and this time he sensed real interest in her question, and not just a chance to keep him talking. She truly wanted to know. "I always find myself wondering...."
Lifting his eyes from the path in front of him, he swept them to her, "It was everything it isn't now."
She studied his eyes, as if she could see the past of the place in his gaze. "I wish I could have seen it."
His words told her little. He knew that, but how could he try and make her see what it had been like for them? How could he impress upon her the love he'd had for the place he'd grown up in? He couldn't even tell if he wanted her to know
because of her desire to, or his wish to remember something before war. He looked down at the ground again, then nodded at her words.
Gently, she said, "I've seen pictures, but I'm sure they can't do it justice."
"I wonder sometimes if it will ever look like it was again." Nothing would be the same again, not to him, but it was a bare glimmer of hope, for the place if not for himself.
"In time, it should look good again," she offered. "Perhaps not the same, but good."
For the next few minutes he said little, using his concentration on the rocky ground as an excuse to allow his mind to wander a bit. Finally he released a sigh and raised his eyes to her again. "Your father…he is in the camp now?
She nodded, her gaze still on him as he contemplated. "Yes, he's working here."
He paused a moment to resettle the crutches, before starting to walk again. "I'm not sure I've seen him…most of the time it's Angelique."
She knew the doctor he spoke of, another one who shared her interest in seeing Luka well again, even against his own wishes. "You may not have met him yet, although I have mentioned you to him. His name is William Northstar."
He shook his head, the name not registering as one of those he had dealt with. "Why would you tell him about me?"
"Why not?" she said, mildly. "I spend time with you.….that's a good enough reason to mention you, when he asks what I have been doing."
He stifled a cough before answering. "You talk about everyone you visit?"
She was quiet a long moment. "Not really...." she admitted.
"Then why me?" He slipped into Croatian as the next words eluded him. " I don't need to be pitied..."
She looked at him, sharply. "I would never pity you. I won't ever treat you as anything but a person, Luka." Her voice was…hurt, he realized. She looked away, with a slight frown, and then said, "If you want to know, I mentioned you
to my father because I thought you were different from most of the others."
Her words stopped him, and he turned on his foot to look at her. "Different why? Because I couldn't care less if I died
tomorrow?" His words were almost hurled at her, his last stand at getting her, at getting them all, to understand. To accept that there was nothing left, and stop trying to make him live for nothing.
She did not flinch, absorbing his words. "Partially, yes, although you are not the only one here who feels that way."
He gave into a brief coughing jag before he could respond, leaning heavily on the crutches as it swept through him. When it eased his voice was rougher. "Then what makes me different?" He didn't understand her.
She looked almost sad for a moment. "Because you still have fight in you," she admitted. "You argue and fight against me every step of the way. The others.….they aren't stirred by anything."
He shook his head Shewas wrong. "I'm tired of fighting...I don't want to start over again." As he spoke he began to walk again, his eyes glazed over and once more on the ground.
"Don't do this, Luka," she urged. "Some part of you doesn't want to give up. And as long as I see that, I can't give up either."
He paused and looked over to her. "Don't you see? They took everything that meant anything to me." His eyes burned into hers.
"I do see," she said, low. "Everything but your life."
His shoulders sagged under the weight of her words and he let his head drop. "They took my life...they just forgot to kill me." His words came even more quietly then hers.
She slid her hand over his shoulder. "Luka....."
"I'm tired," He admitted softly, making no attempt to pull away as he spoke. He did not say what he was tired of….all of it, he guessed.
"I know," she said, low, keeping her hand on him, gently. "I know you are tired of everything right now. I'll take you back to the tent."
Some part of him thought she might understand. He nodded, straightening enough to settle the crutches back under his arms before he began to walk again. She escorted him back to the tent where they started, avoiding the people coming and going on the way.
When they reached the tent he stopped to look at her. "Can I go inside?"
She smiled, briefly. "I know I am bossy, but you don't need my permission. I am the one who needs to ask you, when I can spend time with you again."
He didn't answer right away, his concentration on getting through the doorway as he negotiated the narrow aisle between cots until he reached his. Stopping as he reached it, he eased himself down onto it. She followed, not pressing him, but only helping set aside the crutches when he was done. As she took the crutches he leaned forward to unlace
the scuffed boots.
"Do you want any help?" she asked, indicating his boots.
He wanted to say no, but for whatever reason he simply nodded, before sitting back and bracing his hands on the cot so she could pull the boots off. She knelt on the floor and helped pull them off, setting each one aside as she did. "Thank you," he said. With a soft groan, he lifted his injured leg onto the bed before pulling the other one up next to it. His
hands rubbed the ache in his thigh. "You'll keep coming no matter what I say, won't you?" He asked the question amid the wince his kneading of muscles was bringing, and he almost didn't expect an answer.
She hadn't risen from the floor yet, which kept her level with the bed. "Yes, I will." Her voice was matter-of-fact.
He nodded before laying back, the exertion catching up with him. "I thought as much.." He offered a drowsy smile with the acceptance, the first he'd had for her.
"Get some rest," she said gently, touching his shoulder once more before taking her hand away. She remained where she was, apparently until he was to fall asleep.
He slid his hand in his pocket, confirming that the picture was still there. "I'm going to sleep now...okay?"
She smiled. "Okay."
He let his eyes settle on her for a moment longer. "You can come tomorrow then," he replied gruffly, before closing them and sliding into the waiting arms of sleep.
To be continued...