By M. Blais and J.D.
It was raining again...no...had been raining since the previous night, and between that and the wind there seemed no way to get warm. Luka lay on his cot, the cough settled deep in his chest and the thin blanket pulled tightly around him. Claire crept over, quietly, holding a mug in her hand. If any of the nurses saw her bringing contraband to the refugees, she'd be sent right out, med student or not. She paused, then circled the cot, coming to where he was facing. Like a child's game, she thought irrelevantly. Always in circles...
She almost stepped on a book that was lying by his boots. Carefully, she lifted her foot and bent to retrieve the abandoned volume. A Croatian poetry book, from what she could translate. Here? She glanced around the tent. The
damp chill hung heavy in the tent and even the nurses and doctors had layers of sweaters on. "Luka?" she said, softly. Her eyes went from the book she held to where he lay.
He opened his eyes, dark even against the dark circles under his eyes. With a resigned sigh, he rose up, only to suffer an attack of coughing. "You came...back." He voiced the obvious quietly.
Claire carefully folded her legs and sat crosslegged on the floor, facing his cot. "I told you I would." She righted the pages of the book and set it down. "Reading?"
He coughed and shoved the thin pillow under his back so he could sit more. "Should have stayed in." He glanced up to emphasize his point. Minor drips of water hinted to the age of the tents and the dampness made the floor bitterly cold under her legs, but she didn't move.
She tucked a damp hair behind her ear. "Nah....I had something for you." She held up the mug, steam escaping from the surface of the liquid.
He eyed the cup, but the thought of anything warm broke through his low resistance and he extended a hand for it. "What is it?"
She grinned, seeing that he was already intrigued. "It's cocoa," she said, dropping her voice to a secretive whisper. "Don't tell anyone. It's from my private stash." She wrapped his fingers around the mug.
The tremble to his hand from the chill was obvious under her own hand, and he raised it to his lips carefully taking a slow sip before lowering it. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She picked up the abandoned book, turning it over in her hands. "What is this?"
He looked to the book. "Something Angelique left."
She read the title silently, then opened the book and flipped a few pages. "It looks like poetry. Is it any good?" She looked up at him. He clutched the cup with both hands to keep it from spilling as he coughed harshly, and nodded.
She rose on her knees, forgetting the book, and put one hand around his own. She didn't want him to spill the hot liquid on himself. The other hand went to his back. Under her palm, the shirt was thin and he wore no tee underneath.
The blanket was his only other cover from the chill. "You're so cold," she said, softly.
"Damp in here." He coughed again then took a breath as it eased.
She looked around the tent again, her eyes darkening, but knowing there was little she could do. "Here, drink the cocoa," she urged. "It's still nice and hot."
"Others worse then me..." His words were more habit than protest, she could already tell. He aquiesced to her suggestion, and raised it to his lips again.
"I know." Her hand rubbed his back in little circles. He took a couple sips then lowered the cup again. "I'll try and get some more blankets in here," she offered. "I think some new goods are coming in soon."
"People out there need them too...have the heat in here." The heat, he did not say, amounted to one small unit at the far corner of the tent near those patients in the worse condition.
"Hey, no arguing with me," she teased, her eyes flicking over to the tiny heater he obliquely referred to. "I'm going to do all I can for everyone...but I think I can spare one at least for you." His response was another round of coughs that caused the cocoa to slosh slightly. She continued to rub, hoping the heat from her hand would transfer. His thinness was obvious under her hand, even if she had never seen him without the oversized shirt. "Tell you what," she said, easing her hand away. "You drink that, and I'll try some of this poetry, out loud." She sat again, cross-legged. "Then you can laugh at it." Studiously, she picked up the book, turning a few pages as she contemplated the Croatianwords.
As they spoke one of the nurses came over, a cup of pills in her hand. "Luka...I need you to take these. They'll help the cough." Claire glanced up as the nurse came over, hoping she wouldn't tell her to go. Admittedly, she looked like nothing more than a loafing teenager, crosslegged and with a book on her lap. Glancing at Luka, she caught his barely tolerated look.
This was telling, to her anyway. Would he refuse the medication? It was clear to her, had been clear, that he had no desire to recuperate. It was what drove her here every day, the worry that he might convince his own body to give up
out of sheer willpower. But before she could take action, he took the cup. When it was obvious the nurse wasn't leaving until they were in his mouth he tipped them back, washing them down with the water she offered as a follow-up.
She glanced to Claire, assessing her critically then looked back at him. "Thank you...you should rest soon." With that she headed off for her next victim..
He coughed again then took another sip of the cocoa before turning his dark eyes on Claire. "You read Croatian?"
Escaped from Nurse Ratchet, she thought. "A little," she said, with forced cheerfulness, not wanting to admit her reading was poor. She searched for a poem she could manage. Settling on a short one, she silently mouthed it to
herself first, getting the meaning down pat. Better than to inadvertantly read anything sad.
He watched her silently, sipping on the cocoa even as it cooled. "Not so easy.." He finally said quietly.
She looked up, with a sheepish smile. "No, it's really not."
"You don't have to..." He interrupted himself with a round of coughs. "It's okay."
"Well, I think I can try this one." She held the book with her fingers, clearing her throat. "Go on, drink up."
He raised the cup, ready to finish the cocoa off.
She started to read, slowly and painstakingly at first, and still managed to mispronouce a few of the words, like a schoolchild reading. The poem was fairly simple, just a piece about a Croatian sunset. He coughed into the cup as she
began to read at first, then gave an apologetic smile as it improved. She didn't notice the smile, concentrating hard on the poem until at last it was finished, then she lifted her face, with a grin. "How was that?"
The old man at the cot behind her obviously found it more amusing and laughed aloud. She half-turned, her grin bubbling into a laugh of her own. "I know! I'm terrible at it..."
"Not too bad.." He sat the empty cup beside his leg.
She flicked her eyes to the cup, pleased that he drank it all. "Well, practice makes perfect." She flipped through the book again.
He leaned forward as he was racked by a stronger run of coughing, one that left him a bit short of breath. "Be...glad... when this...is gone." He choked out between coughs.
She froze with her eyes intent on him, her hands stilling on the book, worried. The sound of his cough made her heart squeeze painfully. "It's the damp...it aggravates it."
"I guess..." He pulled the blanket more tightly around him, it's thinness offering only minimal warmth.
The nurse walked over again, eyeing him critically with a frown. "I think maybe you need some rest. The cough is worse and talking isn't helping you."
Claire sighed, knowing what was coming. "How about I just read to you some more, and you can try and sleep?" She gave the nurse a small smile, then shifted her eyes back to Luka. Argue with that, she thought, mulishly.
"All right...5 minutes," she agreed reluctantly. The woman walked away as Luka leaned back, foregoing an attempt at lying flat.
Claire touched his arm. "Just lie down, and no more talking. You can just listen..."
"Okay." His chest hurt far too much for him to argue and he simply nodded and eased his eyes closed.
Without him watching she could more visibly notice the rough rise and fall of his chest as he struggled for air to fill his lungs. She pitched her voice quieter, holding the book up so she could scoot closer to the cot. She chose
another poem, a longer one, and started to read, trying not to stumble over the words but instead keep her voice pitched at a soothing level.
He was asleep before she finished. Her shoulders slumping, Claire closed the poetry book and slid it beside his boots. Everything here was worn down, damaged....ailing. Boots and clothing, threadbare blankets, thin cots. She hugged her knees a moment as the chill made itself known again, insidiously. How could anyone get better in here, like this? But compared to the life or death struggle in the city, at least this was...what?...peaceful, perhaps.
It was difficult working here. Difficult to see the victims that succumbed every day to sickness and injuries, difficult to see all the new refugees coming in. The cold and the damp made her ache, and the endless tension took it's toll. She did everything she could with the others she treated, with the
limited resources and medicines that she had. But she wanted to make a real difference in someone's life. Saving them physically was one thing. Most of all, she wanted to save their spirit....Luka's spirit.
He was asleep, and the practical side of her knew that it was the best right now, the best for recuperation, for recovery. And she couldn't stay and watch him sleep. Although she didn't talk about it to him, there were others she needed to see, and speak to. Others she needed to help. Gently, her fingers unsure and hesitant, she patted his shoulder before retrieving the mug. "I'll always come back," she promised, quietly. "Always."
Outside, the rain waited to drench her, but it couldn't wash away determination.
To be continued...