By M. Blais and J.D.
Another day, she fretted. Another day they had sent her away from the medical tent and away from Luka. No doubt by now he'd think she forgot her promise. Gritting her teeth, Claire bent her concentration back to the pills she was
sorting. She had visited other refugees, her basic grasp of Croatian a valuable resource. Much of her morning, then afternoon, was translating instructions and transcribing medical histories. Then taking down complaints after that. If only she'd been able to check on him, no more than a quick
visit even, she wouldn't suffer from the restlessness now. From the niggling concern at the back of her mind, a small voice rising from her intuition.
Today was the day. She had watched it's approach with a nervous resignation. She wasn't a doctor, just a med student volunteer, and an American at that, so she couldn't stop the inevitable interrogations that the Croatian army had started. They needed to know what had happened in the outbreaks of fighting, she recognized that. But she knew just as certainly that it would plunge Luka further into despair to relive it...to talk about it. Just speaking to her had been an ordeal. Somehow, she didn't expect the army to be so sympathetic.
Word had traveled quickly through the camp of the debriefings. New arrivals and those too injured to speak before were summoned to the tents to tell their stories. Luka had been among those, Angelique only able to spare him from it for a week. A week. So much happened in one week, Claire thought, finishing her task with an impatient sigh. She'd made a tenuous connection with him, enough to get him thinking of things other than the war. Would that fragile
connection withstand a reintroduction of the horror that brought him here in the first place?
She waited long past the time it should have taken before seeking out Angelique. She knew the news was bad before the French doctor even spoke, just from her expression. Yes, the questioners had come and gone. Yet when it was
over, he hadn't returned to the clinic.
He hadn't come back.
Dusk fell, and with it more of the steady, chilling rain. Raincoats, or any plastic for that matter, was scarce, and so Claire had gone out with just an extra layer, a denim shirt over her normal t-shirt. No one bothered to stop her, or even try. Now, both were soaked, and her hair was slicked back by her
fruitless efforts to keep it from dripping into her eyes. She had to stop twice already to fetch in other wanderers from different points in the camp, but now she was beyond the usual spots. She hesitated at the border of the camp, knowing that the farther she went, the more dangerous it could become. But Luka was nowhere within the camp's limits. She couldn't stop now. The rain made visibility low, and the mud clung to her shoes, sucking them down and
making the going slow.
I didn't break my promise, she wanted to tell him. I was trying to get there, I really was.
"Luka!" she yelled, cupping her hands over her mouth. She didn't expect him to answer, but she had to try, mucking her way across the landscape. The fence materialized out of the condensation, and she grabbed it with her fingers, using the leverage to draw her feet out of the mud. Holding on with her hands, she moved alongside it. "Luka!!" She didn't try to
amplify it now, just kept calling out. The fence kept her from stumbling once or twice. Her shoe was nearly pulled off by the sucking mud. "You have to be here somewhere," she said aloud, into the rain, although she did not shout it.
Sluicing water off her hair again, with the moisture trickling down her back, she slogged forward, before she saw the dark, indistinct shape against the fence. "Luka?" she shouted, working to get closer.
His body materialized out of the rain's twilight, and she felt boneless with relief, even as new worry seized her. The rain was freezing, and he'd just gotten over pneumonia. At this rate, she expected to get sick herself. If he heard her, he didn't acknowledge it, his thoughts far away from the camp. His dress was the same as it had been each time she saw him, though the shirt was soaked and plastered to his too thin frame.
She didn't know if he knew where he was going, if all of this was on purpose or only aimless wandering. The fence he leaned against was his only support, the crutches up against the fence. He rested his arms on the rail, dropping his
head in his hands. The fence was too sturdy to cross, or climb over for that matter, especially in the shape he was. He hunched his shoulders up, as if that would somehow make a difference in the chill that was running through him, then gave in to the cough.
He didn't turn or show any indication of even being aware she had joined him. She reached him, grasping his wet shirt. "Thank God....it is you." As she grabbed him he flinched, pulling away even as he turned, his face registering first panic then relief as he identified who it was. She let go of the fabric, seeing the fleeting emotions cross his face, and feeling like she had slapped him. "I'm sorry....I called your name.." In the step back he lost the stability of the crutches and fell heavily against the railing. Reflexively, she reached for him again, to keep him from falling. "Luka..."
"Claire?" Her name came out hoarser then his usual tone... his voice raspy from the coughing.
"You have to come back," she begged. "You can't stay out here like this....please." She heard the desperation in her voice but she was unable to stop it. Some doctor she would be..
He shook his head. "I can't...not yet." He seemed oblivious to the water dripping from his hair, and the shivers running through him.
"But....it's freezing rain, Luka." She clenched her hands in the folds of his shirt. "You've already been out here too long.... you're going to get sick, all over again."
"Maybe it's my turn..." He seemed to look through her as he spoke.
"Your turn?" she asked, horrified. He couldn't mean that. "No, Luka, it's not.....damn you, look at me! This isn't right." She shook him, with her fists in his shirt. He dropped his eyes to her, a dullness in them that hadn't been there before. "Please....come back with me. Don't just give in like this."
His gaze was devoid of emotion. "I know you are a fighter. Please, Luka."
"They all died...my family...." He interrupted himself as he coughed. "Those at the hospital...I should have been one of them.."
"But you weren't," she insisted. "Luka, there's a reason you survived, even if you don't know what it is yet." She shivered as she gripped him, the rain drumming on them both. "I know there is a reason. You can't just give up without knowing what it is."
He shook his head, his teeth chattering with the cold. "I'm tired...I don't want to do this anymore."
"All you have to do is live, Luka," she said, plaintively. "Just try to live. For me, if not for yourself. Or for Angelique. Please." She drew him closer, wrapping her arms around him in an effort to warm him.
He didn't pull away from her which in itself said much, as did his shivering. "I don't want to talk about it to them...I don't want to keep remembering." He lost anything else to another round of coughing.
"No more talking, Luka. No more right now." She held him tightly as the coughs wracked his body, aching with sympathy and worry. "Just come back with me...I'll make sure no one makes you do anything. I promise."
He debated saying more but the tone of her words stopped him and instead he simply nodded.
"Thank you," she murmured, gratefully.
He steadied the crutches though the numbness of his fingers made holding them difficult. "What if he's there...with more questions?" He asked the question quietly.
She released him, just barely, looking up to meet her eyes with his. "I won't let him get anywhere near you. I promised you, Luka. I meant it. Even if I have to..to.." She struggled, trying to find words strong enough to convince him. "Even if I have to knock him out." He drew a shuddered breath, the chattering of teeth audible in the stillness of the moment before he again nodded his acceptance to her words. "Come....come with me," she urged, stepping away just enough for him to move forward, towards her. She peeled off her denim shirt, even though it was soaked as well, and wrung it out as best she could, then put it around his shoulders. She hoped the extra layer would help, even if it was still wet.
He did as she asked, moving the crutches ahead then stepping forward to meet them. If he noticed her action he said nothing to register it, instead dropping his eyes to the muddy ground. She moved with him, coaxing when she
had to, although her own lips were numb now as well. Once or twice she stumbled, as she watched him instead of her own feet, as they reached the border of camp. He stopped as they hit the camp, drawing up short and making her trip. She was saved by the mud clinging to her shoes. "D-don't stop," she urged, shivering. "We're almost there.."
"What if he's there?" His voice was shaky as he spoke. The fear seemed to paralyze him for a moment.
She cast her gaze all about, but she still wasn't sure who hespoke of. Taking a deep breath, she turned a little, away from the medical tent. "C-come this way. We won't let him know we are here. We'll go to my tent."
His surprise at the suggestion was obvious. But inexplicably, he nodded his acceptance and began to follow. She led him away from the bigger tents into a more isolated area, with smaller ones. Her arms were clasped tight across her
chest to ward off the chill, but she sneezed anyway, as she kept her movements slow, and close to him. "Almost... there.." He didn't bother to try and answer. His concentration was on just moving the crutches ahead then following, bursts of coughing breaking his silence. Reaching her own, at the
end of a short line of tents, she drew up, stopping to hold the flaps open for him. As she lifted the flaps, he glanced to her before finally entering.
Why had she taken this step? She couldn't answer the question in his eyes. Most of all, she wanted to protect him. There was nothing she could do about the past, but the future she could control, at least a little. She couldn't explain the crushing responsibility to keep him alive, and safe. It went
beyond being a doctor, beyond helping another human being. Somehow, she knew if she didn't protect him, he would die. The knowledge was certain, and painful. She had to do this.
The tent was small, but neatly kept. There were two cots, across the space from one another, each with a small table next to it. A foot locker was at the end of each cot, and a bigger table with camp chairs stored under it. A few books
spilled off the one closer to him, the one she gestured him to. "Please...sit. We have to get dry..."
As he stopped, his shivering became more obvious, his teeth chattering, as he looked to her. "It'll...get..wet..." He stammered the words out, more concerned for the conditions of her tent then himself.
"I-it will dry," she replied, pulling several blankets from the locker. "The longer we stay wet, the better c-chance of getting sick.." She moved over, gently pushing him towards the cot, her own clothes dripping onto the floor. "Luka..."
He couldn't argue her logic and his unsteadiness was growing. He moved over by the bed and lowered himself to it, before leaning the crutches beside him as he hugged his arms around himself.
She clutched the blanketsclose as she moved over. "You have to take off your shirt..." She didn't wait for an argument, simply reached for his worn clothing, to help him remove it. The denim shirt she had given him was gone...fallen off somewhere along the way? He fumbled with the buttons, then dropped his hands as she moved to help. Deftly, she undid the buttons, peeling the wet material off his chest and arms, and depositing it unceremoniously on the floor. Unfolding one of the blankets, she draped it around him, pulling it tight and then rubbing it briskly up and down his arms. That he hadn't been eating well was clear. The oversized shirt had hid the extent of his thinness, but
numerous scrapes and bruises were still present from the ordeal of his escape. He dropped his eyes as he knew she couldn't help but see them. He wrapped his fingers in the blanket as he drew it around himself, unable yet to stop the shivering. She took a second one up and placed it over his head, absorbing the wetness in his hair. "It's alright....you'll be warm soon," she said, quietly, as she covered him with the blanket. "Lie down...."
He lifted his eyes to her in as she dropped the second blanket over the first then stretched his injured leg out in front of him. She pushed gently on his shoulders to make him lie back. "You need to get dry..." he protested, his voice settling into a raspy croak.
"I will....just, let me get you taken care of first." At her words, he lay back from where he was, not even making it as far back to bring his legs on the cot. She unlaced the boots, pulling each one off carefully, and setting them aside and using the edges of the blanket to dry his feet. "You have to.." She paused, sneezing again, then continued, "move up.... your legs need to rest as well." She moved to his shoulders, sliding her arm under him to help him get fully onto the cot. At her request he slid his hands under his injured leg and
pulled himself back.
She gave a small grunt of satisfaction, rocking back on her knees with a sigh, then pulled the blankets better to cover him. He lay back once he was fully on the cot, then rolled to his side as a coughing spell hit him again. She chewed
her lower lip, her hands going to rest on his back as he moved. This wasn't working yet. The chill had gone through him, to places she couldn'treach with just the blankets. "I have to g-get you warmer...."
"Get dry...yourself..." He forced the words out between coughs. He pulled the blanket around him tighter.
"I will....but I think you need to take off those pants as well. You're chilled..." She didn't know how he would take the order, but she wasn't going to back down. The material was icy, and it only made matters worse. He released a sigh, then moved to unfasten the belt that held them up.
Determinedly, she reached to also undo the clasp of the pants. "The bandages are soaked too, I think...but I can't replace them yet..." She sneezed once more, violently. He rolled to his back and used his good leg for leverage to
raise up and ease them down.
His right leg was wrapped, the knee still badly swollen. There was a matching bandage a little higher...the bullet wound. She knew from talking to the others what it would look like, how he had earned it. Something angry and animalistic surged it her as she thought of someone taking a gun and shooting at him, to kill. To kill Luka. But none of it showed on her face, she made sure. Pushing it away, she deposited the pants as well on the floor.
She never thought about him being naked. Only getting him warm mattered, only making sure he didn't take a turn for the worse. She tucked a third blanket in and around his waist and legs once he was settled again. He rolled back onto his side as he lost the rest of his clothing, hunching the blanket over his shoulders as he shivered under it.
Suddenly he sat up, his face panicked. "Jasna..." he gasped, making the blankets fall in his efforts.
Startled, she grabbed his shoulders. "Luka....lie down. What.." As weak as he was, he pushed against her hands with unusual force. "Luka, please, you have to rest, get warm.."
"No...I have to have it..." In his panic, his words came in Croatian, and she struggled to comprehend.
"Have what?" Her eyes searched his, not understanding, until she realized what it was. "The picture..." Gasping, she felt ice crawl down her spine. Was it lost out in the rain? "Where did you leave it, Luka?" Her words were urgent, trying to get him to look at her, instead of panicking.
"It's all I have..." He kept his words in his native tongue, as he started to move his legs from the bed to find it. He was unaware of the strain on the bandages.
"No, Luka.....stay here," she commanded, trying to sound firm. "I'll go get it. Just tell me where it is."
He flicked his eyes from her to his pants. "My pocket....oh God...let it be there..." His words came in the rush of irrational thought, and his English was gone as they did.
She grabbed the pants from the floor, delving her hands into the pockets. His eyes burned into her, locked on her actions. Having no luck with the first one, she pulled her hand out and searched the second pocket, and withdrew the picture, wilted some at the corners with the rain. "Here..... here it is, Luka." His relief was immediate, as if she had found something much more valuable. She placed it in his hands, gently, curling his fingers around it like she might do to a child with a cherished toy. "See....it's fine." He
swallowed as his eyes settled on it, confirming it was true. He touched each of the faces with his finger before giving in and laying back again. Sighing with her own relief, she replaced the blankets around his legs carefully. He laid it on the cot beside him, blotting it with the corner of the blanket. Exhausted, she laid her head on the cot, closing her eyes for a moment.
It took him a moment to realize she was still there, then he shifted his eyes to her. "You need to get dry..." He slid back into English, though his voice was little more then a croak now.
For a long moment, it seemed like she had fallen asleep, then she opened her eyes slowly. "Hmm?"
His own shivering was still evident as he spoke again, chattering teeth breaking his words. "You need to get dry."
She lifted her head, having forgotten about her clothes still being soaked. "I didn't even notice," she murmured, rising to her feet unsteadily. She moved to the trunk at the foot of the cot, opening it and drawing out some of her clothes. Wincing, she pulled the wet shirt over her head, depositing it
on the ground, and turned her back a little as she got rid of the bra as well, then used a blanket to dry herself. She kept one of her eyes on him, over her shoulder, but he let his eyes close as she dressed, giving her a sense of privacy in the small tent.
Only a cough breaking the moment's silence. She did the same with her jeans, and panties, then changed into dry clothes, still keeping the blanket pulled tightly around her. Like him, she still shivered, and sneezed once. Once her
clothes were on, she moved over and sat on the floor next to the cot, rocking back and forth a little. Her hair was still wet, and left damp imprints on the blanket. Even in the dry clothes, she felt cold seep up through the ground and into her. No doubt it would be better on the cot, but she didn't want to move even the few feet away from him. What if he panicked again? What if he needed her? What...if...
He dozed fitfully...the dreams of his ordeal still too fresh for him to sleep long...when he came awake it was with the cry of interrupted anguish. She slept with her head propped against the edge of the cot, and woke when he cried out. Quickly, she put her hand on his exposed arm, reassuringly. His eyes snapped open with the touch...momentary confusion registering at the unfamiliar surroundings. "Ssh... you're safe, Luka. It's me, Claire.."
He released a shuddered breath with realization...then relaxed.
"Go back to sleep." She stifled a yawn, her eyes tired. Gently, she readjusted the blankets with one hand, making sure he was covered.
He offered a ragged cough in response..."You should go to bed..." His voice had deepened even more with sleep.
She chuckled, drawing her own blanket closer around herself. "I was sleeping, too. I'm fine right here."
"You sure?" He asked the question with the drowsiness of sleep already calling him.
"Mmm. Rest now, Luka."
He offered another run of coughs before touching the picture at his head.."'kay..."
To be continued...