By M. Blais and J.D.
Luka came awake not long after dawn, a hoarse coughing breaking the silence of the tent. Claire was no where to be seen, although her blanket was pooled on the ground. Sunlight was trickling in through the tent flap, which was ajar.
There was a man bending over by the other cot, seemingly divesting himself of his coat and a bag, setting it on the bed. He was tall, and his build was boxy but not overmuscled. His black hair was shot through liberally with gray, and it was lengthy, pulled back in a thin ponytail that draped down his back. His demeanor was calm and unruffled, and his skin was a deep tan. Coupled with his almond eyes, it was easy to guess he was of some Native American ethnicity. He
glanced over at Luka as he came awake. "Good morning," he said mildly.
"Claire?" Her name came as a quiet croak.
The tall man smiled, straightening. "She'll be back soon enough, I'm sure. One of the other doctors is quite busy giving her a heavy-duty lecture." The wrinkles around his eyes crinkled with his smile, making his age seems somewhere in his late 40s. He picked up a cup from the nearby side table and filled it with water from a canteen. "You need a drink first, Luka."
He cleared his throat before speaking again. "Angelique?"
The man nodded. "Like I said, she'll be done with Claire soon, I imagine." He moved over, offering the cup. "She can get rather hot and bothered. Dr. Forquet, I mean."
He nodded as he took the cup. "Thank you..." He struggled for his voice before taking a drink.
He picked up his stethoscope from the table. "I'm William, by the way. Claire's father." He slid the instrument around his neck. "Do you mind if I..?" he asked, holding up the end of it. "If you want to wait for Angelique, you can." Luka shook his head, offering the cup back before he forced himself to sit. The exertion brought a brief coughing jag from him, and he covered his mouth as he waited for it to ease.
William drew over a stool from the foot of his own cot, and settled onto it by the bed where Luka sat. He adjusted the instrument in his ears and leaned forward to place it on Luka's back. "You had everyone worried," he said,
conversationally, as he listened. His free hand set the cup aside. William could see that the younger man was thinner then he should be,evidence of tight rations and the ordeal of fleeing Vukovar. Bruises and scrapes were visible from his escape, but he merely propped his hands on each side of the cot and said nothing.
He moved the scope to different points on Luka's back, more concerned with his lungs than anything else. "But you are back now, and that is all that matters, I'd say." He frowned slightly with concentration, then moved the scope to Luka's chest, trying to pinpoint a few sounds. There....thick, mucus sounds.
"Doesn't matter..." He offered the remark quietly.
"What doesn't matter?" William asked, his voice still very mild. He leaned back, somewhat satisfied, and took the instrument off, placing it around his neck reflexively.
Luka cleared his throat again in preparation of answering. "Where I am."
William chuckled, scooting back a little on the stool. "Well, young man, where you are right now is a hot point of contention among at least two people around here." He lifted his hands, slender knotty fingers settling onto Luka's shoulder. "Here, I need to check your glands," he said, indicating he needed to touch Luka's neck. He drew a rough breath then nodded his consent, submitting to the exam with no enthusiasm. William's hands were quick and practiced, moving over the skin and prodding the glands with painless ease, before he dropped his fingers. "Decent," he said. "How is your leg doing?" He got a shrug for an answer. Well, he'd had worse. "May I see?"
Luka drew a wheezing breath then pulled the blanket aside to reveal it. A thigh bandage covered the bulletwounds and another around his still swollen knee. He leaned back.. propping himself on his forearms. "Interesting," William murmured, touching the bandage. "I would have thought Claire would have the foresight to change the dressing last night, after it got wet." Alright, so he was fishing for information. After all, he was still mentally adjusting to the fact that his daughter had brought this particular patient here. But Luka remained silent, and he sighed. "I'm not a big fan of seepage, but it's not necessarily a bad thing in this case. It can wait until you get back to the medical tent, I think."
"If you hand me my clothes...I can go." He puctuated his words words with more coughing.
William looked back up at him, assessing. "Claire tells meyou were studying to be a doctor." He acted oblivious to the request.
He smiled a little at that. "Noble profession, but I suppose it's easy for me to say that." Luka barely registered the words, sat back up and reached over to lift his leg off the bed as a start to getting dressed. "Why didn't you want to go to the medical tent last night, Luka?" William's voice was low, but
That stopped him. Picking instead at the bandage on his thigh, he started, "I didn't want to answer any more questions..." He struggled for the words.
William nodded, with a heavy sigh. "I heard the authorities were doing more questioning." He paused. "But you came here?"
He shook his head. "I left the camp...Claire brought me here."
"So you could avoid the authorities?"
He cleared his throat again, unable or unwilling to meet William's eyes. "Yes."
William crossed his arms, contemplating. "Do you trust Claire, then?" Luka looked to him at the question..but didn't immediately answer. William merely raised an eyebrow. The hesitation alone spoke volumes. "You can say no, if you want to. I'm not asking as her father."
His words came very quietly. "She doesn't make me relive it.."
"I see." He regarded the younger man for a long moment, then asked, "Do you want her to continue coming around, or does it not matter to you either way? Again, you can be honest." Luka had dropped his eyes back to the bandage... pulling at a loose thread along the edge of it. Again, that hesitation. William watched him, shrewdly. "Well, at least you seem to be somewhat close to Angelique, yes?"
"They can't understand that I have no reason to live..." William could see Luka surprised even himself as the words came out before he realized it.
"You're right," William admitted. "They can't, and they won't leave it alone. Not until you find some reason to. But that's not what I am asking about. Angelique, right now, would prefer that Claire not visit you for the time being."
He shifted his focus to William. He didn't seem to understand the leap. "Because she brought me here?"
William watched him, pondering his words. "Think about it, Luka. You were a medical student once. What would have happened if another med student had interfered with a resident doctor's patient, going so far as to not bring him to medical attention immediately?"
"It was my decision," Luka protested. He stopped to give into a coughing bout. "I told her I didn't want to go back."
"Yet you could have been in very mortal danger, with your lungs in the shape they are. Claire isn't a doctor. She may be someday, but right now she isn't." William's voice was firm and unrelenting. If Claire was right, Luka needed to start thinking about something other than his grief. And hopefully, this would tap into his analytical self.
"It's my choice...." Luka repeated, weakly.
"As long as your care falls under Angelique's hands, it was perhaps your choice but not Claire's." William waited to see if the statement would have a response.
Luka coughed again, then cleared his throat. " I left the camp last night...if not for her I don't know if I would have come back."
William nodded, very slowly. "Is that so?" That he had admitted Claire had saved his life, it meant he had been at least somewhat aware of the danger.
"Yes." He made the admission even quieter then his previous words.
"Well, the fact remains that though she may have saved your life, the others also think she put it back in danger by bringing you here. But," William added, mildly, "I can speak with Angelique, let her know the circumstances."
"I couldn't go back there last night, I couldn't see them again." Luka leaned forward as a particularly intense coughing jag hit him.
The older man put his hand on Luka's shoulder as the coughing took him over. "And you indeed would have died had you stayed outside last night."
"That's what I was hoping for..." His confession came in a whispered wheeze.
William didn't hesitate. "Then why did you let her bring you back here, Luka?" he asked, low and in his ear.
"I don't know."
"I think you need to examine that." He leaned back up. He had planted the seed, he knew that. Somewhere, deep inside him, Luka wanted, at least a tiny bit, to live. Maybe where he couldn't recognize it, but it was there.
The younger man rubbed a hand across his face, and drew a shuddered breath. "I don't know what to do anymore....I keep hoping I'll just go to sleep and not wake up....but I always do."
Quietly, William said,"There's not much you can do right now, and I suspect that's the worst of it. The feeling of helplessness. Even unable to help yourself." He looked at Luka, his black eyes somber. "I do understand that, at least." For the first time in many years, he felt the stirrings of an unusual sympathy. Something about this particular refugee made William feel more strongly that he was meant to meet him. That perhaps his own experiences could benefit another person who was suffering. Luka rubbed his eyes again, trying to keep a fragile hold on his emotions. William recognized the signs as if he were reading his own body language. "Even dying gets difficult, when it seems like the simplest thing. Isn't that it, Luka?"
The Croatian leaned forward, dropping his head in his palms, a slight tremble to his shoulders. William knew that right now, in this moment, he had to tread carefully, speak with well-chosen words. His voice had gotten quiet, but underneath it thrummed a gentle strength. He knew what the younger man was feeling, the edge he was walking along. "It's a precipice, Luka, that you need to back away from. You don't need to look forward to do that. You don't need to look to the future to move away from that leap. Because if you haven't taken it by now, you aren't going to. You have to believe me on this...I've been there as well. You don't need to want to live....you have to want not to die first."
The tremble gained strength as Luka fought to hold on to himself. "I miss them so much...and I can't help thinking I should be with them..." He squeezed his eyes shut against approaching tears.
William placed his hand on Luka's shoulder, the gesture fatherly. "It's your instincts telling you that, Luka. Like any man has for his family. We're supposed to protect them, we're taught. And when we can't, it seems like the worst failure. But it's only failure if we chose not to protect them in the first place."
"I should have been able to save them...I wasn't strong enough..."
"Do you think it was your strength that worked against you.... or was it time?" He couldn't help but wonder what things might have been like for him had someone said these same things to him, nearly fifteen years before.
"If I hadn't been so tired...if...if I could have kept breathing for my daughter..." Luka dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.
His hand tightened just a little on Luka's thin shoulder. It felt like lancing a boil, knowing he was causing intense pain, bringing something to the surface, but at the same time needing to bring about healing. "Time, Luka. It is one of
those things man must accept is out of his control. You'll see in time...peace comes in accepting that the world is beyond our control, beyond our strength to bend it to our will. We cannot force things to be the way we want them to be."
Luka forced himself to look up and to him. Pain was clearly etched in his face, like lines of grief. "I let her die. They both died because I couldn't save them."
"You don't allow things to die, Luka. They just do." William's tone was not sad, but accepting. Age did that to a man, made him accept things. Luka was too young to have learned that lesson. "They die because it's the way of the
world. People die because they must. It's mortality....none of us are beyond it."
"Then why can't I?" He dropped his fist to the bulletwound as if he somehow needed to feel the pain to know he could feel anything.
"You will, just not right now. None of us can say when we are going to die, Luka. No one in your family decided that the day they died was going to be their day, no more than you can say today is yours, or tomorrow. Stop courting death, Luka," he advised. "He won't come for you until it's time." Luka
leaned forward again, dropping his head in his hands..his shoulders rocking. "Nothing you can do or say will convince Death to take you before it's time for you to go." He moved to the cot, slipping his arm around Luka's shoulders, comforting. "When you lose someone you love when it seems so...preventable...it can destroy you."
He felt the panic rise in the man's shoulders, like a stalled breath. When he raised his eyes to William's full of despair and pain, William returned his look, accepting and without pity. "You'll always miss them, Luka. I won't lie to you. But you have to accept that it's going to be that way." He brought his
hand to Luka's hair, so he could pull the younger man against his shoulder, for the support.
He didn't resist the touch and as he leaned against him, the walls caved. When the tears came, they broke in choked breaths that shook his body. William held him tightly, his hand moving reassuringly over Luka's back, his cheek resting
against his hair. His demeanor exuded understanding, born of his years. And because he understood. Because he alone knew what it was like to watch a woman die whom he had loved, and know there was nothing he could do about it. Luka grabbed onto his shirt as if that was the only way he could maintain any connection to where he was. William continued to absorb the emotions, being the rock he knew Luka needed just then. "Grieve for them, Luka. You always
will. But dying isn't any more a cure for that than anything else is."
He gave into his grief until exhaustion called to him, and he seemed to be fighting for every breath he took. Even then, he refused to release his hold. Perhaps fear he would be swallowed by the intensity of the pent-up emotions. William obligingly held him until he gave any indication of letting go on his own. "All I can tell you is that it fades, some, over time.
Time is all. Give in to it, Luka. It governs us, not the other way
It was finally the need for sleep which prompted him to loosen his hold.."I''m tired..." The words came weakly...his voice almost non-existant.
"I know." William slowly moved his arm so Luka could lay back again on the cot. "I expect you'll be that way for a long time...."
To be continued...