Tuesday, August 9, 2005

The Gift

The Gift
By J.D.

Christmas...he dreaded it more then any other time of the year, maybe more so this year than all the others.  Luka had found himself counting off the hours all month.  He'd gotten through the weeks leading up to the holiday by pulling all of the extra shifts he could, and that had partially worked.  He had managed to avoid the holiday party, through creative shift swapping and thus avoided a repeat of the previous year, but that had only been a temporary fix. 

Christmas Eve Day...he'd had to force himself out from under the covers, the prospect of facing another day of the sad holiday decorations at the hospital almost more then he could handle.  He'd dreamt of Danijela and the children again...dreamt of the years of sledding with first Jasna, then Marko.  Even now that image brought a sad smile to his face, the boy so small, had nestled safely in his father's lap, too young to realize what it all meant.  But that was before...that was when the holidays brought joy instead of sadness. 

6am...the start of his shift...the start of what he knew would be too long of a day.  He deposited his peacoat in his locker before exchanging it for the labcoat and tried not to notice the Christmas cards taped to the various lockers.  Well wishes from family and friends...well wishes that he had once known but no more.  Not totally true of course..he had heard from his father...Tata...the call had come too early, the older man once more having forgotten the time differences.  Even though he knew his son would not be coming home he had tried to get him to change his mind, tempting him with reminders of home, and in the end accepting his failure.  He missed his father..his Tata...but he couldn't face going back..not now, not when the memories of what had been lost were so close to the surface.

At the Nurse's Station he reached for the first chart he saw...it didn't matter what it was, he only knew he had to keep busy...had to keep his thoughts on anything but what he could never have again.  The hours seemed to last forever...and with each passing one came more reminders of the day...Santa hats...Christmas carols, holiday cookies, couldn't anyone see they all made things worse? 

Early afternoon...his shift too close to ending...he couldn't go home..not yet...not to face the night alone with the memories.  "Dr. Kovac..."  He heard his name as he was completing a chart and glanced up to find Jerry holding his hand over the phone.  "It's Dr. Lewis, she wants to know if you could cover her shift...says she slipped on the ice and can't come in." 

"Yeah..sure..."  He reached for another chart without asking for more details, relieved that at least for a few more hours he could escape the memories.

6pm...the parties are starting...families are making their way around the city, and things begin to pick up.  Last minute shoppers...traffic accidents...drunks...slip and falls...he'd take them all if it meant he could avoid facing the emptiness that was his life.  The patients begin to run together but he won't let what happened to Rick happen to them.  Rick..yet another holiday reminder he wished he could forget.  Almost in tandem came thoughts of Erin...and he found himself wondering how she was...wondering if she had forgiven him.

10pm...no sign of things slowing...a relief in it's own twisted way...he should feel sorry for them...sorry that they were here instead of being at home with their families and friends.  Should feel sorry, but he didn't...couldn't, because for the moments they were here he was freed from reliving his past.

"Luka..."  He felt his stomach lurch as Kerry called his name and he stopped in midstride and turned to face her.

"I'm kind of busy here, Kerry."  He hoped that would be enough to stop her but somehow he knew it wasn't.

"What are you still doing here?  I thought your shift ended at 6."

"It did...but Susan called in, I said I would take hers...it's okay."

"It's not okay...you've pulled doubles three days this week already..I told you to cut back."  The redhead's face took on a hardness he had grown used to seeing.

"She slipped on some ice...and it's not like I have to be anywhere...if I get tired I'll find a room and get some sleep."  He knew that was a lie as soon as he said it...he wouldn't sleep here..couldn't sleep here, not and risk the dreams he knew would come.

"Aren't you supposed to be back on at 6?  That'll be 36 hours, Luka...find someone else to take it."

"Kerry...it's Christmas...there isn't anyone else...I don't have any plans...I can cover it."
He hoped his words convinced her...hoped she couldn't hear the desperation in his voice.  He needed to be here...needed to be anywhere but home alone.

Kerry lifted her eyes to his, and for a moment he felt as if she could somehow see inside of him.  Lifting his hand he wiped it down his mouth, swallowing the fear that she would somehow discover the truth he was trying to hide.  "All right...but this is the last shift you pick up extra this week.  You look like hell, finish the patients you're working on and find somewhere to sleep for at least an hour...do I make myself clear?"

"Kerry..."  He started to protest then at the glare she tossed his way let the rest of the argument go.

"I said...do I make myself clear?" Her voice took on an icier tone.

"Yes," Luka exhaled audibly...agreeing to the one thing he knew he didn't want to do. As the woman walked away he reached for another chart and flipping it open he began to skim the notes.

1am...he'd managed to avoid sleep after all...a four-car pileup had seen to that...one death, the rest minor injuries, but enough to delay the sleep he dreaded giving in to.  He slid the last of the charts in the rack and wearily wiped his hand over his face...he needed coffee.  He needed sleep...the thought triggered a yawn and he covered his mouth with his hand before anyone could notice.  He had to stay busy...had to not think about how things had been.  Without even being aware of it he leaned on the counter before settling his chin in his palm, meaning to study the board, only to have it blur as he tried to read it.  He was losing the fight...he straightened and shook his head.

"The board's pretty clear...why don't you go get some sleep?"  He turned to Haleh as she spoke.

"I'm good..."  He wondered if his words sounded as hollow to her as they did to his ears.

"You're not good...you're practically asleep on your feet."  Haleh's mouth curved up in a smile.  "I'll call Weaver if you don't."

"You wouldn't?"  He watched the woman's face for the signs that might prove she was lying.

"Try me."  He look hardened on him before she spoke again.  "Sutures or the Lounge..your choice."

Luka found himself looking around as if there would miraculously be someone there to bail him out.  When it became obvious there wouldn't be an escape he returned his eyes to her.  "Sutures..."  It was safer...he knew that...too many people used the Lounge..too many people who might overhear if the memories becametoo real.

"If we get a trauma we can't handle I'll wake you...now go."  He was sure the woman would have pushed him down the hall to the room if he didn't go of his own accord, and so he had, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do.  The room was quiet...and as he entered to reached around to switch the light off.  Why couldn't they just let him work...a few more days and it would be over for another year.  He released a breath and made his way to the bed that was farthest from the door.  As he took a seat he felt the fatigue settle in and in his mind he marveled at how quickly it seemed to happen.  He could simply sit here...could, but wouldn't...he found himself stretching out on the bed before he even realized he had done it.  The sleep was coming...he was past stopping it now, and despite what he knew the act would bring he allowed his eyes to close...

"Tata...I want to put the star on the tree..."  He moaned softly as the dream came, the small girl's voice so clear in his thoughts that he could almost believe she was there.  They hadn't been rich...but somehow Danijela had found a way to buy both the fish they had had for dinner and the turkey she would make for Christmas Day.  Their tree was so small...but to Jasna it couldn't have been more beautiful and the few presents that lay wrapped under it had held her transfixed for hours on end as she imagined what each might hold.  Marko was too young to understand it all but he had giggled as only a small baby can, fascinated by the single strand of blinking lights and enduring his sister's attempts to tie bows around his hands and feet.  He saw them all readying for Midnight Mass...remembered the chill in the air as they walked to the Chapel.  He could hear the mass...and just for a moment he could feel his daughter as she nestled against him, her attention captivated by the service.  That final memory was enough to wake him and without touching his face he knew his cheeks would be wet with shed tears.

Pushing himself up, Luka wiped the wetness from his face then glanced at his watch...5am, Christmas Day.  How was he supposed to make it through if he couldn't work?  There was no way he could tell Kerry why he needed to do this...no way he could make her understand the importance of it.  Turning, he let his legs dangle over the side on the bed....there had to be something he could say to make her understand without saying too much.

"Dr. Kovac?"  He heard the gentle rap on the door a moment before the door opened and Haleh pushed it open.  "Sorry to wake you, there's a GSW coming in."

"It's all right...I was already awake..."  He was off the bed even as he spoke, relieved that at least for now the past would retreat.  It wouldn't last, he knew that just as he knew that he would dread the day the memories stopped coming.  They had been his life, and with the pain of remembering came the joy of reliving what had been the happiest days of his life.  Maybe that was the reason they kept coming...not to bring him the sadness of their loss, but to remind him of all he'd had...and maybe one day might have again.  Maybe that was the gift they continued to give after all these years, the gift he had never noticed until today.  It was that thought that remained as he followed Haleh from the room, and for the first time in far too many years he felt the dread recede, replaced by a warmth he had never thought he would feel again.

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