By M. Blais and J.D.
Deeply asleep, Luka started to roll to his side, then groaned as the imobilized leg stopped him and brought him painfully awake. He lay back, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he acclimated to where he was. It happened without fail each time he awoke, and he wondered when, or if, he'd ever recognize where he was when he opened his eyes.
At first glance, the room seemed empty, a small amount of sunlight creeping into the room. But as his eyes fell on the far side of the tent, he saw that Claire was lying on her father's cot, one of her feet resting on the floor as she lay back. Her arm was thrown over her face, covering her eyes. She was dressed in jeans and a plain white t-shirt, and tennis shoes that were fairly muddy.
He raised up on one arm before coughing to release some of the phlem, and realized with a start that the IV had been replaced. As it eased, he lowered himself down again, casting his eyes to Claire, but his hope of not waking her was gone. She made a little noise, like one coming out of a nap, and she moved her arm off her face. Blinking in the light streaming in, she sighed, and moved her arms to push herself into a sitting position, swinging her other leg over the side of the cot. There were dark circles under her eyes.
He glanced around him, locating the picture and moving it to the side of the cot before looking over to her again. Reflexively she had looked to his cot, and realized his eyes were open. "Oh....morning. I didn't realize you were awake."
He nodded. "Just woke up....where's your father?" He coughed again, no success at repressing it.
She seemed chastised. "He just went on some rounds. I'm sorry.....He didn't think you would be up for a while yet, since the oxygen was helping your sleeping."
"That's all right. I think I bumped my leg...that's what woke me."
"Ah...if you need more sleep then, you should get it. You don't have to stay up to talk to me."
"What time is it?" His voice held the quiet rasp of lingering congestion and he tried once more to clear his throat.
She scratched at the bandage over her eye. "A little after 8 a.m. Here, let me get you some water." She rose from the cot and took up his glass, refilling it from the pitcher, then brought it back over to him.
He nodded before pushing himself up on his arm. "You look like you could sleep more."
"Do I look that bad?" she asked, morosely, as he took the glass.
"Not great.." He took a drink, wincing slightly as it hit his raw throat, then took another swallow much slower then the first.
She sat on the stool, drawing her knees up. "Well, I'm already up and dressed....seems pointless."
"You don't go with your father?" He took a third drink then lowered the glass.
"I volunteered to stay with you," she said with a shrug. "Sometimes I go with him, but just as often I have other duties."
"You don't have to watch me...I won't take off again."
She sighed, looking down. "I'm not trying to be your guard. Come on, Luka, can't I just stay in the same tent with you for once without my being the bad guy?" Her voice seemed strained.
"I'm sorry. I just meant if you have things you want to do..you don't have to stay here."
She shook her head, scratching at the bandage again. "No," she said quietly, "I'm just as happy to stay here for now. How are you feeling today?"
"You want to talk about it?" He asked the question quietly, ignoring hers. She looked up at him, blinking at the question. His eyes had settled on her, and not for the first time, he felt far older than he should for one his age.
"There's nothing to talk about," she answered, her tone nearly a whisper.
"I think there is," he said, gently. "So we can trade for it...you ask me something..and I ask you about yesterday." He could only hope her curiosity would outweigh her hesitancy in talking about what had happened.
She frowned a little, suspiciously, then said, "Ask you something? Like....anything?"
He closed his eyes. No time to regret his decision now. He reopened them and nodded. "Yeah."
She regarded him for a long moment, but instead of asking him a question, she said, "I saw your face yesterday when I mentioned the Serbs stopping us. It....was making you sick just to think about it."
"Then why are you asking me this?" she said, quietly. "Wouldn't you rather not think about it at all?"
"You can't not think about it...that's the problem," Luka admitted, and he couldn't be sure which of them he was speaking of, now. "It's always there when you close your eyes...so sometimes it helps to talk."
"Is that what it is like for you?"
He dropped his eyes, picking at the blanket a moment before he raised them to her again. "Yeah."
Quieter, she said, "Does it help you to talk about it?" Her eyes were intense, but sad.
"I don't really talk about it..."
"Would it, if you did?"
"I don't know."
Her eyes flicked down, as she took a small breath. "I don't want to bargain your life story out of you, Luka. It's not fair to you."
"It was my choice..."
"Then, if you want to tell me, you will."
"What do you want to know?" He asked the question quietly.
She thought about it a moment, then asked, "Why did you want to become a doctor?"
He considered his answer before speaking.."I wanted to give my wife and children a good life..and we needed doctors so it seemed like a good choice."
Claire nodded. "For the money, then? To take care of them?"
"To take care of them..to take care of others. In some areas there are not many doctors. I thought we would go to one of those places when I finished school."
"Ah....I see. People without a lot of care..." He nodded at her comment without adding more, and she pressed her lips together a long moment, silent, before she said, "Your turn...." Her voice sounded resigned.
Luka wet his lips. He knew that asking too much too soon would only backfire on them. Hadn't he learned that firsthand from the interrogations? And Claire was one of the last people he'd ever want to see hurt. Even if he resented it, he couldn't escape the fact that she had helped him, and others, those that weren't even her own people. "Tell me about going to Vukovar."
She took a short breath, and he realized she hadn't known what he was going to ask first. "Back before the Serbs took the city, an early shipment of donated goods, with meds, were stored at a clinic just on the borders. One of the other volunteers knew where it was, but didn't have the ability to go and get it. He asked several times for people to go, but the doctors refused to spare anyone. So finally, he started recruiting other volunteers."
"So you thought it would still be there."
She nodded. "The clinic would of course be raided, but it wasn't in the main building. Apparently at the time it was stored just off-site, since it hadn't been needed yet."
"So you went to get it," he encouraged.
"We're getting low on several things here....especially some forms of antibiotics," she said, lower. "We had to."
"Your turn," he said, quietly.
She glanced at him, surprised he was satisfied with her answer so far. Thinking, she asked, "What happened to your parents, or any siblings?"
"My Mother...died a few years ago. I'm not sure where my father and brother are. I hope safe, but it's been over 6 months since I had word of them."
She mulled that over. "There has to be a way to find them...."
"It's hard now. People have left without telling where they are going. Some just disappear." Was he considered one of those by his father, and his brother? He sometimes fell asleep wondering if they were doing the same, looking for him and perhaps on the verge of giving up.
"But someday, I think you will. After all, they are probably looking for you too."
He dropped his eyes as her words mirrored his thoughts, his hand idly pulling a thread on the IV tape before raising his gaze. "Maybe. If they know what happened in the city they may think I'm dead."
"Don't give up hope just yet," she said, quietly. He ran his tongue across his lips, not sure what to say so instead saying nothing. She couldn't extend the answer anymore, so she dropped her head, and said, "Your turn."
"Did you meet them coming or going?"
She raised her hand to rub at the bruise, reflexively. "Once we left the clinic, that's when."
He nodded once, holding the rush of questions. "Your turn."
She glanced up, again surprised when he left it at that. She stumbled, not having a question ready. "How did you meet your wife?" she finally said, although it was hesitant.
"We met at school." He rubbed his eyes and drew a light breath. "I would see her sometimes when I was getting coffee, and one day I asked her to go to a movie with me."
She didn't quite look at him, but she smiled slightly. "And she went?"
"No..but she said she would have a Coca-Cola with me...so I took that."
"High school?" she asked.
"University..she was taking a class. I didn't know how young she was at first."
"Much younger than you?"
He dropped his head at the memory then raised it, revealing a slight smile. "About 2 years."
"That's not too bad."
"Her father thought it was," he said, ruefully.
"He didn't like you?"
"I think he was worried for her," Luka explained. "They were very religious."
"Roman Catholic, right?" She caught the nod of his answer although she wasn't looking directly at him, and she paused. "Alright," she said finally. "Your turn."
He debated on his next question a moment, before asking quietly, "Did you offer to trade yourself to keep the supplies?"
Her eyes flew up to his, shock flooding her eyes. "No," she said. "They didn't even search the truck."
"Why wouldn't they search it?" He realized he'd had an idea in his head that explained it, something not so simply agonizing as her being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I don't know," she admitted, swallowing after a moment. "They made us all get out, but didn't seem to care about the Jeep. Maybe....maybe they thought we couldn't carry very much in it."
It didn't make sense to him, but didn't question her further. "Your turn."
She was slightly short of breath, the only indication that she was upset at all, but she only asked, "Where did your family live...when you were born, I mean?"
"Where is that?"
"On the coast...near Split."
She frowned a little, her mind trying to place the town he mentioned from what she knew of the geography. "Okay...I think I know where that is." He nodded, waiting. "I have to ask better questions," she murmured faintly. "Your turn."
"I'll give you one more...anything," he warned, "because my next one is going to be what happened when you got out of the jeep." He took a sip of the water as his voice cracked slightly.
Her eyes searched his for a long moment, then she said, quietly, "Very well. What do you think of me?"
"What do you mean?" It wasn't a question he expected at all, and he didn't know what she meant by it.
"I want to know what your opinion of me is....and if it's going to change after this conversation." Her chin had raised a little, almost defiantly, although there was a flicker of something undefinable in her eyes.
"Why should it change?"
"I think you know why."
"You didn't ask to run into the Serbs on the road..." He lowered his eyes, understanding with a sharp pain, what she was asking His voice got quieter as he said, "I've seen what they are capable of..."
"That doesn't always make a difference. Knowing, and understanding. You still haven't answered my question."
"When I was fleeing Vukovar," he started, hesitantly, "I spent a night in a farmhouse. It had been shot up and was deserted. I thought it was lucky for me, because part of the roof was still there. The next morning I found the bodies of the people that had lived there. They had killed all of them. Raped the women..the girls," he corrected, his throat tight. "They had killed a young boy." He left the rest unsaid. "They didn't ask for that...they were just in the wrong place."
"Would you consider it pity, then?"
He raised his eyes. "What?"
"Are you going to pity me now?" she asked, her voice quiet but strained.
"Is that what you are doing to me," he asked, "because I was shot..because my family was killed?"
She returned his look without flinching. "I already told you once that I would never pity you. That I would never treat you as anything less than a person."
"So why would you think I would be any different?" He wasn't sure what he thought, if he was hurt by the question, but some part of him understood perfectly well why she was asking it.
"I always assume people are different than me," she said, slowly. "And this is a different thing...."
"This is a war, Claire," Luka answered, roughly. "Terrible things happen and we can't seem to be able to stop them."
She sighed, worn. "You didn't tell me what your opinion was. My father and Angelique have implied that I've been bothering you too much."
He swiped his tongue across his lips before answering. What was it that made people able to go on after being as damaged as they both now were? Perhaps knowing they were needed. A comfort, he realized, he did not have now, but maybe he could give to Claire. When his words came they were measured. "Before you started coming around..all I did was lay in the clinic and feel sorry for myself. I wouldn't talk to anyone. All I did was think about how much I wanted to be with my family. You made me think about other things. The truth is..if it was something I didn't want to do I would have shut you out like I had everyone else."
Claire let out a breath. "So I did help...."
He lay back, as if the effort of admitting that had tired him. "Yeah..I guess you did." He rubbed his temple with his fingertips.
She watched him a long moment. "You need to rest, Luka."
He lifted his eyes to her then leaned over to set the cup on the floor by the cot. "All I do is sleep," he said, almost teasing. He lay back though, already feeling the pull back to sleep as he offered the protest.
She managed a small smile. "Some people would enjoy that."
As an afterthought, he reached to the side for the picture. "I guess...you should sleep too."
"Maybe," she answered, running her fingers through the hair at her temple, her smile fading.
"Can't stop the nightmares. They'll come for some time." His words came a bit stronger as he offered the advice, his accent heavier as he edged towards sleep.
"Nightmares?" He nodded with a sigh at her words. "I'm sorry..." she said, very quiet. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm not going anywhere." She managed a smile. "Then if you want, you can ask me more questions later."
"Wake me if you need to talk." Luka's final words came drowsily before he moved the small picture to his chest then covered it with his hands. Within a few moments his breathing signalled his return to sleep. Claire retreated to her father's cot, lying down in it after she felt assured he was asleep.
To be continued...