by J.D. and M. Blais
Luka had slid easier than he expected into sleep, but the conversation with Claire had only brought to the surface things he had tried to suppress. He tossed on the bed as he tried to flee the ghostly pursuers of his nightmares, feeling the bullet hit and seeing the bodies again and again. There was no way to escape from them. In the world he wasn't aware of, Claire had gotten up several times to replace covers, before she settled for sitting on the floor by the cot, as it seemed like it wasn't going to improve any time soon. At the same time, she tried to be gentle enough so he would at least get some more sleep. Yet his agitation seemed only to worsen. His breathing came in ragged catches as he relived the horrors he'd endured before arriving at the camp.
Once or twice she tried to adjust the oxygen, hoping that would help, but it did nothing to relieve his breathing, so she tried smoothing his hair back, trying to be reassuring. "Ne...ne..." He thrashed on the bed, caught in the nightmare with no escape. She felt her shoulders slump, knowing this kind of sleep wasn't benefitting him at all, and she squeezed his shoulder, trying to get him to relax and let go of them.
At the touch he stiffened. "Bog, nijedan..." His breathing seemed to quicken even more..
"Luka.." she said, and was surprised at how rough her voice sounded. She coughed, and repeated it. "Luka, it's okay.."
Somewhere deep he registered his name and his eyes opened though he wasn't fully with her. "Ima previše mnogobrojan od njima...." His voice came out a ragged croak.
She shifted her fingers to his brow, moving damp hair off his forehead. It took her almost half a minute to piece together what he said. "No...there's no one here but me."
He flicked his eyes around them, his breathing still coming too fast, but realization seemed to register and he closed his eyes a moment then reopened them. "Just a dream," he whispered in Croatian as the connection to the present was made.
She rubbed her eyes with her other hand. "Yes," she answered, quiet. "That's all it was. You're here now, Luka."
He closed his eyes again, seeming to absorb her words. "Ovdje zatim..." It was just a repetition of her own words.
She switched to the same language, though hers was rougher than his. "You are safe."
For several minutes he didn't move. When he reopened his eyes, his breathing had slowed and though he looked tired, he seemed aware of where he was. He lifted one hand to rub his eyes.
"I'm sorry to wake you," she murmured, "but I thought it was for the best."
"I didn't mean to wake you," he protested weakly, as he raised himself up on one arm. He coughed once, then cleared his throat.
She shook her head barely. "I wasn't asleep."
"You couldn't..or didn't want to?"
She glanced at him. "A little of both, I guess..." She pushed the hair way from her face, tucking it behind her ear.
"It's hard...sometimes. I don't know which is worse." He started to roll onto his side then groaned as he jarred the knee and lay back on his back.
"Did you want to get up?"
He shook his head. "No..that's okay. What time is it?"
She rested her elbows on her knees, so she could support her chin. "Close to noon, I would say. Poppa should be back soon." He nodded at the answer. "You get along well with him, don't you?" she asked, suddenly.
He nodded again at the question. "He's not like some of the other doctors here. I was kind of surprised he would do this."
She nodded, a little wobbly. "My father takes to some people...instinct, I suppose. He's always looking for...kindred spirits, he says. People who he thinks have the same ideals that he does."
"I don't have anything anymore...I'm just here." His words held a sense of acceptance in them.
"It's not a matter of owning anything....it's more inner spirit."
"No..you don't understand..." He paused a moment before continuing, roughly. "Everything I was died with my family. I did what I had to do after I lost them, but none of it means anything anymore." He rubbed his hand over his face with the comment.
She sighed, her chin dropping a little. "Well, my father seems to think there is something left, even if you don't see it."
"It's his job.."
"No, his job is to treat the physical ailments. Not like this."
He glanced over to her. "You're saying he hasn't done this before..taken someone in?"
She shook her head. "I don't recall him taking someone in, not to where we lived, even if this time it is a tent. I know he's been fond of patients before, but he.." She paused, rubbing at her eyes again. "He doesn't refer to youas a patient. He still acts like Angelique is your doctor."
He looked a bit puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Well, anything he does, with the oxygen, or the medicine for the pnuemonia, he clears it with Angelique. He's not trying to take over your case from her." She paused. "I think he likes having you here, so he can talk to you."
Still not sure about what it meant, he chose to remain silent rather then ask her to clarify further. "Maybe he's doing it for you."
She managed a thin smile. "Doing it for me?"
"You brought me here..so he is doing it for you."
"I never asked him if you could stay here," she pointed out. "He was the one who insisted to Angelique that you should stay here to recover, and furthermore," her expression grew a little more drawn, "he also told me, along with Angelique, that I should stay away from you and give you some room to breathe. They can't both be true, Luka. He can't be doing this for me, and then tell me to leave."
"I don't know..."
"Look at it this way," she said, quieter. "I met you, and something told me that I needed to keep going back to see you...intuition perhaps. I told my father about that feeling, and about you. He's intrigued, asks me more questions. Then, I find you in the rain, and you don't want to return to the medical tent." She took a small breath, stifling a yawn. "He sees that I brought you here, this person that I had that feeling about, and he thinks
perhaps it is a sign."
She nodded. "My father and I come from a very spiritual people, Luka. We aren't just Americans, we're native too. Our tribe tends to look at the world that way. My father says I am too worldly....he, he follows the old ways more."
"Yes....things like....spirit guides, destiny, fate....all that." His confusion only seemed to deepen as she continued to explain. She sighed, putting her face in her hands a moment. "My people are a bit more intuned to the spiritual side of the world, as opposed to the physical. That's all. Poppa believes he was meant to meet you for some purpose."
"I don't know why...I have nothing to give him."
She raised her eyes. "It isn't always about giving something back, Luka. And anyway, I do not think that is true. My father feels very strongly about you. He likes you. Even that small thing, of kindred feelings, that is enough."
"Maybe he made a mistake..." His comment came quietly as he pushed himself up on his forearms and stretched back slightly.
"I don't think so, and neither does he," she said. "Did you want something to drink? I thought you might be hungry, too.."
He lay back again as he looked to her, ready to deny his hunger only to stop himself before reluctantly nodding. "More soup?"
"Afraid so. I haven't been able to sneak any chocolate in yet." She smiled.
He released a quiet sigh. "Okay."
Claire stood up, bracing herself on the side table, and moved over to the main table, where the thermos was. She poured two mugs full, and said, over her shoulder, "I was able to get some bread, though."
Luka watched her critically as she moved across the room. "Maybe you should try to sleep."
Carefully, she balanced the mugs with the bread tucked against her elbow, and moved back to the stool. "Maybe after lunch," she said, not looking at him. She sat and held out the mug for him.
Propping himself up on one arm, he took the mug with the hand that the IV was in. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She took the bread, only a half-loaf, and tore it in half, giving one half to him as well.
Accepting the bread, he took a sip of the soup before sitting the cup down and pulling a piece of the loaf off with the hand that had held the mug. Once he had popped the bite in his mouth he picked the soup up again.
She blinked, then stood up, fetching the bedroll from her father's cot that had been left on the foot of it. "I forgot to offer this," she said, apologetically, moving to set it behind his back. 'Sitting up on these cots is not easy. Some help I am, hmm?" She managed a half-smile.
He bit his lip as he balanced the soup, trying not to spill it as he raised up so she could slide it behind him. When she was done he leaned back. "It's not a problem."
"Well, now it's not," she answered, retaking her seat and picking up her own mug. He took a couple fresh sips, before pulling another bite of bread off. She was slower with her own mug, watching him eat, pleased that he was, without complaint. "You don't know anything about Native Americans, I guess," she started.
He lifted his eyes to her. "I've seen cowboy movies."
She groaned. "Oh, no....really? That's terrible."
He managed a small smile with the groan. "Horses...tt..." He struggled a minute with the word. "Teepees?."
"Even I cheered for the cowboys in those things." She sipped her soup, rolling her eyes.
"The...I forget the English word. Bizon? The big animal like a cow.."
"Buffalo," she said, in English. "Roaming over the prairie. Those, at least, exist, though my people don't hunt them anymore." She shook her head, with a tired chuckle. "We go to the store and buy our food these days." He smiled again, then took another drink of the soup. "I guess it's a little much to teach you now, a whole culture and all," she admitted. "Anyway, some of those movies were at least funny."
"It's very different from here?"
She looked down a moment, thinking. 'Yes, and no," she said, slowly. "Native Americans are only a small part of America today, and we're very isolated. The rest of America, it's like what you might think of it. Not so different from what it was like here, before the war."
He nodded, accepting her answer as it was.
"Being a part of that.....it's like if you were to go to England. For school, maybe. You could dress like the English, and speak it, and to look at you, no one would be able to say, that you weren't one, unless they heard your accent, perhaps. But inside, you would be different. That's what it is like. You can move among them, but it's not your own people."
He nodded. "I think I understand."
She looked down at her soup, then took another sip of it. "I was always fascinated by things here, and in Europe, overall."
He started to pull another piece of the bread off then changed his mind. Instead he took a couple more swallows of the soup before sitting it down as well. "You hadn't been here before?"
She shook her head. "But it wasn't the places...it was the people." He remained quiet, listening to her, fascinated against his will by an outsider's look at his homeland. "When you think about it, people here, they can take for granted their sense of belonging. You are born in Croatia, you are one, and your parents, and their parents, all Croatians. Like people in England or France, who can trace back their roots so many generations....and around them, all people like them. How they belong to their land.
"Well, my people are the original inhabitants of America. My father, and his parents, and his parents' parents, all born from a long line of people who lived there for thousands of years. But...we are in the minority, and a very small one. When you think of Americans, you think of immigrants, of Irishmen and Italians, of English colonists. Not us. So, in our own land, we aren't the ones who belong to it."
"It used to be like that." His voice stayed quiet. "Now it's more are you Muslim..or Catholic, like that is more important. Then if we are Croatian...or Bosnian."
She nodded, setting aside her soup, half full. "I know....it all goes back to the war.." He copied her action, his mug containing as much if not a tad more then hers. The bread still two-thirds there. "I'm sorry," she added. "I suppose it sounds foolish to complain about a thing like that in the face of war here."
"No..I understand," he said, automatically.
She started to shake her head, and then sighed. "I've......begun to wonder about something."
He let his eyes settle on her, bracing himself for what she might ask. A return to their talk from yesterday? He had to admit he wasn't sure he wanted to hear any more of her answers, as bad as giving his own.
But she surprised him by saying, "My father believes that he was supposed to meet you for some reason, and I think he is right. Already, you two are close, like you understand each other a little bit. At first, I thought my father was simply being his usual enigmatic self, but now....I can see it. In you. You are doing better now. I've known you longer, but I don't think I did as much as he has done. So, I wonder if that was my sole purpose...to make sure you met him."
"Because of his medicines?"
She shook her head, setting aside her bread as well, uneaten. "No...because of his personality."
He let his eyes drop a moment then lifted them again. "He understands the loss...not everyone does...it's not something you can tell someone who doesn't know how it feels, what it's like to go through it."
She absorbed that, with a small nod. "I know...he's very wise."
"It's like a part of you died and you just want the rest to die too." He let his eyes fall again as he picked at the tape around the IV needle.
She brought her knees up a little, and wrapped her arms around them, like she had been before lunch. "It's going to be a long time before you stop feeling that, isn't it." She said it listlessly, not as a question.
"I can't imagine not feeling that way..."
She lifted her eyes, but before shecould say anything, there were footsteps at the flap of the tent, and William stepped in.
"Ah....you're both up," he said, casually, as he set down his bag on the other cot.
Luka's eyes were still on the IV line, but there was the sense that maybe he had retreated inward with the words. As he heard William's voice he shook his head and quickly wiped his hand across his face.
William's gaze traveled over both of them, sizing them up in moments. "Glad to see some food was consumed," he observed, with a small smile. At the observation, Luka leaned to the side enough that he could set his mug on the floor by the cot then laid the remaining bread on top of it, his concession to appetite gone.
Claire unfolded herself from the stool, taking up her uneaten bread and the mug. 'Some," she said, trying to return his smile in an upbeat way.
William retrieved his stethoscope from around his neck, taking the stool as she vacated it. "Every little bit helps," he said, with a grunt as he sat. "Feeling any better this morning, Luka?"
He glanced to Claire, then to her dad with a nod. "I think so." He sat up more in preparation of the exam he knew was coming.
"You certainly have more color to you," the elder man said, his movements precise as he set the scope to Luka's chest.
Claire didn't set the mug and bread down on the table like usual. Instead, she moved to the entrance of the tent. "I"m going to take these back to the mess, Poppa," she said quietly. "I'll be back in a little while." Not waiting for an answer, she ducked out of the tent and was gone. William paused, glancing to Luka's abandoned mug on the floor with a frown.
Luka didn't miss the significance either, glancing at Claire as she left. When she disappeared, he looked at her father. "She isn't sleeping."
His eyes flicked up to Luka's a moment, as he concentrated on the sounds in his chest. "She said that?"
He smiled, briefly, as he switched the scope to his back. "Kind of' doesn't sound like Claire...she's usually not reserved about talking."
"Maybe she needs to talk to a woman. Maybe Angelique."
"Maybe," William murmured. "She's never seemed to be close to other women, though. Her mother died when she was so young, and after that, she didn't have that many women to look up to." He removed the scope, slowly. "Been just me and her for a long time now."
"I think maybe this is different..."
William cocked his head, just looking at him. Luka kept his gaze on the blanket over his lap, his voice a hair distanced. "Did she say something to you, Luka?"
He drew a small breath but didn't lift his eyes.."She didn't say she had been raped if that's what you're asking." Then even more quietly he added. "But she didn't say she hadn't been either."
William set aside the scope in his bag. "That much I've been getting from her already, although she won't even speak about the trip at all." As he finished Luka leaned back again. "Either way, I'm not sure Angelique is the best candidate for something like that."
"Nothing seems to affect her very much...like she has seen everything."
"Angelique, you mean?" William queried. Luka nodded, and the older man sighed. "An accurate assessment....but I stand by my words." He retrieved the mug and bread off the floor so he wouldn't knock them over. "The last conversation the two of them had was a disagreement over not taking you to the medical tent. I'm not sure Claire would be comfortable talking with her."
"You're sure you don't want her here..with you? I can go back." Though he said the words the tone wasn't exactly convincing.
William shook his head. "I get the distinct feeling she would rather not be here with me right now. I, myself, would love to ask Angelique's advice," he admitted. "But that would compromise Claire's privacy. If I insist she stay here, I think that would have the opposite effect. She'd feel like I was calling her to task for what happened."
"You don't think she will think taking care of me is more important then what happened to her?" He finally looked at him with the question, obviously concerned about it.
William rubbed at his jaw a moment, worry deeply etched in his face. "To be honest, I think she already felt a little that way since after the first night, when I wanted you to stay. It's irrespective of what went on during the trip to Vukovar."
"Then maybe I should go...I don't want to come between you."
"It's not that, Luka. What I mean is, I think Claire wanted to be the one you opened up to, and instead saw that you connected better with me."
Realization dawned with that, and Luka felt several of his conversations with her fall into shape. "It's different with her," he protested, almost apologetic. "She can't really understand what it's like."
"I think she knows that," he said, gently. "Overall, she is happy that you did connect with someone, and I know she regrets feeling that small part of sadness over it."
He dropped his gaze a moment then lifted it. "She said you thought I was supposed to meet you."
He nodded. "That is true. I believe that a higher power meant for us to meet, and that perhaps Claire was the instrument of that."
"I don't know if I believe that...not anymore." Luka felt a brief surge of shame at saying something that he would have considered blaspehmous, but just as fast came the anger that prompted it in the first place.
"Well, Luka, whether you believe it or not, here we are now. Should we bother to question it?"
"You've treated alot of people..what makes me so different?"
William leaned back a little, crossing his arms as he got comfortable, although the worry remained in his brow. "I wish I could tell you there was one thing or another, that stood out to me, but there wasn't. Perhaps how you lost your wife and children....I understood a little of that, at least."
"But there are people here who lost much more then I did."
"That's true. And I've known them as well. But I think it was more the depth of your feelings, that indicated to me a man like myself. Something beyond the usual grief."
He didn't say anything to that, though his eyes reflected an impact to the words.
To be continued...