For One Life
by M. Blais and J.D.
"Not everyone feels things as deeply, even other men who have lost their families. Somehow, they have this part of themselves that always remains remote and able to function as if nothing happened. But you....your life was wrapped up in your family, devoted to them. I could see that, sense it. And I know that to be that way takes a certain type of individual. One who wasn't afraid of that level of devotion to something."
As William spoke, Luka dropped his head in his hand, his fingertips resting on his eyelids as he connected to the words. When it was said aloud, it made more and more sense to him, and something unexpected came as well, anger....anger at those other men who seemed to be able to move on. Resentment that they weren't as undone by their grief as he had been.
"Is it so hard to believe now that I was meant to meet you?" William asked, quieter.
"I don't know..." He raised his head again with the admission.
"That's alright. We do not need to attribute it to anything or anyone. Perhaps like-minded people seek each other out without realizing it." William pressed his hands to his knees, thinking a moment. "You think you can get up and go for a walk today? There's still decent light left."
With the turn of the conversation, Luka had found his thoughts drifting, and as William spoke he turned his eyes to him. "Now?"
"Sometime today would be good, I think." William stretched his legs out with a grunt. "You could try out those clothes Claire got for you."
He wanted to protest, wanted to tell him he didn't want to go out. Inside, he wanted to explore this new idea, cling to his anger and examine this reasoning. But instead he released a breath, then nodded before raising his hand to pull the oxygen off. William helped him remove the tubing, and turned the machine off. With that done he turned his attention to the IV, pulling the tape free.
"Easy now.." William took up a cotton pad from his bag and pressed it over the needle site, before pulling the needle free, after he had closed the IV drip.
Luka withdrew his own hand as William moved in to finish it, watching him as he worked. The older doctor's movements were relaxed and simple, not quick but efficient. "Doesn't seem to be causing too much damage on your hand," William observed, dabbing with the cotton and peering at the pinpoint in Luka's flesh. "Just be careful not to bend the knee for the time being." He reached and pulled over the folded clothes so Luka could reach them.
Once it was out, Luka raised himself up to sit, then bit his lip as he turned, careful not to jar his leg too much. "Yeah..." He reached first for the shirt, pulling it over his head, then grabbed the jeans only to stop as he debated the best way to tackle them.
William smiled. "Hand em over...I'll need to get them over the splint I made for you."
He raised his gaze, then handed them to him. William bent over, deftly sliding the jeans over Luka's feet and threaded the material up and over the knee, where he could reach them.
William merely nodded, rolling his shoulders a little as he straightened back up. "You could walk over to the mess tent, get a decent meal."
Bending forward he grabbed the material and pulled them up, then using the cot for leverage pushed himself up to his feet. He wavered a bit as he pulled them the rest of the way up and fastened them.
"How do they fit?" William asked him. He shrugged at the question, then sat again to grab the shoes. When he didn't reply, the older man said, "No good?"
"They're all right..."
"Hmm." William watched him tackle the shoes. Luka managed the one shoe on, only to pause as he debated the best way to reach the splinted leg's foot. "They seem better than what you had." William held his hand out for the shoe, with a patient look.
Luka lifted his eyes with the comment then handed the shoe over. "Those were all they had at the time..."
William slid the shoe on, lacing it up. "I know." The simple words made Luka drop his eyes, knowing the cost of the clothing, but he didn't wish to say anything to the doctor about how Claire had gotten them. "There. Try those out," William said after a moment, rocking back on his heels.
"I'll need the crutches."
William smiled, standing to fetch the crutches from the corner, and handed them to him. "Of course."
Luka took them from him, then used them to brace himself as he stood again. "Thanks."
Once he had them under his armpits he rested, giving himself time to get his balance.
"You're looking better, Luka," he commented. The jeans hung a tad low on the younger man's hips, the waist a couple inches big. But though the shirt was loose it was nowhere as large as his old one. "If you regain some of your weight, those should fit fine."
Luka nodded, giving in to a cough to clear his lungs. "Guess I'm ready."
William rose. "Let's get moving then." He smiled briefly, moving towards the tent flap.
He nodded again then started to follow, a bit unsteady as he got used to the difference the splint made on his movements. He hesitated a moment at the door, his face paling before he turned back to the cot.
William watched him a moment, with a discerning look. "Luka?"
He glanced over to WIlliam even as he started to move to it. "My photograph..."
"Ah." William held the flap to the tent patiently, allowing him time to fetch the memento.
When he picked it up the relief was visible in his movements, and after a glance to it he slid it safely in his pocket before turning back.
"Ready?" William said, with a mild smile. Luka nodded but his face held a look of apprehension. "You sure?"
As he reached the door he paused, looking over to William at his question. "Yeah..." His voice was quiet as he answered.
William gestured for him to step outside, and he followed, letting the flap close behind them. As he stepped outside, Luka immediately dropped his eyes to the ground, mentally closing off the sounds around him. "We're not going to go the same way as usual, Luka," William said, quietly, breaking into his thoughts, "so you may need to pay attention."
He flicked his eyes to him, then nodded, before shifting them back to the path.
"Thought you could use some better food." William let his eyes move ahead to the path as well, but his eyes took in the people and things. "Are the shoes good to walk in?"
"They're fine." He found himself still trying to block the voices around them as he waited for William to lead.
"Any preference which path we take?"
"I haven't been much farther then the clinic, except for the other night when I went to the showers and the couple times with Claire."
"She told me you two took some walks," William said, starting off towards the right, on a smaller path. It took Luka a few minutes to get his rythmn as he adjusted to the splint, and while he did he lagged behind a bit. It saved him having to answer, and William added, "So it couldn't have been so bad to be around camp, hmm?"
"It wasn't really my choice to go," Luka said, very low.
William chuckled. "Is that so?"
"She doesn't give up easily." He kept his eyes to the road. As a child yelled to her
father in Croatian he couldn't help but flinch at the sound.
"Why did you give in?"
"I don't know...just seemed easier then arguing."
William merely nodded, and adjusted his pace to keep with Luka, even as he led. "Is that all?"
Luka swallowed a cough as he shifted his eyes to the man a moment. William looked unconcerned, his expression the open and unguarded one Luka was coming to know. As he dropped his eyes back to the path he finally answered. "Guess I figured if it wasn't her it'd be Angelique."
William sighed. "Very well. So, lesser of two evils then."
"I didn't ask to leave the tent," Luka went on, surprising himself. "I'd have stayed there..but first Angelique kept pushing me to be outside, then Claire started coming around." As he expected, William listened for a little bit, not speaking himself, as they passed between the different tents. Luka fell silent again as he finished, his breathing a little strained from the exertion but not bad.
"You're keeping up well. The oxygen seems to be doing something." William paused, his eyes flicking sideways. "Sleeping any better?"
"I guess so, my leg was kind of aching. Maybe it was not being used to the splint..but not too bad." He made no mention of the nightmares, although he couldn't be sure if Claire confessed them to her father.
"Mmhmm." William took a small breath, relaxed, even as his questions were probing. "Did the men who questioned you ask about your family?"
"Yes..." His voice grew a tad quieter with the admission.
"Did you tell them everything?"
"I told them they were killed by a mortar..." He heard his voice take on a slight tone of detachment, as if he might be talking about someone else rather then himself.
"That is what happened?"
Luka nodded, his eyes firmly on the ground.
"And your leg?"
He rolled his tongue around the inside of his mouth then wet his lips before speaking. "I was shot...while I was escaping Vukovar."
"Fleeing when the Serbs took over?"
William nodded, hispace unchanged. They had reached a larger tent, with the smell of food emanating from it. "Ah, here we are.."
Luka paused as they reached the tent, glancing around them. It was smaller and less busy than the usual tent, but William seemed unfazed as he held open the door for him. Luka drew a breath, the smells from inside forcing a rumble from his stomach in response. As he passed by William, he braced himself for the attention he was sure his presence might bring. The tent seemed solely occupied by doctors and nurses, as well as volunteers....no other injured people seemed to be present. He shifted his gaze to William at the realization, his voice going even more quiet as he stopped and waited for the older man. "Maybe I shouldn't be here."
A dark-haired man in a military-style jumper stepped towards them, his eyes taking in Luka and dismissing him. "This is staff only, gentlemen." He said the last part like it was an epithet. Without even realizing it, Luka found himself taking a step back as the man approached, then felt slight anger slurring through him, even as he accepted the words.
William had opened his mouth to answer Luka, but changed his gaze to the man. As always, he appeared unruffled. "He's my guest, officer. He can stay."
"But-" the man started.
William smiled, evenly. "Have you seen my daughter, Claire Northstar, come through here?"
The man processed the name, and then blinked slightly. "No, ah...Dr. Northstar, I haven't seen her. She's a volunteer, isn't she?"
William's hand had gone to Luka's arm without looking, preventing him from leaving. "You are sure?" he asked. "She said she was coming this way."
Luka shifted the crutches slightly, dropping his gaze so he couldn't see the eyes he knew had to be on them. As William touched him, he flicked a look his way, then dropped them again. Part of him enjoyed the subtle way William upbraided the man, but part of him wanted to avoid the confrontation, avoid the resentment that seemed to linger.
The man shook his head again. "I don't believe so, doctor. I don't know Miss Northstar that well, but I've only seen a few people come through in the last hour."
William merely grunted in acceptance, then his hand gently tugged Luka forward. "We might as well get something to eat while we are here, yes?"
The military man stepped back, although his eyes lingered on Luka a moment longer as he took in the appearance of the younger man. Luka swallowed, but he lifted his eyes to meet the soldier's scrutiny before moving to follow William.
William largely disregarded the others in the tent, mostly doctors, as he let Luka follow him to the main serving area. "Maybe she went to the common area," he murmured, more to himself.
Not sure if he was talking to him Luka remained silent, aware still of the eyes on them. "You sure it's all right for me to be here?" he questioned quietly after a moment.
"Hmm?" William looked up, and then around at the room. Most of the doctors and volunteers had gone back to their meals without comment, although the military man still eyed them a little. "Of course. This isn't a country club." He took a plate, surveying the choices. "What would you like? I'll get it so you don't have to try balancing."
"But there aren't any...I mean..only people working here are supposed to be here, I wouldn't want to cause any trouble for you."
William shrugged. "That's just so they can get a break from working. But I'm not asking anyone to treat you here. They can see you are just stopping by. Besides....you may be working here eventually."
Luka flicked his eyes to the soldier again, then back to William, still skeptical.
"I could hire you, if that would help." William smiled.
At William's words he looked surprised. "Hire me?"
"Sure. You have the beginnings of your training already in place. And we could always use more doctors, and volunteers."
"I don't know..." He was clearly caught off guard by the offer.
"Well, we can start with lunch. It's an easy procedure to begin with."
Luka looked back to the serving line a bit stunned by the amount of food on it. Used to the scarce rations in Vukovar and being on mainly liquids and soups since arriving in the camp, his exposure to so much had been longer then he could remember.
"Need to keep energy up around here, you know." Luka nodded as William's words, for the moment simply eyeing the bins, the choices almost overwhelming although he knew that it was long absence making it seem that way. William watched him, patient. Luka looked at him and then back to the bins. His stomach growled yet again in anticipation, but the doctor in him knew it was too soon to handle much of what was there. Already his mind was calculating what would be best for his illness, and a brief thought scattered across his mind that he might always think like that.
He looked back to William. "Maybe the beans?"
William nodded. "Good choice....I've had them before." He obliged by putting those on the plate, and took a second plate for himself. "Anything else?"
His gaze lingered on some of the fruit, but not wanting to seem too greedy he simply added. "Some bread.."
William took the bread, calmly putting some on both plates, then turned towards the tables. "Why don't we set these down, and I'll get us some utensils."
"Okay.." He looked over the tables, noting where the ones were with the fewest people were. No need to aggravate the matter. William seemed to do the same, and ended up chosing a table somewhat near the side of the tent, so there was free space for the crutches. Luka followed him over, then leaned the crutches against the side before sitting.
William set the plates down, then straightened. "Get comfortable, and I'll be right back."
His suggestion was easier said then done, and Luka shifted his leg self consciously, then slid his hand in his pocket..confirming the photo was still there before looking back to see where William had gone.
The older man had walked back up to the serving area, and busied himself. When he returned, he held two forks in his right hand, and had two cups tucked under his arm. In the same hand, he had hooked a pitcher over his fingers, and his other hand balanced a third plate. Luka watched the approach with a raised eyebrow. When William set the plate down, it held two small potatoes, seemingly blackened on the outside. "Here, drinks and all." He set the pitcher down, then the forks and the cups. "Like any man, I hate making more than one trip, yes?" He chuckled, then slid the cups over so Luka could pour them full of the water. Luka obligingly filled both glasses then sat the pitcher down again. "Now see, we could do this every day if you agreed to work with me," William said, with a smile, as he took a forkful of the beans.
It was hard not to feel like they were being watched, and Luka found himself looking around before picking up his own fork. "I'm not sure what I could do." He pushed it through the beans, then slid a couple on it and raised it to his mouth..
"Well, at first it might be small things, I admit," William said, paying attention to his food for a moment. "Not much more than the volunteers do now. Run IVs, administer meds, that sort of thing. But once you were able to show what you were capable of...."
"I don't have a license...I was still in school."
William nodded. "That's where many of our volunteers are....all med students or residents, perhaps with two or three years down, if that. Claire herself has only just finished her second year, but she wanted to come out." With that, he lifted his eyes a moment, scanning the room, although he said no more.
To be continued...