By M. Blais and J.D.
Luka's sleep was again restless, his thoughts troubled from his conversation with William. As if that weren't enough, lingering congestion left his breathing raspy, and what little sleep came was soon interrupted by the racking cough throughout the night. Several times he woke, only to lay in the darkness of the tent envying the other two as they slept, wondering how they could possibly sleep through the noise before he fell asleep again.
Too soon it seemed that trails of light crept into the tent, signifying early morning. William had slept on the floor, and was seemingly none the worse for wear. Claire was still sound asleep, and had not stirred all night long, almost too deep a sleep. As yet another run of coughing roused him Luka pushed up on his arm, looking around the tent as he waited for it to ease. William had woken, but was simply reading, turned to catch a band of light from the tent opening. Catching sight of him, Luka cleared his throat. "Morning..." His voice came hoarse and broken with the greeting.
William set the book down, sitting up. "Morning." He looked too alert for this early in the morning. "What's the status?" he asked.
"Sorry?" Luka looked puzzled by the question.
William gave a mild smile. "How are you feeling this morning? That's what I meant."
"Like someone is sitting on me." He coughed in punctuation to his answer. "You?"
William took a breath, rising from his makeshift bed, and moving over. He was wearing what looked like sweat pants, loose at the ankles. "About the same. So, tightness in the chest?" He bent to retrieve his bag. Luka nodded to the question and sat up fully in preparation for what he knew was coming. William settled onto the stool, and drew out the scope. He placed it at his ears, and set the scope to his chest. "Always the last to go," he mused..
"I didn't hear her last night...dreams, I mean." His voice broke as he spoke.
William paused, ostensibly to listen to his chest, but he didn't seem to be paying attention. "She woke up a little after you fell asleep," he said, quieter.
"I tried to listen.." He coughed, a deep and hoarse sound.
William shook his head just a little, frowning as he concentrated on the sounds. His eyes were unfocused. "I ended up sedating her. She wasn't getting any sleep."
"I'm sorry..." He offered the apology, assuming his coughing was responsible "You going to take her home?"
He flicked his eyes upward, towards him. "I've thought about it." He moved the scope to his back. "Take a deep breath." Luka drew a strained breath, then coughed from the effort. "Okay, just a breath will be fine," William amended, and Luka took another, less deeply this time. William moved the scope a little at a time, pinpointing the different sounds. Among all the other sounds, Luka's stomach rumbled slightly, evidence to his lack of eating the day before.
After a pensive moment, William removed the scope and set it back in his bag. "It might not seem like it, but there is some improvement."
"Do you agree?"
He brushed his hand through his hair, then over the beard growth before shrugging. "Yeah, I guess...the cough's because it's breaking down?"
William nodded. "Your body is trying to expel the build up."
"Yeah...worse then keeping it." He managed a small smile.
William chuckled, low. "Well, the body does reabsorb some of it. But yes. Now... breakfast?"
"I'm okay...I should clean up though..." He looked around for where he had dropped his
clothes in preparation for getting dressed.
"Is that a yes?" William handed him his pants.
"I'd take tea...know coffee is scarce." Luka took the jeans then moved his legs to the side of the bed before dropping the pants and leaning forward to ease them on.
William drew on a shirt over his white t-shirt, his movements restrained. He took the time to pull his thin braid from under the collar, then went to sit on the edge of Claire's cot. She was still deeply asleep, under the blanket William had put over her the night before.
Using the bed to support him and careful of his bad leg, Luka stood to pull his pants up then looked for the shirt. Spotting it at the foot of his cot, he carefully worked his steps to it, the effort more difficult without the crutch. He watched as William listened to her breathing a moment, setting his fingers to first her head, then slid them over her throat. She didn't stir at all.
"Better to stay with her." He pulled the shirt over his head, oblivious to the way it hung on his thin frame.
William set his hands back on his knees. "Where are you going to head off to?"
He wrinkled his nose a bit. "Should wash up some...maybe shave."
William nodded. "Get something to eat?"
He eyed William as he reached for his shoes, then sat to pull them on before nodding. "Bring you and Claire something back?"
"Would you?" William seemed surprised that he offered. "I'm not sure you can manage, with the crutches.."
Luka just nodded, his efforts bringing on a cough but not stopping him as he rose and reached for the crutches. "Have to learn sometime." Once they were steady under his arms he gave William a half smile and headed for the door.
Some twenty minutes later he returned. Luka pushed the door open, juggling a cotton bag on one side and a metal cup in his other hand. William had changed into jeans, and seemed to have cleaned up. He also was wearing his shoes, as if he was ready to go out on rounds. Luka moved to William and passed the bag to him.
William glanced into it and set the bag aside. "Good job, Luka," he said, approvingly. Inside a mixture of breakfast items were wrapped and he recognized them from the staff tent. Luka's cup, on the other hand, showed the wear of the more populated mess and once he reached his cot and sat, he pulled a chunk of bread from his pocket and lay it aside, content to sip the tea in his cup. Now clean shaven, it appeared he'd made good on his vow to visit the showers as well. "You were industrious this morning."
Luka had a quick grin, but it vanished as he looked over at the other cot. Claire was still asleep, but she had obviously moved, coming out of a deeper sleep. "I had to argue with them to get them to believe it was for you," he added, with a humored sigh in his tone.
William looked surprised. "You argued with them?" He reached into the bag, pulling out one of the wrapped things. Luka shrugged, and took another sip, although he couldn't keep the slightly satisfied look from his eye. William unwrapped the slices of bread, then laid out the rest of the items. Curious, he looked over an unlabeled can that was marked with permanent ink. "Are you only going to have the tea?"
"I got some bread..." Luka indicated the crusty chunk on the nightstand.
William took some utensils from his foot locker, and opened the can. "Not bad.... peaches. Want to try it? Good vitamins."
Luka felt surprise flood his features. The fruit a luxury he'd not seen in far too many months. "Should save it for Claire."
"I will...but you could still have a little bit."
"Been a longtime..." Luka admitted. William set his fork in the can, then handed it over to him. The younger man set the cup on the small table before taking it, then speared one slice before passing it back. It dripped slightly from the preservative juice, and the scent was strong, enough to make his mouth hurt slightly. Luka held the slice as if not sure it was real then took a bite, letting it fully slide down his throat before he took another. Giving into the rarity of the treat he ate slowly, savoring the sweetness. As he finished he reached for the tea again. "Thanks."
On the cot, Claire moved, the covers rustling as she tossed a little, starting to wake.
William set the can down on the bedside table, drawing the stool over and sitting on it, evenly between the two cots. The older man gave him a smile, his eyes going between checking on Luka to make sure he ate, to Claire where she was starting to wake up. "Give Claire some time, she'll find chocolate if it comes into camp. I think she can smell it out."
Catching William's eye on him he reached for the bread, pulling a small bite off and soaking it in the tea before he popped it in his mouth. "They didn't have any."
Claire blinked, coming awake groggily. Clearing her throat, she asked, "Did someone mention chocolate?"
Luka glanced to the bed as she woke, his hair still damp from the showers. "No.... chocolate...sorry." He couldn't help but smile at her instant interest.
William shook his head. "Sorry, Claire. How are you feeling?" He was obviously trying to not be too oversolicitious.
She used her elbows to push herself up, her hair tousled, her face still drawn. "Ugh...my mouth is all fuzzy."
Luka looked between them, confused over the term. "Fuzz-ee?"
William reached for the can and held it out. "From the sominex. Here...peaches."
Claire glanced at Luka, pushing hair out of her face. "Yes....like cotton. Fuzzy, thick." She looked at the can in surprise. "Really?" Luka nodded both his understanding and confirming the peaches, then broke another bite of bread off and dipped it in the tea to soften it.
She took the can, and dipped out one of the pieces, taking time to chew it. "That does help," she admitted.
William was watching her, although trying to appear as if he wasn't doing so closely. "I do need to start my rounds soon," he said, reluctantly.
Setting the cup aside, Luka leaned down to unlace the shoe on his braced leg then pulled it off in preparation of bringing the leg back onto the bed. He untied the other boot and brought his legs back onto the bed, the exercise of the morning having taken more from him then he was ready to admit. His breathing too was still rattled. He pulled the bedroll up enough so he was reclining rather then laying flat to compensate for the difficulty in breathing.
Claire paused with the fork still in the can. "Did you go somewhere, Luka?"
He leaned across to pick the tin cup which held his tea then sat back again with it cradled in his hands, warming them, the bread forgotten where it sat. "I went after the breakfast and took a shower." He brushed his hand back through his hair, lifting still damp bangs off of his face unconsciously.
"Really?" She looked down at the can. "How did you manage to get peaches?"
William fiddled with his bag, then busied himself restarting the oxygen for Luka.
"They came from the staff mess tent," Luka said, casually, as if he went there regularly all the time. "I told them it was for you two, but they weren't sure if they could believe me."
She got an odd look when he mentioned the staff. "They didn't...ask why we weren't there?"
He steadied the cup as he coughed, then took a sip as it eased. He shifted to Croatian. "Ja ne shvatiti." He managed a smile at his creativity.
She smiled, dropping her eyes again to the can, although she only played with the fork instead of eating.
"I might send you all the time," William murmured, making sure Luka wore the oxygen tube again. Luka tolerated the placement of the tube, not bothering to voice any protest. The older man moved over to Claire's cot, and pulled the stool a little closer. "I've got a lot to do today," he said, quietly. He obviously wanted to say something different, but simply said, "You two should try taking some walks while it's not raining."
She poked the peaches with the fork, not looking up. "Sure....we can do that."
"Don't waste the food," he chided them both. "Eat up."
"Don't see you eating it..." He voiced the complaint quietly but reached for his chunk of bread all the same, then broke another piece off and soaked it in the tea before putting it in his mouth.
William gave him a look. "You're awfully smart-mouthed for such a skinny kid," he teased, with a smirk.
He looked over at the man. "Haven't been a kid for a longtime." Claire oblingingly put one of the peaches in her mouth to avoid arguing, and watched the two of them.
"Compared to me, you are. Now, eat."
Luka soaked another bite, then chewed it obviously for William's benefit, but took his time in swallowing in concession to the sore throat.
In a move meant to placate them, William took up one of the slices of bread, and found a bit of preserves tucked into a paper envelope in the bag, then spread it on the bread. There were noticable differences in the bread; while Luka's was a grainier farm bread, the slices provided to the staff were softer. Taking a bite, he chewed for a moment, as he retook a seat on the edge of Claire's cot. With his free hand, he rubbed her knee. "Take it easy today," he said. "Too much moving around, past few days."
Claire looked up, but just nodded, keeping to her quiet eating.
With a final pat, he rose, giving Luka another assessing look before he picked up his bag. "If you need me, come looking. I'll be in the med tent most of the day, I figure."
"Okay." He took another bite while William was in the tent to placate him.
Claire nodded, again, lowering her eyes. She rested the can on one of her knees. William took his bread and left the tent, the flap falling down behind him.
"There's oatmeal in there..." He motioned to the bag on the table beside Claire's cot.
"You could add the peaches."
She lifted her eyes to the abandoned bag, then looked at him. "Want any more yourself? I don't think I can take the whole can."
"Save it for later...I'm really not that hungry."
"Are you sure? They wouldbe good for your throat." She stirred the fork. "They taste heavenly...I just can't eat too much fruit on an empty stomach."
"I had some...before you woke up."
"Ah." She managed a smile. "Testing them out for me?"
"Your father was sharing."
Her smile faltered a little, and she set the can aside, on the small table between the cots.
"What'd I say?"
"It's not that.." she started. After a pause, she said, "He knows, doesn't he?"
He looked over at her, debating a moment, then nodded. "He won't say anything, I don't think. I didn't tell him..neither did Angelique."
"Say anything?" She sighed, sliding down on the cot again. "He was the only one I didn't want to know. I don't care if he says anything now."
"You have to see her today..."
She didn't look over but nodded slowly. "Who told him?"
"One of those with you...not sure if he meant to. But he's your father...you're still his child..." He swallowed before he could continue. "He only wants to be there for you. Nothing hurts worse then seeing your child in pain, and knowing you can't do anything but be there for them."
She was quiet, absorbing his words, although she simply looked up at the roof of the tent. "He shouldn't have to know about things like that," she finally said, low.
"He's your father...none of it will matter except that you are here now," Luka insisted.
"It does matter," she said, resting her forearm over her eyes, obscuring them. "It's always going to bother him."
"Not knowing would be worse," he warned. "He would know something was wrong and imagining is worse then knowing the truth."
"I don't think you could imagine..." she said, her voice thick, although she let it trail off.
"He's been working here long enough to have seen it all, Claire. He knows how bad it can get. You're alive...and that's more then many of the women they get their hands on can say."
She didn't answer for a moment, then finally, "I understood what you meant before, kind-of."
"About wanting to be dead." It was a quiet response.
He leaned over to set the now empty cup and the remaining bread on the table, feeling a cold chill. "You still feel like that?"
She shifted her arm a little. "Yes and no. Not like it was while....it was happening. I kept thinking, why don't they just shoot me and be done with it. And then, after.....I was grateful, but not that I survived....grateful that they didn't take the supplies."
"It's about the power...the control," Luka ventured, hoping that she would see it wasn't so straightforward a thing. "That's why they do it to women...and children. The men they shoot...because far too many are like me and with their families gone, they don't care if they die."
"Well....at the time, I didn't care."
"I can't say I know what that's like...I don't."
"Be glad," she said, very low.
"I know when I was shot I thought I would just stay there, let them catch me and finish me...but I promised someone I would get out of the city..so I got up. Afterward...I wished I had stayed...so I wouldn't see what I did."
"But you came here," she murmured, moving her arm so she could rub her eyes with the heel of her hand.
"No...I had given up," he protested. "A couple of the drivers found me unconscious in a ditch near the road, they brought me here. I begged Angelique to let me die."
"You gave up?" Her voice was rusty.
"I was tired...hungry, in pain. I knew I couldn't keep running, so I thought if I just went to sleep...it would all go away and I could be with my family again. Maybe that makes you stronger then me."
"Why?" she asked, thickly.
Because you didn't quit," he said, softly. "You came back..you went right to work...I gave up."
"I wanted to pretend," she said. The words were just as soft. "Pretend that it hadn't happened."
"It's hard to do..it comes in your sleep, when you want it to stay away." His voice was more distant and it was hard to tell if he was speaking for her or himself.
She rolled on the cot, facing away from him, her shoulders hunched. He raised up a bit to ease the coughing that hit him, then lay back again, watching Claire's back but saying nothing as he gave her time to think.
To be continued...