By J.D. and M. Blais
Claire matched Luka's pace, slow, still with the slight limp. His breathing seemed to be coming a little rougher with the exertion though his coughing wasn't bad as it had been only the night before, only brief bursts hitting him every so often.
Finally, as if no longer able to stand the shared silence she looked his way. "Of course, you could always whack me over the head with one of the crutches," she mused out loud, almost as if she were trying the Croatian words out.
"Not like hitting you in the head would do anything." His words were barely loud enough for her to hear.
"Hasn't done much so far," she said, wryly.
"Hard headed..." He nodded, before flicking his eyes to her.
"Like you," she observed.
He shrugged and looked down at the path as it got a bit rockier.
"How are my words, so far?"
"Not bad...I can understand you...most people will...little accent problems but people will understand."
"I studied....kind of hard."
"Not too hard...not like English," he answered, wryly.
"Maybe....but I can't always remember the accents...where they go.."
He nodded. "Like my name, looks like Kovak. But is Kovach...hard for some people."
"Yes....the c....it's hard to remember if you don't always speak it."
"It's different...easy when you see it written with the accent marks...tells you how to say it."
"That's why I need you to speak it with me."
"Not like the first time when you wanted me to only speak English."
A blush crept up her cheeks. "I didn't feel like I knew enough....to talk....but I practiced, when I went...when I wasn't with you."
He nodded. "I knew more English then I let you think..."
"I guessed that....afterwards. You....really did not want to talk to me."
"I didn't want to talk to anyone. The nurses told you I'm sure." It was his turn to feel embarrassed at how difficult he had made those early meetings.
"Yes.." Just like he had, she got more tense as they got closer to the rest of the tents, with more people around. "I don't...get upset, talking," she said. "I can always talk...no matter what. But..."
By the time they reached her tent, Luka was noticeably winded though he hadn't complained, his coughing finally becoming more frequent as his breathing came much
harsher. He flicked his eyes to her as she held open the tent flap for him. "Thanks."
He shared a brief smile with her before he stepped through the open flap and moved to the bed. Sitting heavily, he laid the crutches aside before bending to take his shoes
off...using his right to get the left free because of the brace. As if anticipating the upcoming difficulty Claire knelt to help him take the shoes off, and while he wanted to protest he instead accepted her help. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." She slid his shoes under his cot then rose with some difficulty, and went to sit on the other cot, gingerly.
He could already feel the ache in his muscles as he eased his leg onto the cot, and it was a relief to have his weight off his legs...giving into a slight cough, he laid back before closing his eyes as he waited for his breathing to slow.
"Wait...you need the oxygen again.." Anticipating that he would soon be asleep she got up, and moved over to the machine, going to one knee beside it to turn it on.
"Should save it for someone else." He offered the protest without bothering to open his eyes.
"It is here, so you should use it until it is gone." With some difficulty, she turned it on. Reluctantly his lids lifted and he looked over to her before pushing himself up on his forearms. She managed to get it started, and took the clear tubing, moving to sit on the edge of his cot, to loop it around him.
He tolerated her attentions then looked to see if the tin cup still sat on the small table. "Could I have some water?" He regretted asking her to do more even as he asked.
"Sure." She pushed herself off the cot and took up the glass, going to fill it from the pitcher and brought it back to him.
He took it with one hand and took several swallows before handing it back to her. "Thanks."
She nodded, setting it on the bedside table again. "You're going back to sleep?" she asked, quietly.
"Kind of tired...but I can stay awake. There was more in the bag from this morning." He offered the news as he leaned back again.
"The food?" she asked, perplexed.
He nodded. "If you're hungry that is."
"Okay," she gave in, with a little smile. Getting up, she walked over and took up the bag, before sitting on the edge of the cot to pull each of the things out, with growing surprise. "Luka...how did you get all these things?"
He cracked an eye open as he pushed up on one arm. "Told the food tent they were for you...Marissa says hello."
She held a few of the things in her hands, looking down at them. "She did?"
He nodded. "Not sure they believed me at first...thought I wanted it for myself."
"Thank you for trying...for getting all this."
"I showed them I already had mine and then they believed me."
She arranged the contents on her cot, then, after opening a small box, took and slowly ate a couple of the raisins it held inside. "You look tired," she said. "You don't have to stay up to talk to me."
"It's okay...not used to doing so much is all...been too lazy."
"You're a patient. You are supposed to be lazy."
"Won't be long and your father will want his tent back..I'll have to move to one of the common ones."
"Angelique wants you back there as well."
"Not sick enough for that...and they need the bed for someone who is."
"Won't you like having your own tent?"
"Not enough tents to have my own...most likely I'll go to one of the one's for single men."
"Well.....even then, you'll be away from us bothering you all the time," she offered, with a brief smile.
Without thinking he slipped his hand in his pocket to finger the picture, the identity of once more being single still not one he was comfortable with. "Sticking needles in me..." He offered the addition as a way of masking the thoughts.
She winced. "I don't stick needles in you...." Absently, she rubbed her upper leg.
"Your father does..when I'm sleeping."
"Oh." She looked down at the raisins cupped in her other hand. "I hate needles."
"Got to get used to them as a doctor."
"I know," she said, with a sheepish laugh. "I don't mind sticking other people with them...it's when I have to get..." She struggled for the word, when she was doing so well. "Sticked?"
"Stuck." He offered the correction gently...then followed it with a barely suppressed yawn. "Makes all the difference."
"You can go to sleep," she said, gently.
"It's okay...if you want to talk."
"Part of me does, but I don't need to," she murmured. "Mostly, I just don't want to lie down."
He withdrew his picture, flicking his eyes to the images before cupping his hand over it as he lay it on his chest. "Can sit in the chair..." He offered the concession.
"I can sit here," she replied, ducking her head. "I just feel worse when I lie down."
Even quieter he added, "Can lay over here." As he made the offer he eased over to the far side of his cot.
She paused, surprised he offered it. "I...." She swallowed, then said, "I'd just cry on you. Very messy." She managed a weak smile.
He offered a shrug, leaving the space there as he moved his picture up by his head and out of the way in the event she accepted. Feigning disinterest, he closed his eyes, giving her the chance to make her decision without the pressure of his watching her.
Claire set the raisins down, licking her lips a moment in hesitation. Finally, though, the offer was too much, and she crept over, sliding to lie down on the cot with him she turned so she could face him. Luka didn't immediately open his eyes though he was not yet asleep. His breathing had yet to fully ease; a slight rattle audible with her so close. He did however move his arm, the silent invitation there for her to move into the safety of his hold if she wanted to.
She was stiff a moment, but then she slid over, lifting her head so his arm could go under and around her shoulders, and she rested her cheek against the shirt on his chest. Her shoulders trembled, and as she had warned, she started to cry, almost silently, into the material.
He did what he hadn't thought he could and his arm circled her, holding her tightly before he lifted the other hand to stroke her hair.."Shh...sleep now.." He whispered to her softly in Croatian.
"I'm scared, too.....of sleeping.." she said, between small sobs, and oddly, she kept speaking in the same language.
"No one can hurt you here..." He continued to stroke her hair, his words too quiet, and in his mind he knew he had made the same promise before and failed. Her hand fisted in the shirt material, as she quieted under the stroking, her crying quieting down. "Shh...shh..." He whispered to her the nonsense he had whispered so many nights to his daughter as he'd held her, knowing he had used them too for his wife, and gradually he felt her relax. Only when he was sure she slept did he stop. And at last, in thestillness of the tent, he allowed himself to fall asleep.
To be continued...