By M. Blais and J.D.
Luka found himself watching Claire for sometime. At first simply holding her while she gave into the tears she had withheld for so long, then later offering soothing words he hoped would ease her closer to sleep. The narrow cot offered little room for two and he had turned to his side, giving her more of the limited space. Only when he was sure she was truly asleep did he allow himself the same luxury and with it came the memories of Danijela. Maybe it was Claire's closeness, the feel of her heart beating against his chest strengthening the memories. He drew her more tightly to him inhaling the smell of her shampoo..her soap...his fingers looped in a strand of Claire's hair without his realizing it, imagining it was Danijela he held in her place. The effect was better then any drug and though his breathing was still rough it came easier, his sleep far deeper then it had been in sometime.
The tent maintained the dim darkness as the sun outside crept higher and neither seemed to rouse to the change in the room, both of them asleep as they had been the past hour. The faint smell of tobacco smoke filled the tent.
Claire started to stir, as if she were coming out of a dream, shifting on the cot. She coughed once, at the tang of the smoke, and the leftover roughness in her throat from crying.
"Danijela...go back to sleep ..." His words came quietly in his native tongue, still lost to the world of half-sleep and not aware of where he was. His hand moved idly through her hair with his words in an attempt to soothe her again.
A rough hand closed over Luka's...one that was obviously not a woman's hand.
The touch of the hand jerked him into consciousness and his breath caught as his eyes flew open in panic, his mind immediately expecting the worst.
William was sitting on the stool, close to the cot. He was holding what looked like a long pipe in one hand, faint smoke coming from it, and his other hand was tight on Luka's although not painful. He wasn't smiling. "She's not your wife," he said, low but gentle.
Luka blinked twice...his eyes registering the man and the tent, and his mind scrambled to put the puzzle pieces into place. Claire lay next to him, her head on one arm while her own draped him, he closed then opened his eyes again as he tried to rationalize William's words. "I know." Even as he said them he knew for at least a moment he hadn't.
He let go of his hand, and straightened on the stool, placing the pipe back between his teeth. His eyes glittered a little, but otherwise his expression was unreadable.
"She didn't want to sleep..." He offered the explanation as if the words alone clarified everything the man was seeing.
William exhaled the tobacco smoke, absorbing the words. "You called her Danijela, in your sleep."
He rubbed his eyes...forcing himself fully awake. "My wife...I was dreaming of her..."
"I see." Still holding the pipe in his teeth, he put his hand on Claire's shoulder, shaking it gently until she woke up.
She came awake, groggy, blinking eyes that felt sticky. They went first to Luka, whom she still had her arm over, then over to her father. "Poppa?" She carefully disentangled her arm from around Luka, swallowing.
As Claire moved Luka took the opportunity to raise up on his arm...turning enough to retrieve his cherished picture and pocket it before looking back at William.
William took another drag on the pipe with his breath, and let it out slowly, almost as if he were counting inwardly. "You should move over to my cot, Claire." His tone made it clear it wasn't a suggestion.
She glanced at Luka, her eyes seeming lost for a moment, then she got up and moved over to the other cot, sitting down on it.
He wet his lips, his own nervousness obvious, then gave her a nod with the look...before pulling himself up into a sitting position preparing himself for the consequences of his actions.
"Now," he started, calmly, still unsmiling. "What happened this morning, that I should find you two in the same cot?"
Claire lowered her eyes, drawing a leg up onto the cot. "I just couldn't sleep, Poppa.."
Luka wet his lips again, suddenly very dry...then glanced to Claire before looking back to William. "She was afraid to sleep...I thought...I thought..if I held her...like I would my daughter when she was frightened..." He stumbled over words in his nervousness then stopped as his voice broke with the image of Jasna coming to mind..
She raised her eyes to him, noticing the tremor in his tone, her expression pained.
"I thought it would help." He found himself at a loss of what else he could say and looked toClaire for help.
William chewed on the pipe a moment. "Apparently so." He let out a breath. "Claire, I want you to take a short walk with me. Luka, we'll be back in a few minutes."
He nodded and moved to the edge of the cot...already looking for his shoes as if expecting to be leaving.
Claire bit her lip, but rose as her father requested. William noticed the movement Luka made, but did not naysay it, instead just walking to the door and holding it open for Claire to step outside. Just before he followed, he said, firmly, "Don't remove the oxygen." He poked the pipe in Luka's direction to underscore his words.
Luka dropped his hand...readying to do just that as the man had turned his back.
He eyed Luka as one might do a wayward child, a mixture of irritation and affection, before putting the pipe back in his mouth. Once he was satisfied that Luka was staying put, he followed Claire, letting the tent flap fall back into place.
Not daring to challenge the man Luka simply sat...awaiting his fate, unsure what it held.
About fifteen minutes later,Claire reentered the tent, chewing at her lower lip. Her eyes were red from obvious crying, but oddly, she seemed much more at ease than she had before, except when she was asleep on his cot with him.
Luka sat where he had been when they left...the only difference being he now held the small photo of his wife and daughter in his hands.
She brushed a hair away from her cheek and sank onto the cot opposite him.
As Claire entered he pocketed it, and wiped his hand over his face, erasing the betraying signs of where his thoughts had been. "He's pretty mad?" He asked the question though he was sure he already knew the answer.
"Yes and no," she answered, giving him a thin, but warm smile. She started to say more, but William reentered the tent as well, still holding his pipe.
"Got your shoes on?'" he asked Luka.
Luka looked to the door as the man re-entered...then shook his head..."You said not to move."
A corner of William's mouth twitched, although it did not turn into a smile as yet. He merely nodded. "So I did. Well, I would like you to walk with me. I want to show you something."
"Okay..." He reached up to pull the oxygen tubing off then paused as if waiting for permission.
William waved his free hand, indicating heshould remove it.
He did just that before scooting forward to try and catch his shoes with his free foot to bring them closer.
Claire watched, wanting to say something, but obviously feeling like she couldn't.
William pushed over the shoes with one of his feet.
As he had them near he leaned forward putting the one on his good leg then untying the other before he stood to put it on...balancing on the bed as he did. That done he grabbed for the crutches and slid them under his arms. He drew a steadying breath and lifted his eyes to William. "Ready."
"You're getting better at that," William observed placidly, holding open the tent flap. "We'll be back soon, Claire. Try and lie down for a while."
He slowly followed William to the door..casting Claire a quick glance as he passed.
She returned it, a mixture of pain and gratitude.
William let the flap fall down behind him as he exited, then started off on the path that would lead towards the outskirts of camp.
Luka followed somberly...several paces behind...his eyes more on the ground then off. .
William moved slowly, drawing on the pipe. Finally, he said, "This is a difficult thing, Luka."
Already expecting the worst he shook his head. "I'll move into the big tent...I'm sorry...I just thought it might help..I didn't mean anything by it." He tossed the words out too quickly, hoping one of them might be what he needed to appease him.
"It's not that..." He took another slow breath. "And yet it is. I admit I was...upset when I came back to the tent." He looked speculatively at the pipe a moment, holding it away from him. "I decided to take the time to think before I woke you both up."
Luka paused to watch him...deciding maybe it was safer to say nothing for the moment.
"Since you are most likely curious, I did not scold Claire either, on our walk. I did tell her that she didn't need to hide things from me anymore...I am her father." He sighed, closing his lips over the pipe again, almost sadly.
He swallowed but continued to hold his tongue, sensing the man was only getting started.
"I...believe she is relieved that it's out in the open now, so to speak. Now she'll let me comfort her..." He turned to look at Luka. "And I know that I have you to thank for at least part of that."
He looked a little confused. "I don't understand."
William regarded him thoughtfully. "She told me you impressed upon her that a father has unconditional love for his daughter."
He swallowed the lump that formed with the man's words and then nodded.
"But that is also why this is difficult, Luka."
"I'll go to the tent...I can't keep hiding from things either." He made the offer before the man could tell him to go.
"Actually, I have other ideas. But that is not what I meant. It's more in regards to Claire in general...and your relationship with her."
"Relationship?" The word came quietly...he had to be misunderstanding the meaning.
He touched the pocket that held the picture with his fingertip, unable to help feeling that the man thought somehow he had betrayed his vows to his wife and his family...
William nodded. "As glad as I am that you two are friends, sometimes that same closeness worries me." Taking a drag on the pipe, he added, "I do trust you, and I know that you won't hurt her, but I wonder if that closeness is keeping you from coming to terms with what happened to your family."
"My family is dead...I know that...I saw them..." His tone held a sharpness that seemed abnormal for him.
"And when you see Claire," he asked quietly, "you are not seeing a replacement for your dead wife, are you?"
He shook his head...stunned at what the man was saying. "My wife has been gone less then two months...I loved her...and my children."
"Not that kind of replacement, Luka. Not trying to erase that memory...but instead trying to cling to it."
"No one can replace them." His words held a stronger bite as the man touched a nerve.
"You are right. No one can."
"Their memory is all I have left of them...I need to hold onto it." He tried to regain control as he explained.
He put a hand on Luka's shoulder. "When a man loses those he loves, sometimes the instinct is to find the same contact again, to remind him what it felt like. It's not uncommon....not just with people here, but everywhere there is war. Do you understand what I mean? Having Claire around calms you, and some of that is because she is your friend. I only worry that the other part is because she reminds you of your wife. And that makes me more concerned for you.....not angry, Luka...concerned."
He tensed momentarily under the man's hand..then drew a shuddered breath. "She's not like Danijela...I'm not sure I'll ever know anyone like her again...but it's not like that...it's why I tried to keep her away...I don't know that I want to feel like that for someone again."
"Okay," he said soothingly, rubbing with his hand. "You probably won't ever know anyone enough like your wife, no. But I have to talk to you about these things. I don't think you are in danger of falling in love with anyone right now, even Claire, so you shouldn't worry about that. It's not in you to do that."
"Maybe it's better I not see her...I can go away...it'll be better for her." Better for me he thought, better I'm alone the way it's supposed to be. He could feel the hollowness opening inside him again with the thought.
"This isn't the same as feeling that way for a person all over again. It's just a response some people have, while grieving...a way to try and reconnect with what they lost. Well, now we come to it. Claire is not in the same position as you, obviously. She's close to you because she likes you, although don't worry...it's just friendship. Yet she needs to have room as well, especially now."
"I make her remember." He shifted his hand off the crutch to pull at the fabric of his shirt. "Every time she sees me she'll remember."
"And yet she stays around you. Doesn't that make you wonder, Luka? Why she does that?"
He dropped his eyes. "She still thinks I'll let myself die if she isn't near me."
"Maybe, although you are much farther from that now. No....I think she needs you a little, too."
"Am I? Even I don't know that."
"Than where you were? Yes....compared to before, I think you are anyway. If Claire is near you, you won't let yourself die?"
He dropped his eyes...not ready to concede that he was fully ready to live...
William took a pull of the smoke, letting it soothe him. "Claire feels like she can talk to you about what happened. That is why I think she still needs you."
He kept his eyes on the ground. "I know. But now she can talk to you."
He nodded. "She also needs to feel independent....back in control of her life. I think she needs to work again." He looked at Luka, his eyes serious. "Just like I think you need to work again."
That forced his eyes from the ground though maybe there was a hint of panic in the look. "I can't..."
"Why can't you?"
To be continued...