By J.D. and M. Blais
Luka was at a loss as to how to explain his fears or even his reasons for not wanting to start over yet again to the older man. Maybe all he wanted to do was disappear somewhere. Delaying his reply he swallowed and dropped his eyes to the rough path.
"You can always start small, Luka. But you can help, and you should."
He drew a breath and forced himself to look back at the man. "I tried to start over once before." The sense of failure was hard to conceal as he spoke.
"This isn't just starting over. I'm not asking you to do anything more than help, right now. Your health is improving every day, and you have the knowledge that not many of the volunteers have."
His jaw tightened a bit as he mulled the words over. "If I have to do it I will, but as soon as I'm able to leave I'm finished with it." He closed then opened his eyes, his words seeming to be a surprise even to himself, but for the moment he wasn't ready to rescend them.
"And where will you go?" William asked, quietly.
"It doesn't really matter does it?" The words held too much truth in them. It wasn't like he had a reason to be anywhere anymore. That thought prompted a deeper realization, no matter where he chose to go, he would still be alone.
William took a long pull on his pipe, then said, "I'm disappointed to hear you say that."
"Why? It's the truth...I don't have anywhere or anyone to go back to."
"I'm disappointed you look at helping others as some sort of penance, or chore. That you couldn't care less who needs you, as long as you get to go escape and hide," William said. His tone was flat.
He let his eyes drop to the ground again with the impact of the words...then shifted his weight on the crutches. When he raised his eyes again they held a hint of the dullness he'd been hiding behind in the month's since he'd lost his family."It's not like I'm a doctor... maybe I never would have finished anyway."
"I'm not very interested in maybes, Luka," he answered, his teeth still on the pipe. "I doubt you would have brought your family to Vukovar for your education if you thought that 'maybe' you wouldn't even finish. You're looking for excuses now."
"Things were different then...that was before I let my family die...before I ran away from the people I was supposed to be taking care of."
"And so now you are going to run away again?"
"I said I would do it..."
"If you had to. Well, Luka, I don't need a volunteer who doesn't really want to help anyone, but is just there because I intimidated him. I can do without that."
"That's supposed to make me change how I feel? " He was surprised at the anger that seemed to be seeping into his words...when had he last felt that...to who? God? The weight pressed down harder upon him, how could he not blame the man for taking his family? He drew another breath.
"No, that's my refusal of your less-than-generous offer," he returned, unfazed by Luka's show of emotion. "Let me tell you something, Luka, because I like you. I do understand what you are going through, over your family. But your pain is no more special than anyone else's. You don't feel it so much stronger than anyone else here who's lost someone that you can ignore them all. If you want to persist in that, then don't help. Go to wherever it is you wish to go. But remember this too....as angry as I am right now, mostly from disappointment, I refuse to turn my back on you. If you want to leave, so be it....it will hurt me and it will hurt Claire, and you'll be missing out on helping your people. But we'll be waiting for you to come back." He clamped his teeth tightly over the pipe, stemming any more angry words.
He felt like he was in a hole with no way out...part of him wanting to allow himself to be buried and a smaller part wanting him to concede...but he couldn't...not yet. He tightened his hands on the crutches until his knuckles whitened.
After taking a long breath, William said, "I thought going to the men's tent might be too much for you, so I found a volunteer that you could share a tent with. His name is Thomas Grybowski. He's about your age....his tent is on this pathway."
"Why should I be any different then anyone else?"
"This isn't different. Thomas has room and no one living there. The men's tent is already getting cramped. If you don't want it, then I'll find someone else."
He released a breath..."I'll take it..."
William nodded, curtly. "He's expecting you whenever you are ready to go."
"I might as well do it now."
William turned his dark eyes to Luka, the gaze serious. "Listen to me, Luka. If you are going to leave as soon as you are able, then do the decent thing and say goodbye to Claire. I don't want to see her hurt."
It was his turn to nod. "I will."
His eyes bored into Luka's for a long moment, as if testing his resolve. "My offer stands, but I won't take your help with the patients unless you are willing. I don't want forced labor. And what I said about not turning my back is true." His lips moved, tightening a little. "I did my best to help you, but every parent has to come to a point where they let their kids go out on the own, to succeed or fail. I know you are not my son, and you do not see yourself as a kid, but that is how I feel. It's up to you to determine if you are going to sink or swim, Luka."
He let his eyes drop again...taking the words in before finally looking up. "Better go then."
"You don't want to go back to my tent for a little longer?"
"No reason to...you said I was getting around enough."
He set his jaw, as if he wanted to argue more, but he didn't. Instead, he nodded, and led Luka to one of the medium tents lined up along one side of the path they walked on.
He paused before one. "Remember what I said about Claire," he said, quietly but evenly.
Luka followed slowly...for the most part his eyes on the path afraid the man might see the sense of betrayal on the man's face that he was sure he must be feeling. Only as they reached the tent and William spoke did he finally look back up. "I will."
He sighed, his expression drawn. He knocked on the center support, and after a moment, a man nearly as tall as Luka came out of the flap, adjusting glasses on his nose.
Luka took the man's appearance in. Thomas was scarcely an inch shorter than he, and almost as thin, although it was obviously genetics and not starvation. His mouth was wide, in his pale face, with lanky blond hair hanging over his brow. He held out a long hand. "Luka, yes? Hullo!"
Shifting the hand off the crutch he took the offered hand with little enthusiasm. "Yes... Luka."
"I'm Thomas," he said, shaking his hand with a firm grip, oblivious of the balancing of the crutches. "You decided to take the empty spot?" He had a thick accent, not from the region.
"Yeah...thanks." His words lacked any emotion and were spoken more out of obligation then anything else.
Thomas waved his hands around, one automatically going to his glasses again. "No, thanking you...I'd like the company. Also, it's safer, having a partner." He shook his head. "Lost my old roomie...too many volunteers up and quit these days, can't take the conditions, you know."
He shook his head."Not really...I'm not a volunteer."
Thomas shrugged, as if it wasn't much consequence. "Still, be good company to have here. I'm not in the tent much, so you'll have some to yourself, but good to have another body around."
William blew out some smoke, and cleared his throat. "Luka's ready to stay, if you're fine with that, Thomas."
Thomas nodded. "I am. Welcome, you are, come on in." He clapped William on the shoulder. "Glad to help any friend of Dr. Northstar."
Luka nodded to his comments but saying little more then was necessary. When he withdrew his hand he tightened it on the crutch again. He looked to William. "Thanks for everything...I'll talk to Claire later."
William nodded, a little worn. "So be it. You know where to find me, should you want to." He smiled briefly at Thomas, then turned to walk away.
He watched the man walk away saying nothing else then waited for Thomas to go inside so he could follow.
Thomas ducked down, so he could enter the tent comfortably, and held open the flap for Luka.
Luka moved in as well then paused, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimness.
To be continued...