By M. Blais and J.D.
"You said you came to thank me for the things I brought."
He moved the picture, laying it beside him before he used that arm to support himself in the semi-raised position, careful not to stir the injured leg. "Yes...I did."
She eyed him, almost defiantly. "So, you could say I messed things up this time. After all, if you hadn't come here, you wouldn't have reinjured the leg."
He wet his lips...dropping his eyes a moment..before lifting them to her again. "No...but it might still have happened....no one can say."
"Exactly," she said, quietly. "Just like my going to get the supplies."
"No..." He pushed himself up more with the protest. "You went to find things for me... you said that...if you hadn't.."
She shook her head. "I didn't just go for you. And it wasn't even my idea. The others got the Jeep and looked for volunteers."
He wanted to argue it...wanted to contradict her, take the blame from her shoulders... but how? "If I hadn't needed the things...would you have gone?" He watched her intently, looking for the signs that she was going to tell less then the truth.
She sighed, her shoulders still bent. "We needed more than just the clothes...meds and supplies..."
"I didn't ask that."
"I don't know, Luka," she answered, looking up at him. Her eyes were worn, dull. "Maybe. They asked me before I thought about getting things for you, and I said I would think about it."
His arms trembled slightly from the strain of keeping himself upright but he remained as he was, fighting the drugs in his system. "Maybe...but not for sure."
"Nothing is for sure. You said you might have hurt the knee again anyway. That no one knows for sure."
"Some things are for sure..." He let himself down on the cot and draped an arm across his face as if shielding it for a moment.
"Like what?" Her voice was quiet.
He moved his arm before turning his head to look at her. "That my life is gone...and nothing I do now can change that."
"The life you had is gone," she responded, returning his look.
He shook his head..."They were my life..."
She looked down a moment, then back to him. "You aren't going to stop living just by wishing it. You have to find something new."
"I tried...I went back to work...to my training...and that was taken away too."
"That doesn't mean it will be taken away again."
"I.....Poppa and I want to help you do that again."
"I don't know that I can start over again..."
"I think you can. I know I can help you do that." She rested her elbows on her knees, hunched over still. "I want to do that. It's gives me my reason to go on."
He rubbed his hand over his face...torn over what to say, how to respond...
"I know you're still going to fight me, but that's okay.."
"Claire....I just don't want you hurt again because of me...." He paused to swallow... "Everyone that gets too close...I just don't want you hurt anymore..." He pressed the heel of his hand into his eyes...then dropped it to rest on his chest.
"It only makes it worse when you say that, because it means you're pushing me away," she said, strongly. "It feels like.....I mean, I can't even stand myself right now." Her voice was thick, pained. "I feel like less than a person right now...and I don't want to be rejected. It only makes it worse."
He squeezed his eyes shut against what he knew was coming before forcing them open before he pushed himself up again..."I'm afraid...don't you understand? I'm not sure I'm strong enough to lose anyone else and I'm afraid if I let you too close that could happen... like it's happened to everyone else."
"If you do this, you will lose me, Luka," she answered, almost tearfully. "Just as if I had died. I mean....I almost did, you know? They were going to shoot me. God...I wanted them to. I wanted them to just shoot me. But I thought about you...and Poppa....and knew that if that happened, you'd never recover."
He let himself drop to the cot again before wrapping both arms over his head as he let a long moment of silence fill the small tent...when he uncovered his face again he fingered the hem of the rough blanket that lay draped at his waist..."I'm afraid..." His voice was no more then a whisper..
In the silence she managed to compose herself, gently refolding her clothes. "You don't have the be afraid of me," she said, sadly, rising to her feet. "But I can't tell you where you'll believe it."
"I feel like I'm betraying them..."
"Because you are living?"
He found the picture and held it in one hand. "Yes..."
"You deserve to live, Luka."
"Do I...why? For protecting my family so well...for staying with my patients...for protecting them?" His words came off harsher then he had intended and were laced with long withheld pain.
"You did what you could, and you can't tell me differently. You still deserve to live, if only because you got a second chance. You can't just throw it away."
"Did I? I ran away...I knew the Serbs were coming and I ran away to save my own life...I left them to die, Claire...maybe ...just maybe I couldn't keep my family alive but I ran away from my patients to save myself."
"Do you honestly think you could have saved them from the Serbs if you had stayed?" she asked, almost desperately. "Do you think you could have fought them off?"
"I could have tried...I should have...like my teacher...like the others who chose to stay behind."
"They died, Luka. Those that stayed behind died, and none of the patients were saved."
He wiped the start of tears from his eyes as they seemed to burn, then let his arm drop over them to shield them...hearing from her that which Angelique had never fully told him but that, which in his heart, he had always known. "No..."
"I'm sorry," she said, softer, instantly wishing she hadn't said anything. "I shouldn't have.....I'm sorry."
He turned his head to the side..away from her for a moment as he gave into tears for those he would never see again.
As he turned away from her, she rose from the cot, wiping tears off her own face, as she carried her clothes out of the tent.
To be continued...