Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Luka slept restlessly..the oxygen easing the congestion in his lungs but the coughing still interupting his sleep. There were low voices talking, the tones going up and down in the room. As the voices filtered in he stirred, a harsher cough signalling his waking. "You could have put a cold pack on it," he heard William say, almost exasperated. Thinking for a moment that the man was speaking to him, he rose up on one arm and looked around the tent.
William was standing, leaning with one hand braced on the larger table, an expression of both relief and irritation on his face. Claire was sitting on the cot, one of her knees drawn up to her chest. There was a fresh bruise on her temple, right above her right eye, and the beginnings of a black eye. "If it was going to swell, it would have done so already, Poppa."
"Did you even look to see if there were any available?" he asked, roughly, a tone Luka had never heard from him before.
He looked between them, not speaking so as not to intrude, then lowered himself as he was hit with another coughing attack.
Instead of answering, she looked over at Luka, realizing he was awake. "Luka....I'm sorry, I was trying to keep my voice down."
He shook his head and pushed himself up again. "What happened?" His voice came off raspy.
William cleared his throat, trying to be humorous although there was an undercurrent of anger to his voice. "Someone tried to shut Claire up in a more direct way. I could have told them that didn't work," he added.
Luka's face seemed to pale a bit, as if his first reaction was that far worse had happened and he immediately swept his eyes over her for the signs.
She ignored him, unfolding herself from the cot and taking William's spot on the stool. "Don't listen to him. It's nothing. Are you having fun sleeping in my cot?" she said, with a brief smile.
He offered a cough as the preface to answering. "Not considering this fun." His eyes continued to study her as she settled closer.
William hadn't moved from his spot, and there were lines of tension in him. "Don't bother him, Claire. What happened to your shirt, by the way?"
Her jaw set stubbornly, and she didn't look at her dad, but instead at the oxygen tank. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm impressed you got the oxygen tank here."
He caught the avoidance and his stomach plunged. "The Serbs stopped you?" His voice dropped even quieter then it had been. He was sure he was going to be sick as his mind latched onto the worse case scenario.
"I saw you off this morning, Claire," William said, "and you were wearing the pink t-shirt that you liked."
Claire sighed, twisting a little on the stool she could face them both. "Yes, they stopped us. So what? We all came back. With our supplies, I might add."
Luka's breath caught, dread filling his face. "Did they?" The question was barely a whisper.
She let out a breath, crossing her arms over her chest. Her father remained silent. "No," she said, after a moment, although she didn't say anything further.
"But they tried..." It wasn't fully a question and his words held the shakiness of that half doubt.
She didn't bother to confirm it, instead saying, "We got what we went there for."
He felt the bile rise at what to him was the confirmation...then dropped his head as he waited for it to pass.
William stayed by the table, seemingly using it for support. "I'm not going to ask if you thought it was worth it," he said, evenly, "because I know what you are going to say. But I'm going to ask you to stay in the camp for a while. No more little trips." He paused, looking at her. "Okay, Claire?" His voice was slightly stern, but behind it was a little bit of pleading. She merely nodded, stretching her legs out a moment. Luka lifted his head to look at her, but remained silent. He heard things in William's voice, read things in his body language that perhaps only he could, as another father, and wondered if Claire saw it too.
"If it hadn't been me, it would have just been someone else we know, Poppa," she pointed out.
"That's not the point, Claire," he responded, and his voice was getting back to normal. "I'm not interested in 'what ifs.'"
"We're not worth it." Luka made the statement very quietly as he lay back.
"Yes, you are," she said, with a mixture of irritation and worry. "Everyone here is."
He shifted his eyes to her. "And your life is less important?"
"It's not a matter of important, Luka," she answered, turning to face him. "People here are sick and injured, and can't get the help they need on their own. I can help them. And I'm going to." She glanced at her father, then back again. "That's why I came here. It's not right to do nothing when I can help."
He looked at her then cleared his throat. "And getting yourself raped...or worse, will help?"
She swallowed, but returned his look anyway. "Going into the city for supplies did help."
He dragged his hand across his face in frustration before answering. "So it was worth the cost to you?" He found the response once more punctuated by the ragged cough as the congestion loosened.
William finally pushed off the table, stiffly, going over to the smaller table and refilling Luka's glass with water. Claire dropped her eyes a moment as he moved behind her, then looked up again, meeting Luka's gaze.
"Yes," she said, although it was very quiet.
He had no reply to that and simply closed his eyes a moment to register his surrender in the battle.
"What would you have me do, Luka?" she asked, almost begging.
He opened his eyes at the question. "Go where it's safe...no one should have to live through this."
"What about the people who cannot leave? What would happen to them?"
"The same things that are happening to us now..." He dropped his eyes with the comment, then swallowed a half cough.
William spoke up, his voice low and even. "That's enough, Claire. Leave him alone for now." He offered the water glass to Luka.
He raised his eyes to William as he offered the cup, a tenseness to his jaw. "Thank you." Claire fell silent, pressing her lips together, watching the two of them. As Luka took the glass he raised it to his lips, then took a couple sips.
"I brought some clothes," she offered, much quieter.
"Thanks..." He turned to look on the side of the cot for his picture, assuring himself it was still there before looking back to her.
She rose from the stool, going over to an overlooked military duffel by the door flap, then knelt to open and rummage through it. William took the vacated stool, pulling his stethoscope out. "It sounds like your breathing has improved some, Luka," he said.
He nodded at the comment then sat up fully to allow the man to listen. "I think so.."
"Good." He smiled, a little more worn than usual, and placed the instrument against his chest. "Now I get to say I-told-you-so to the others about the antivirals."
Claire pulled out a pair of faded jeans and what looked like some sort of fleece long-sleeved jersey, and brought it over to the cot, placing them on the foot of it.
Luka released the cough he'd suppressed, a still harsh hack.
"The cough will be the last thing to go, of course," William responded. "It's going to persist as long as there is any fluid at all." He moved the scope from his chest to his back at different points.
Luka looked at the clothes unable to withhold his surprise.."They look pretty new still."
She managed a half-smile. "I really looked through everything. We weren't supposed to open anything until we got back, but I knew if I waited, someone else would have gotten everything worth having. A lot is black market," she admitted. "But that's why we went...they had the best to offer. The donated things don't always go very far."
He coughed again, then nodded. "Big money in it..."
"The way of the world," she said, and got a dark look from her father. "I'm sorry, Poppa, but they do have the best stuff."
William shifted his eyes back to Luka, putting away the scope. "How about your throat?"
"Kind of raw..."
"Keep trying the broth for now?"
He rubbed his hand across the two days beard growth...before nodding. "I'll try."
"Claire." The older man said it as a near-command, and she obediently fetched the thermos and mug from the table, pouring the thick liquid into the mug before handing it to her father. William offered it to Luka, as Claire replaced the things on the table, screwing the top back on the thermos tightly.
He handed back the water before taking the mug...then forced himself to take a swallow.
He looked over at his daughter, as his hands set aside the cup of water. "You should have some too," he pointed out. "You haven't eaten since you all left this morning."
Claire stood with her arms crossed, rubbing her hands along her upper arms as if she was cold. "I'm not hungry," she said, reflexively, then couldn't help her sheepish smile as she looked at Luka. He took a couple more sips before lowering the mug, a half smile as she repeated his too frequent excuse. "Um...I guess that excuse doesn't work around here," she admitted, color staining her cheeks. Absently, she ran her fingers over the bruise over her eye.
"Not working for me.." He raised the mug and took another sip.
William sighed, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. "The two of you," he said gruffly, "will be the death of me."
Claire chuckled, relaxing her tense shoulders just a little. "I'll go get something for us from the mess, Poppa."
As he lowered the mug again his face grew a bit more serious. "Is Angelique on you now to send me back?"
William shook his head. "She stops by when you are asleep, and I can tell she is itching to double-check my work, but I've been able to fend her off so far."
"I don't want to make trouble for you..I can go back."
Claire went to step out of the tent, and William called to her, "Stop and get something for your eye, Claire." His voice brooked no arguement.
She glanced back, tiredly. "I will." She let the flap fall down behind her, her footfalls dying away.
Only when she was gone did Luka ask his final question. "Did they rape her?"
William turned back to Luka, his expression tight. "She refuses to say." His face was shuttered, where usually it held warmth, and Luka wondered if William had asked her outright.
"The others won't?"
He shook his head. "I think she's coerced them into mutual silence."
He brushed his hand back through his hair, shoving the shaggy bangs off his face. "She thinks you'll take her away if she talks?"
William sighed. "And she'd be right. Furthermore, she'd be subjected to a medical exam I don't think she wants." He clenched and relaxed his hand on his knee, reflexively.
"She's lucky if that's the worst they did to her..." He offered the comment knowing he had seen patients who'd suffered far worse. "I know that doesn't make it better though."
William lifted his hand and rubbed his eyes, his expression upset. "That's what she would say, too. That it's good it wasn't anything more than that." Luka dropped his eyes to the soup, not sure what else he could say. "I think the others are feeling some level of guilt," William added, leaning forward so he could rest his elbows on his knees, his back bent. "Three men and an older woman, and her, it was just those five. And the other four have avoided me since they returned."
Luka rubbed at his eye before lifting his eyes. "They were lucky...some will take any woman...or girl."
"Yes.....lucky," William repeated, although he didn't sound quite convinced.
"I used to wonder what I would do if they tried to take Danijela...I think I would have died to stop them."
William nodded, glancing up a moment, his eyes dark with something undefinable. "I know what you mean.....but Claire doesn't have any such protector. Just me." He paused, his words heavy. "And I let her go today."
Luka was surprised at the first sign of self-reproach he'd ever heard from William. "The men who were with her..." He stopped before he finished, already knowing the answer.
"That's the question, isn't it?" William answered quietly. "Really, you would think it would be enough. But you never know who is willing to sacrifice their life for yours. Serbs travel armed. No doubt there were guns involved. I'm guessing the others were held at gunpoint...and only a few people would brave that for their fellow human being."
Luka found himself unable to suppress the shiver that ran through him at the thought and he crossed one arm across his chest as he waited for it to pass.
"I think my version of the events is the right one," William said, low. "But the others won't confirm or deny it."
"Most of all, I think she's scared," he admitted.
"She won't talk to you about it?" Luka glanced to the soup with a sigh, wanting to pass it off and instead lifted it to take a couple more swallows.
He shook his head. "It would upset me greatly, and she knows that, I bet. I still wish she would, but...." William watched him drink the soup, and added, "But I think it's also that she doesn't want it to get around camp."
He lowered the mug. "She thinks the others won't talk?"
"Like I said, they seem to be observing some sort of organized silence. They all seem to have agreed not to say what happened."
He rubbed his hand across his face..debating something with himself before speaking. "I should go back so she can be in here with you."
"You mean sleep in here?" he asked, straightening. "I already asked her to, and she won't. She says there's no reason." He shook his head. "She's as stubborn as they come, that one. I think she's still stung about Angelique's lecture, too, about giving you some room."
"I thought she stayed here before I came."
"She did. But she says there's no reason to uproot you from the spot when she's fine on her own."
He let the hand drop but didn't lift the soup again.
"Luka.." He smoothed his grey hair back with a calming gesture. "Maybe it's best to let her do her normal things for now, and see if she opens up. Sometimes that is how she works. Plus....she did point out something important. Those men who questioned you have still been coming and going."
"They want to ask me more questions?" He dropped his head to cough then lifted it again.
William nodded mildly. "They haven't come out and said so, but they did ask both Claire and Angelique where you were."
He released a soft sigh of resignation. "Tell them I'll answer them."
"Well, I wouldn't rush it," he said, with a thin smile. Angelique told them you were away from the camp receiving medical care, but Claire..." He shook his head, amused. "She told them something along the lines of you had gone to Rijeka and fallen off a cliff somewhere."
He allowed a smile to find him at the comment. "I doubt they believed that."
"Oh, you need to hear her spin a good lie. It's a work of art, I tell you. I had to stop her in the middle of some elaborate description of the benefits of salt water."
He ficked his tongue across his lips as his face dimpled with the deepening of his smile..then he shook his head. "Must have been a good way to get out of trouble when she was little."
William gave a little grunt of agreement. "I wasn't nearly so good at seeing through it as her mother was. I was appalled when I realized she was even lying in the first place."
Luka simply nodded, then looked at the mug before raising it again and taking a small sip.
He leaned back, stretching his back a little. "I remember when I confronted her once....I think she was about fourteen. And I asked her if she really believed what she wastelling me. And she looked right at me, all serious...." He paused, shaking his head a little, and Luka realized suddenly that William was fairly close to tears. He couldn't say how he knew, only that he did despite few signs. "Right at me," the older man continued, "and said, Poppa, that's the trick of telling a good lie...you have to make yourself believe it first, before you tell it."
He shook his head in disbelief then took one more sip before lowering the mug.."That good enough?" He tilted the mug revealing a little more then half still in it.
William gave him a half-smile. "What, do I need to count your sips now, young man?" he chuckled.
His face reflected the concealed chastisement. "I just don't have an appetite."
"It's not that much, Luka." He rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the last of his tension. "It will help the antivirals work."
He released a sigh then reluctantly raised the mug and took several more swallows. There were footsteps outside the tent, and Claire ducked back in, holding two bowls of something in her hands. There was a fresh bandage taped over her brow. Luka glanced to the door as he took another sip then lowered the mug, relaxing when he saw it was Claire. She handed one of the bowls to her father, and took something from under her elbow...a pair of what looked like sneakers. "See, all fixed up," she said, pointing to the bandage with her now free hand.
William took the proffered bowl. "Good," he said, eyeing it.
He watched the exchange quietly...forcing yet another swallow down.
She looked to Luka, finding a spot to sit on the opposite cot. "Look what you are missing out on," she teased, though it was still a little strained. She held up a spoonful of the food. "Couscous..."
He shielded another cough.."So I see."
"You sure you don't want any?" she asked, as William ate a spoonful of his own.
"I'm sure...I don't know if I can get through this."
She smiled, taking a spoonful. "You'll manage," she said around the mouthful. "I have faith in you." Her eye was swelling a little now, but she didn't seem to notice it.
He gave her a half smile then nodded to the sneakers. "You're collecting shoes?"
William snorted before she could answer. "She does it at home," he said dryly.
Claire smiled, sheepish, but said, "Those are for you. I had left them at the Jeep."
He took a final sip then set the mug by his leg as he sat back. "Me? I have those boots.." He didn't bother to say they were a size too big, although he was perfectly aware.
She gave him a patient look. "Well, now you have two pairs of shoes," she said simply.
"Thank you..." He offered the gratitude softly due to the cost of them to her.
She merely nodded, drawing up her knees again as she ate, looking down at the bowl.
To be continued...
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
By M. Blais and J.D.
Luka's sleep had been restless due to the worsening of the congestion in his lungs...and was further marred by frequent coughing as he tried to relieve it. He had rolled onto his side, one arm across his ribs as if that might make them hurt less when he coughed. The other hand somehow maintained a hold on the small black and white picture even through it all.
One of Angelique's assistants had wheeled in the portable oxygen machine, about the size of a suitcase, but less boxy, and William took it after thanking the man. He set it up next to Luka's cot. The older man got the oxygen ready to go, then put his hand on Luka's shoulder, gently.
At the touch he opened his eyes, though it took a minute before he seemed to connect with where he was.
"You don't need to move too much," William said, low, as he perched on the edge of the cot. "We're going to do this nasal, so I just want to loop the tube between your neck and shoulder so it's not obstructed."
"The oxygen...came?" He croaked the words out.
"Hey, I'm high on the totem pole here," William said, with a low chuckle. "I got it."
"Do I have to go back?" He raised his eyes to William's face with the question.
The older man shook his head. "The only thing you need to do is go back to sleep. Can you lift your head a moment for me?"
His chest rose and fell markedly as he fought the congestion in his lungs. "Yeah." He raised up slightly for him.
William expertly threaded the clear tubing under Luka's head, then tucked it behind the curvature of his ear and settled the nasal prongs into his nose. "There." He fixed the other side as well, and leaned back. "You can relax now..." He adjusted the outflow on the machine for a moment.
"Can I have some water?" Luka lay back as William finished.
"Sure." William stood, moving over to a pitcher he had set aside, with the cup from the small table, and refilled it. He brought it back to the bedside, settling onto his now familiar stool. "Need something to lean against?" He reached behind him for the bedroll, in case Luka wanted to sit up a little longer.
He failed to hold back another onslaught of coughing..and as it finished he nodded to the question.
William waited patiently for the younger man to sit up, then pushed the bedroll behind his back.
Pushing himself up on one arm, Luka leaned forward to allow him to put the roll behind him then lay back fully on his back.
Holding out the cup, he said, "Feeling about the same?"
The younger man nodded as he took the cup, then took a sip, swallowing it with more then a little difficulty as it moved down his raw throat.
"Hmm. I was hoping the antivirals would have more of an effect, but they are iffy at best."
"Why are you doing all this for me?" He asked the question quietly before taking another drink.
William glanced at him, unfazed by the question. "Because I can. And I won't stand aside when someone could benefit from my help."
"Why not someone else?" That he was confused as to why he was chosen was reflected in the tone of his question.
William allowed a smile. "You're the one I found in my tent. Very undressed, I might add."
He flushed slightly at the comment and dropped his eyes, then lifted them again. "Claire took my clothes." He offered the defense even more quietly.
William laughed outright, a deep sound. "Did she, now?"
His blush deepened. "She doesn't give up easily..."
"Now, that's the truest thing I've heard from your lips, Luka," William admitted, his laugh subsiding to a smile. "But it's my own fault. I raised her, alone after her mother died."
"I can dress now..." He straightened up a bit as he coughed then took another drink before he lay back.
"Don't waste your time. You'll just be sleeping anyway." He looked around. "And I may be wrong, but I think she actually took your clothes."
His eyes widened at that. "I don't have anything else."
William idly rubbed at his chin. "I wouldn't worry. Knowing Claire, she's getting them cleaned, or replaced even."
He seemed to accept that. "Angelique found those...not much around she said."
William nodded. "Things come in all the time. I guess she thinks she can find something better."
He nodded again with the explanation. "You worry about her here?"
William stretched his legs out, considering. "I always worry about Claire," he said aftera moment. "Not just here. It's natural, as a father. And not just about her physical health. I worry about whether she's happy or not, if she's being treated well, if she is doing what she wants to do. I doubt that will ever stop. But Claire's rather independent. I think that was because of losing her mother so young. She had to grow up quickly. I can't do much except offer her advice. She likes to do things on her own."
He swallowed as he listened, his eyes intently on the man as he spoke.
"She was always a mature child, but after her mother....." He paused, recalling. "I worried quite a bit about her after that, but she seemed to be all right in time."
"I don't know why it matters to her what happens to me....what makes me different then the others?" He ran his finger around the rim of the cup with the question.
"That I cannot tell you, Luka. Claire has her own way of doing things, and she sees things others don't. If she's chosen to pay more attention to you, she probably believes you need her."
He let his eyes drop at that. "I don't even know what I need..."
"Then perhaps she's trying to help you figure that out."
He drew a shuddered breath, not sure what to say. "There have to be others who need her more. "
"Does it bother you to have her around?" William asked, speculatively. "I can speak with her....I know she can be tenacious..."
He coughed, then took a moment more to choose his words. "I didn't want anyone around...but she kept coming anyway."
William nodded, waiting for him to continue.
"Kept pushing me to get out when I wanted.." He paused a moment then continued. "When I wanted to be left alone...she would just stare at me until I did what she wanted."
William chuckled, at that. "She's a stubborn girl."
He coughed yet again as the volume of words caught up with him. "I just don't know why she picked me..." He released a soft sigh with the comment.
William nodded again. "I'll speak with her tomorrow. In the meantime, you have probably a few uninterrupted days before you need to return to the med tent. Why don't you go back to sleep? It's rather late."
He nodded, offering the cup to him. "Keeping you up..."
William took it, setting it aside. "Doctors keep odd hours. Doesn't wear me down."
He coughed again laying the arm across his chest as he did.
"Sleep, Luka. No one is going to bother you tonight." He removed the bedroll so he could lay fully on the cot.
"'kay..." He rolled back to his side, the position seeming to suit him more then laying on his back. Then his hand found the picture before he let his eyes close.
To be continued...
Monday, August 29, 2005
Luka's breathing had settled into a raspy wheeze and at least for now his sleep seemed uninterrupted by the nightmares. Strangely enough, he did not dream either, for this brief sleep, but his body was attuned to each movement in the room that affected his cot. Once or twice, a grip on his wrist or pressure on his arm wormed it's way into his conciousness. He stirred at the attentions..soft moans in protest but not enough that he fully woke. As he drew closer to waking, he became aware of the soft sound of two voices in minor argument, obviously attempting to be quiet. As their discussion persisted he finally opened his eyes. Two figures were silhouetted by afternoon light in the tent. William stood, with his arms loosely crossed, facing Angelique, who looked equally stubborn.
He shifted slightly..emitting a soft groan as he jostled the IV in his hand...IV? He hadn't had one when he'd gone to sleep...the puzzle at how it had come to be was still out of reach. William merely turned his head in Luka's direction, but Angelique dropped her pose and moved over to his side, perching on the edge of the bed. "Good afternoon, Luka," she said, with a quiet smile. Her hands took his a moment, smoothing the tape over the IV site.
He cleared his throat..or tried to only to find that it was barely there. "Sorry about...not going back...last night."
Her smile faltered slightly, but she merely patted his hand. "You're fine now, that's all that matters."
"Not her fault..." He raised up as he coughed...then lay back again.
Angelique's mouth tightened, briefly, into a thin line, but she sighed, and it relaxed into a smile. "You should be resting, Luka. You're rather far from recovered right now, even if you are on the path, sweetie."
He nodded then followed it with another cough..
"If you really wish it, you can stay here with Dr. Northstar. He's willing to keep an eye on you."
"Only until they leave, don't want to talk to them anymore..." He fought to get what he needed to say out in as few words as possible.
She rubbed her fingers over his hand, affectionately. "Very well. We will say you are....how they say it, AWOL? Maybe that we sent you somewhere else for a little while, yes?"
He nodded...letting another wave of coughing roll over him before he shifted to his side in hopes of finding some relief.
"I'll be sure to let you and William know when they have gone, mon ami."
He nodded again...the battle was lost, even as his eyes slid closed sleep was already reclaiming him.
His breathing as he slept remained ragged..and though he never fully woke, what sleep he was getting was far from restful. The wheeze of struggled breathing mixed with hoarse coughing as his lungs filled. At some point the smell of food drifted through the tent, accompanied by the occassional footfall as William moved about. It was finally one of the extended coughing spells that roused him fully...seeming to tear into him. He raised himself up slightly on one arm as he fought to catch a breath.
William moved over, drawing up his stool once more. "Evening, Luka," he said, automatically pulling his stethoscope from his neck.
"How late..is it?" He asked the question in a hoarse whisper.
"Hmm, about 8 or so, I would guess." There was what looked like a hotplate set on the floor by Luka's bed, and it held a pot of water that was boiling, setting steam to rise right by his head.
He forced himself to sit as the man settled next to the bed. William placed the scope on Luka's back, listening intently, although his expression didn't give away anything he was thinking. "You needed the sleep....I wouldn't worry about the time."
"Claire's not here?" He cast his eyes around the tent.
William flicked his eyes up a moment. "No....she's been given some duties on the other side of camp, so we arranged for her to sleep in a tent over there as well."
"Because of me?" He again punctuated the words with several deep coughs.
"Yes and no," William said, mildly, as he switched the scope to his chest, again trying to isolate a few of the worst sounds. "This tent doesn't sleep three very well. But Angelique also thought she needed a change of environment." William smiled once. "Claire didn't agree, but then, she usually doesn't."
"She all right?"
He looked up, removing the scope and replacing it around his neck. "Claire?"
Luka drew a couple of breaths to try and fill his lungs only to cough again at the effort, then nodded at the question.
"I may need to put you on some oxygen tonight." William scooted the stool away a little. "She's got a mild cold, but otherwise, I'm not worried."
"It's not that bad..." He couldn't stop the cough that followed.
William chuckled. "Until you finish medical school, young man, let me decide that. We'll play it by ear tonight, though. I'm not going to make you do it. We're scarce on tanks right now anyway."
"I think that's done..." He remained sitting, as if that made his finding his breath easier.
William reached for two cups on the small table, one with water, and held it out to him. "I don't see why it would have to be done already. You've done the hard part, the initial tests."
He took the cup...letting the liquid cool his raw throat. "I can't afford to go back." He left unsaid that there was nowhere to go back to.
"I doubt many can, at this point," William agreed, handing over the second cup, which held two capsules. "I'm starting you on some antiviral antibiotics tonight. Anyway, the fact remains that doctors are needed here, which makes it much more likely for regional schools to accept unpaid students."
He glanced into the cup then to the man before lifting his hand to take them and popping them in his mouth, then followed them with a drink of water.
"From my experience, they structure it as a work-for-learn program. Not a bad idea at all." Luka nodded, then took a final drink before handing the cup back. William took the cups, setting them both on the table again. "Mind you, it'll be a while before you are strong enough." He stood, moving over to the far, larger table mostly obstructed in the corner of the tent, and brought back a bowl. "Here...you slept through lunch, but dinner is still getable."
He leaned back again as the man walked away, only to roll to the side as that seemed to make his breathing worse. "I'm not hungry...just tired."
"I guessed your appetite wasn't too strong. However, you'll need the liquids to help loosen up your chest some." He continued to offer the bowl, having a second one for himself in his other hand.
He looked at him...gauging how far he could go then forced himself to sit up again.
"Here, hold this," he placed the bowl in Luka's hands, then set his own down for a moment, taking up a bedroll from the other cot to place behind Luka's back.
He took the bowl...his hands a bit unsteady
"There. Not so bad sitting up now." He resettled back on the stool, picking up his own bowl. The spoons rested just inside, in the stew.
He leaned back against the roll...then dropped his eyes to the bowl again before picking the spoon up and stirring it .
William took a spoonful of it, seemingly unconcerned with Luka's lack of enthusiam, and then said, "I hope you don't mind that Claire told me a lot about you."
He lifted his eyes..."What did she say?"
The older man's eyes crinkled a little at the corners, giving away his smile although he was eating. "That you didn't like to eat."
He released a breath and ladled some of the broth on the spoon and brought it to his mouth...in concession to the comment.
William continued to eat, unpeturbed. "Glad to see you're willing to prove her wrong, for once."
"What else did she say?"
William shrugged. "What did you tell her?"
He raised his eyes again...then dropped them to the bowl as he forced himself to take another bite. Laying the spoon down he touched the IV..."You did this when I was asleep."
The older man nodded. "Does that bother you?" He simply shrugged. "You were sleeping rather heavily. It seemed counterproductive to wake you." Luka seemed to accept the answer and picked the spoon up...taking a bit more of the broth before giving up on it. "Claire told me some about your family," William admitted, still quietly eating the rest of his stew. Luka dropped his eyes to the bowl at the mention of his family and released a shaky breath. "I doubt she's mentioned it to anyone else, so I hope you don't think too poorly of her for it."
"It's in the file now.."
"That's hardly common knowledge."
Luka turned his head to locate the picture and picked it up...swiping his tongue across his lips before he handed it across to him. "My wife and daughter..."
William set the spoon in his bowl, and took the picture. "Danijela and Jasna, right?"
"Yes..." Almost sadly he added. "I don't have one of my son."
He set his bowl down, studying the picture, then reached into his back pocket, pulling out his wallet. Flipping open the folds, he handed it over to Luka, opened to a picture of a young woman, with light brown hair and green eyes. "My wife. It's been fifteen years, so the picture is a little worn out."
He took the wallet as it was handed to him..dropping his eyes to the picture. "Does it hurt any less?" He asked the question too softly.
"In a way," he said. "Not really less, just differently. Rather like a sore spot, in my heart."
He seemed to accept that and handed the picture back with a sigh.
"She was in an accident...my wife, I mean."
"I'm sorry.." He offered the words automatically...knowing they weren't enough from experience. He made no attempt to eat anything else from the bowl he held...though his eyes had dropped to it again.
William nodded. "No need for sympathy. It's been long enough, and speaking of it doesn't bother me as much anymore. But I think perhaps Claire thought I could understand what you were going through."
"All my training and I couldn't save any of them..." He made the comment so quietly he might have been offering it for himself.
William sighed. "I do know, Luka. It seems like you know all the answers, you can see everything that is wrong with them as it happens, but none of your solutions work the way they should. As if just knowing what to do was enough to stop them from dying."
He raised one hand to press the heel into his eyes..then swallowed as if that would somehow stop the grief from finding him again.
"I thought I had saved my wife, but there was much more to her injuries than I knew at the time," William added.
He cleared his throat..then gave into a cough as he let his words sink in..."I keep seeing it...over and over...if I had done things differently..." He let the thought go unfinished.
"Try eating a bit more, Luka," William said, setting the wallet picture back in his lap, after another look at it. "I know that path, the one you keep wandering down. It's full of a million possibilities...but that's all they are, I'm afraid."
"I thought I could do this without them...I tried...but I don't think I can anymore..." He kept his eyes on the bowl but still made no move to eat any more.
"You are doing it already, Luka. Living. It's nothing more than waking, moving, feeling." His dark eyes were serious, fathomless. "There isn't any trying to it. Life is something your body takes care of even when your mind is still coming to grips."
He raised his eyes to him as his mind prossessed the words. His breathing still carried the wheeze of his congested lungs...and his chest seemed to strain as it rose and fell with each breath.
"Your body is created for this purpose, to continue on when your soul cannot. That is what it is for. It's to house your spirit until it heals."
"I don't believe in God anymore..." He voiced the admission quietly as if confessing something akin to murder.
The older man smiled slightly. "You don't have to believe in Him to know that what I am saying is true. And thankfully, I don't think He's given up on you."
He raised his hand to wipe his eyes again. "Like he did my family. I begged him to save them..." He let his head drop again...the tremble there in his shoulders as he tried not to lose his hold on things.
"He saved their souls, Luka, even if He did not save their bodies. It is the one saving grace we have in death."
He looked at the bowl...his breath seeming to be coming a little rougher as he fought not to give into the grief again..."Is it?"
He placed his hand on Luka's shoulder, rubbing with his knotted fingers. "Those we love will die, my friend. It is the price of life, and it's what makes it worthwhile, to know that it is often fleeting. We cannot live without death." He paused. "Light without shadows is blindness."
He rocked slightly under his hand....the tears he'd fought so hard to hold back wetting his cheeks...though they came without the choked sobs he'd endured earlier.
"You cannot deny it, Luka. But accepting it will take a long time."
He raised his uninjured knee...then rested his forehead against it..as he gave into the grief of his loss...and the effect of the man's words. William leaned forward so he could press his own forehead against Luka's head, to stay connected to him while he grieved.
As he felt the man against him he couldnt help but turn into him...desperate for the comfort so needed so badly in those moments. William moved to the edge of the cot so he could wrap his arms around Luka like he might to a child, drawing him closer. He went willingly into the mans arms as he would have his own father..his fingers wrapping themself in the fabric of his shirt. With his right hand, he deftly pulled the bowl from Luka's lap and set it back on the seat of the vacated stool, then replaced his arm around him.
He had no idea how long the tears fell...before he could once again force himself to accept that he was alone...and he choked back breaths to calm himself. William held him until he was quiet, calm again. He drew a shuddered breath before trusting himself to pull away and sit back again.."I'm sorry.." He sniffed back remaining tears.
"You shouldn't be sorry, Luka. I wish I could tell you that was the last time that would happen, but it won't be." He moved back but not off the cot.
Luka wiped the wetness from his face even as he gave into a round of coughing that tore at his lungs.
William handed the cup of water to him again.
"But it gets easier?" He asked in hoarse expectation. He took the cup as he finished speaking...taking a drink then slowly swallowing.
"Yes. It does."
Luka nodded before taking another drink.."It hurts to breathe..." He finally admitted what he had known for sometime.
"It's a little bit of everything," William said. "The pneumonia, the strain on your throat from the coughing....I would like to put you on oxygen later."
He nodded his acceptance of the inevitable..."Angelique will want me back there if you do."
"Not necessarily," William countered, his voice even. "There's one or two portables making the rounds, and I've already planted the seed in her mind."
"Okay.." He was already feeling the pull to sleep again as he accepted the answer...and after battling another round of coughing closed his eyes. The older man leaned forward, taking the bedroll away so Luka could lay back again. He opened them almost as quickly.."You going to be here?"
He nodded, matter-of-factly. "I'm in for the night, myself. One of my nurses has instructions to bring one by when it frees up."
He nodded again and turned to his side...a momentary panic filling his face as he searched for the picture on the cot.
"Luka," he said gently, holding out the small picture. "I hadn't let go of it yet."
He flicked his eyes to him..the relief immediate as he took it from him.
"I know how important it is to you."
"It's all I have..."He offered the words quietly as he lay it on the cot and placed his hand over it, then closed his eyes again.
"Don't worry," William murmured, drawing the blanket up on him. "You have Claire and myself now, too."
His breathing slowed with the words and he let sleep take him with the comfort of them.
To be continued...
Sunday, August 28, 2005
By M. Blais and J.D.
Luka came awake not long after dawn, a hoarse coughing breaking the silence of the tent. Claire was no where to be seen, although her blanket was pooled on the ground. Sunlight was trickling in through the tent flap, which was ajar.
There was a man bending over by the other cot, seemingly divesting himself of his coat and a bag, setting it on the bed. He was tall, and his build was boxy but not overmuscled. His black hair was shot through liberally with gray, and it was lengthy, pulled back in a thin ponytail that draped down his back. His demeanor was calm and unruffled, and his skin was a deep tan. Coupled with his almond eyes, it was easy to guess he was of some Native American ethnicity. He
glanced over at Luka as he came awake. "Good morning," he said mildly.
"Claire?" Her name came as a quiet croak.
The tall man smiled, straightening. "She'll be back soon enough, I'm sure. One of the other doctors is quite busy giving her a heavy-duty lecture." The wrinkles around his eyes crinkled with his smile, making his age seems somewhere in his late 40s. He picked up a cup from the nearby side table and filled it with water from a canteen. "You need a drink first, Luka."
He cleared his throat before speaking again. "Angelique?"
The man nodded. "Like I said, she'll be done with Claire soon, I imagine." He moved over, offering the cup. "She can get rather hot and bothered. Dr. Forquet, I mean."
He nodded as he took the cup. "Thank you..." He struggled for his voice before taking a drink.
He picked up his stethoscope from the table. "I'm William, by the way. Claire's father." He slid the instrument around his neck. "Do you mind if I..?" he asked, holding up the end of it. "If you want to wait for Angelique, you can." Luka shook his head, offering the cup back before he forced himself to sit. The exertion brought a brief coughing jag from him, and he covered his mouth as he waited for it to ease.
William drew over a stool from the foot of his own cot, and settled onto it by the bed where Luka sat. He adjusted the instrument in his ears and leaned forward to place it on Luka's back. "You had everyone worried," he said,
conversationally, as he listened. His free hand set the cup aside. William could see that the younger man was thinner then he should be,evidence of tight rations and the ordeal of fleeing Vukovar. Bruises and scrapes were visible from his escape, but he merely propped his hands on each side of the cot and said nothing.
He moved the scope to different points on Luka's back, more concerned with his lungs than anything else. "But you are back now, and that is all that matters, I'd say." He frowned slightly with concentration, then moved the scope to Luka's chest, trying to pinpoint a few sounds. There....thick, mucus sounds.
"Doesn't matter..." He offered the remark quietly.
"What doesn't matter?" William asked, his voice still very mild. He leaned back, somewhat satisfied, and took the instrument off, placing it around his neck reflexively.
Luka cleared his throat again in preparation of answering. "Where I am."
William chuckled, scooting back a little on the stool. "Well, young man, where you are right now is a hot point of contention among at least two people around here." He lifted his hands, slender knotty fingers settling onto Luka's shoulder. "Here, I need to check your glands," he said, indicating he needed to touch Luka's neck. He drew a rough breath then nodded his consent, submitting to the exam with no enthusiasm. William's hands were quick and practiced, moving over the skin and prodding the glands with painless ease, before he dropped his fingers. "Decent," he said. "How is your leg doing?" He got a shrug for an answer. Well, he'd had worse. "May I see?"
Luka drew a wheezing breath then pulled the blanket aside to reveal it. A thigh bandage covered the bulletwounds and another around his still swollen knee. He leaned back.. propping himself on his forearms. "Interesting," William murmured, touching the bandage. "I would have thought Claire would have the foresight to change the dressing last night, after it got wet." Alright, so he was fishing for information. After all, he was still mentally adjusting to the fact that his daughter had brought this particular patient here. But Luka remained silent, and he sighed. "I'm not a big fan of seepage, but it's not necessarily a bad thing in this case. It can wait until you get back to the medical tent, I think."
"If you hand me my clothes...I can go." He puctuated his words words with more coughing.
William looked back up at him, assessing. "Claire tells meyou were studying to be a doctor." He acted oblivious to the request.
He smiled a little at that. "Noble profession, but I suppose it's easy for me to say that." Luka barely registered the words, sat back up and reached over to lift his leg off the bed as a start to getting dressed. "Why didn't you want to go to the medical tent last night, Luka?" William's voice was low, but
That stopped him. Picking instead at the bandage on his thigh, he started, "I didn't want to answer any more questions..." He struggled for the words.
William nodded, with a heavy sigh. "I heard the authorities were doing more questioning." He paused. "But you came here?"
He shook his head. "I left the camp...Claire brought me here."
"So you could avoid the authorities?"
He cleared his throat again, unable or unwilling to meet William's eyes. "Yes."
William crossed his arms, contemplating. "Do you trust Claire, then?" Luka looked to him at the question..but didn't immediately answer. William merely raised an eyebrow. The hesitation alone spoke volumes. "You can say no, if you want to. I'm not asking as her father."
His words came very quietly. "She doesn't make me relive it.."
"I see." He regarded the younger man for a long moment, then asked, "Do you want her to continue coming around, or does it not matter to you either way? Again, you can be honest." Luka had dropped his eyes back to the bandage... pulling at a loose thread along the edge of it. Again, that hesitation. William watched him, shrewdly. "Well, at least you seem to be somewhat close to Angelique, yes?"
"They can't understand that I have no reason to live..." William could see Luka surprised even himself as the words came out before he realized it.
"You're right," William admitted. "They can't, and they won't leave it alone. Not until you find some reason to. But that's not what I am asking about. Angelique, right now, would prefer that Claire not visit you for the time being."
He shifted his focus to William. He didn't seem to understand the leap. "Because she brought me here?"
William watched him, pondering his words. "Think about it, Luka. You were a medical student once. What would have happened if another med student had interfered with a resident doctor's patient, going so far as to not bring him to medical attention immediately?"
"It was my decision," Luka protested. He stopped to give into a coughing bout. "I told her I didn't want to go back."
"Yet you could have been in very mortal danger, with your lungs in the shape they are. Claire isn't a doctor. She may be someday, but right now she isn't." William's voice was firm and unrelenting. If Claire was right, Luka needed to start thinking about something other than his grief. And hopefully, this would tap into his analytical self.
"It's my choice...." Luka repeated, weakly.
"As long as your care falls under Angelique's hands, it was perhaps your choice but not Claire's." William waited to see if the statement would have a response.
Luka coughed again, then cleared his throat. " I left the camp last night...if not for her I don't know if I would have come back."
William nodded, very slowly. "Is that so?" That he had admitted Claire had saved his life, it meant he had been at least somewhat aware of the danger.
"Yes." He made the admission even quieter then his previous words.
"Well, the fact remains that though she may have saved your life, the others also think she put it back in danger by bringing you here. But," William added, mildly, "I can speak with Angelique, let her know the circumstances."
"I couldn't go back there last night, I couldn't see them again." Luka leaned forward as a particularly intense coughing jag hit him.
The older man put his hand on Luka's shoulder as the coughing took him over. "And you indeed would have died had you stayed outside last night."
"That's what I was hoping for..." His confession came in a whispered wheeze.
William didn't hesitate. "Then why did you let her bring you back here, Luka?" he asked, low and in his ear.
"I don't know."
"I think you need to examine that." He leaned back up. He had planted the seed, he knew that. Somewhere, deep inside him, Luka wanted, at least a tiny bit, to live. Maybe where he couldn't recognize it, but it was there.
The younger man rubbed a hand across his face, and drew a shuddered breath. "I don't know what to do anymore....I keep hoping I'll just go to sleep and not wake up....but I always do."
Quietly, William said,"There's not much you can do right now, and I suspect that's the worst of it. The feeling of helplessness. Even unable to help yourself." He looked at Luka, his black eyes somber. "I do understand that, at least." For the first time in many years, he felt the stirrings of an unusual sympathy. Something about this particular refugee made William feel more strongly that he was meant to meet him. That perhaps his own experiences could benefit another person who was suffering. Luka rubbed his eyes again, trying to keep a fragile hold on his emotions. William recognized the signs as if he were reading his own body language. "Even dying gets difficult, when it seems like the simplest thing. Isn't that it, Luka?"
The Croatian leaned forward, dropping his head in his palms, a slight tremble to his shoulders. William knew that right now, in this moment, he had to tread carefully, speak with well-chosen words. His voice had gotten quiet, but underneath it thrummed a gentle strength. He knew what the younger man was feeling, the edge he was walking along. "It's a precipice, Luka, that you need to back away from. You don't need to look forward to do that. You don't need to look to the future to move away from that leap. Because if you haven't taken it by now, you aren't going to. You have to believe me on this...I've been there as well. You don't need to want to live....you have to want not to die first."
The tremble gained strength as Luka fought to hold on to himself. "I miss them so much...and I can't help thinking I should be with them..." He squeezed his eyes shut against approaching tears.
William placed his hand on Luka's shoulder, the gesture fatherly. "It's your instincts telling you that, Luka. Like any man has for his family. We're supposed to protect them, we're taught. And when we can't, it seems like the worst failure. But it's only failure if we chose not to protect them in the first place."
"I should have been able to save them...I wasn't strong enough..."
"Do you think it was your strength that worked against you.... or was it time?" He couldn't help but wonder what things might have been like for him had someone said these same things to him, nearly fifteen years before.
"If I hadn't been so tired...if...if I could have kept breathing for my daughter..." Luka dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.
His hand tightened just a little on Luka's thin shoulder. It felt like lancing a boil, knowing he was causing intense pain, bringing something to the surface, but at the same time needing to bring about healing. "Time, Luka. It is one of
those things man must accept is out of his control. You'll see in time...peace comes in accepting that the world is beyond our control, beyond our strength to bend it to our will. We cannot force things to be the way we want them to be."
Luka forced himself to look up and to him. Pain was clearly etched in his face, like lines of grief. "I let her die. They both died because I couldn't save them."
"You don't allow things to die, Luka. They just do." William's tone was not sad, but accepting. Age did that to a man, made him accept things. Luka was too young to have learned that lesson. "They die because it's the way of the
world. People die because they must. It's mortality....none of us are beyond it."
"Then why can't I?" He dropped his fist to the bulletwound as if he somehow needed to feel the pain to know he could feel anything.
"You will, just not right now. None of us can say when we are going to die, Luka. No one in your family decided that the day they died was going to be their day, no more than you can say today is yours, or tomorrow. Stop courting death, Luka," he advised. "He won't come for you until it's time." Luka
leaned forward again, dropping his head in his hands..his shoulders rocking. "Nothing you can do or say will convince Death to take you before it's time for you to go." He moved to the cot, slipping his arm around Luka's shoulders, comforting. "When you lose someone you love when it seems so...preventable...it can destroy you."
He felt the panic rise in the man's shoulders, like a stalled breath. When he raised his eyes to William's full of despair and pain, William returned his look, accepting and without pity. "You'll always miss them, Luka. I won't lie to you. But you have to accept that it's going to be that way." He brought his
hand to Luka's hair, so he could pull the younger man against his shoulder, for the support.
He didn't resist the touch and as he leaned against him, the walls caved. When the tears came, they broke in choked breaths that shook his body. William held him tightly, his hand moving reassuringly over Luka's back, his cheek resting
against his hair. His demeanor exuded understanding, born of his years. And because he understood. Because he alone knew what it was like to watch a woman die whom he had loved, and know there was nothing he could do about it. Luka grabbed onto his shirt as if that was the only way he could maintain any connection to where he was. William continued to absorb the emotions, being the rock he knew Luka needed just then. "Grieve for them, Luka. You always
will. But dying isn't any more a cure for that than anything else is."
He gave into his grief until exhaustion called to him, and he seemed to be fighting for every breath he took. Even then, he refused to release his hold. Perhaps fear he would be swallowed by the intensity of the pent-up emotions. William obligingly held him until he gave any indication of letting go on his own. "All I can tell you is that it fades, some, over time.
Time is all. Give in to it, Luka. It governs us, not the other way
It was finally the need for sleep which prompted him to loosen his hold.."I''m tired..." The words came weakly...his voice almost non-existant.
"I know." William slowly moved his arm so Luka could lay back again on the cot. "I expect you'll be that way for a long time...."
To be continued...
Saturday, August 27, 2005
By J.D. and M.Blais
William knew it was no longer raining, but he wiped at his eyes again, just to be sure. Yes, this was his tent. He controlled the impulse to step outside and double check. That was his foot locker, his jacket hung up. His other
shoes on the floor. His daughter...on the floor. Asleep.
And in her cot, a tall, thin, wheezing form.
William sighed, feeling as if he'd stepped into a version of Goldilocks and the three bears. There was a strange man sleeping in his daughter's cot. Granted, he had long ago come to terms with the idea that his daughter would develop
romantic relationships, and that he'd see the evidence of that eventually. Even so, she'd always been circumspect, never giving him much to worry himself over.
To be fair, it wasn't completely damning. She was asleep on the floor, and still dressed as well. Her shoes were missing, as he saw a sock-clad foot sticking out from under her blanket. On the bed, however, the unknown man had a length of arm visible, and it made William wonder. Without hesitation, he went over and flicked back the top half of the blanket covering him. He was far from worried about the man's reaction should he wake...after all, he was the intruder in William's tent.
Any ideas he had about the man being his daughter's guest fled once he drew the blanket back. He was easily twenty pounds underweight, with multiple fresh cuts and bruises over his torso. His chest rose and fell unevenly, as if his
lungs weren't operating at their best. William recognized the signs of sickness on sight. The man's long, thick hair fell over his eyes, but William could discern the flickering of his eyes under the lids, rapid and strained. In deep sleep, dreaming most likely.
Damnit, he was a patient. He didn't know from where, or how Claire ended up with him in her cot, but.....out of curiousity, he lifted the blanket a little further. It exposed just more thinly-stretched skin.
To hell with this. He was waking up his daughter and getting some answers. Now.
Someone was shaking her shoulder. "Jus' little longer," Claire mumbled in protest at first, not opening her eyes. Although the cold of the ground was registering in her cramped legs, the rest of her was fairly warm, curled in the
blanket. She fisted her hands on the material, drawing it closer to her shoulder.
Abruptly, it was yanked away from her, and the sudden cold made her blink, disoriented. Her father stood over her, his face set in a deep frown, his eyes glittering the the dark. Claire looked up at him, and swallowed convulsively.
"Ah...Poppa.." she started, scrambling for words.
William tossed the blanket to his cot. "Would you care to stand up and explain what I am seeing here?" he said, deceptively mild and quiet. His eyes pointedly went to the still-sleeping Luka, on her cot, then back to where she sat on the floor.
"Ah....of course," she said, her heart hammering as she struggled to her feet. William stalked to the tent flap and held it open for her, and she stepped out into the night air. It was no longer raining, but the cold wetness still radiated from the ground. She wrapped her arms around herself, still chilled
from rescuing Luka in the storm.
"There is a strange man in your cot," William said, his words clipped. "A strange...naked...man."
"Poppa, I can explain-"
"This had better be good, Tsigi-lili," he snapped.
Claire winced. He only used her given Indian name when he was highly upset with her. "It's Luka," she started, shivering.
A little bit of comprehension entered William's eyes. "The refugee you were telling me about? He's a widower, you said...."
She nodded, quickly. "Yes, that's right. I had been visiting him, I told you. He lost his wife and his two children."
"And now he's naked and in your cot," William reminded her, ungently, as he crossed his arms over his chest. He seemed unconcerned with her shivering as he continued to glower at her.
"I...it's....uh...complicated," she said, realizing the hesitation only made it look worse. "Okay, I'm sorry...let me just tell you. He was being interrogated today." She clenched her jaw a moment to stop the chattering. "After it was over, he went missing. Ange-- I mean, Dr. Forquet said he didn't return to the med tent, and she was getting worried. She was sending out the volunteers to look for him."
William listened, but long experience with his daughter made him seize upon her words. "Did Dr. Forquet ask you to go look for him?"
"No," she admitted, cringing a little. "But I was already out looking for other patients....so I kept going. I found him, way out past the border, alongside the wire fence. He was soaked through," she added, worriedly. "You know he was just recovering from pneumonia."
"Which is why he should be at the med tent right now," he said, harshly. "You don't keep people like pets, Tsigi-lili-"
"He didn't want to go back," she interrupted him, and watched his face grow darker a moment. "Look, I'm not just playing around here," she finally snapped, feeling a little fire get into her at the dressing down. "He was traumatized by the questioning, and he was terrified the inquisitors would be
there, waiting for him when he got back." She continued to shiver, but she ignored it. "I couldn't make him go....but he needed to get out of the rain before he died, Poppa!"
William unclenched his jaw, taking a short breath. "I understand that, but you are not his doctor, and keeping him in our tent was not a decision for you to make."
I had one chance to get him out of the rain, and probably save his life, and I took it," she insisted. "And yes, I had to get the wet clothes off him, to keep him from getting a worse chill. I was going to come find you...I just fell alseep."
Dr. Forquet is going to call for you to leave the camp, Tsigi-lili," he said, harshly, pointing a finger at her. "The only thing saving you right now, after basically abducting a patient, is that you did it for his health, and that I am here to treat him. If she had found him here before I did, rest assured you would be on a plane by morning. This is not a game. You are here to learn...not to be foolish and idiotic!"
Claire set her jaw, but swallowed the defensive words she wanted to say. "I'll tell Dr. Forquet what I did, and I'll apologize," she said, with a long breath. "But I think I did the right thing. He was going to die, out there, because he didn't want to go back to the main tent. He's an adult....he had made his decision to just stay out there until it was over." She was getting emotional, and she knew that would damage her case with her father, so she set her lips in a tight, pressed line.
William regarded her a long moment. "I'm going to take a quick look at him, then go tell Dr. Forquet he is here, so she can stop worrying. In the meantime, I want you to gather together a few of your things. You will be staying elsewhere while Luka is being treated in our tent. Despite the fact
that he is gravely ill, it does not do for you to sleep in the same tent as him, without supervision." His tone was even, and brooked no argument.
Claire nodded meekly, following him back into the tent. She was inwardly cheered that he'd started calling Luka by his name, instead of just 'that patient'. She perched on the edge of her father's cot as he silently checked on Luka's breathing and his pulse. After a few moments, she said, very low, "You had wanted to meet him, Poppa. You believed he might be... different."
William did not spare her a look. "That does not excuse it, Claire." He set his scope to his ears, listening to Luka's lungs, careful not to disturb him from his deep sleep.
At least he was back to using her common name, she thought, relaxing some. "Because of how he lost his wife." Her voice got lower. "Just like with Momma."
William rose to his feet, sliding the scope back around his neck. "Yes, I did. But this is not the time nor place. Right now, my priority is going to be saving his life."
Her breath left her. "Is it...that bad?" she whispered.
"He's got a lot of excessive fluid in his lungs, and I don't like the sounds. I believe he may have a fever, but it's not spiked very far yet. At least his rhythm is regular." He rubbed at his chin. "But...pneumonia is the most pervasive thing, in these camps. Sometimes I think I lose more patients to that than to any actual fighting." Before she could say anything more, he
barked, "Stay here, pack your things. I need to speak with Dr. Forquet." With that, he left the tent, with her to watch Luka with increasing worry.
Although it was dark, William picked his way with ease through the darkened tents, knowing the path from memory. His uncharacteristic anger with his daughter had given way to deep-seated concern, and introspective questioning. Ever since she had mentioned Luka to him, he had felt this....drive to find and talk to the man. Was it something more than how he lost his wife? Only a day or so ago, he'd found out that Luka had been attending medical school in Vukovar. So, he was also studying to become a doctor. And the way Claire
described him, and her efforts to help him..
Perhaps he saw a little of himself in the younger, wounded man. It had been years now since his wife Amelia had died in that accident, back when he was so young. And Claire too....just a child. It felt as if the gifts he'd been given in his wife and daughter were just as suddenly yanked away from him. When Claire told him about the widower struggling with pneumonia, William had felt those same dark emotions in a way he hadn't in years.
He couldn't ignore the signs. Something, or someone, was telling him that this Luka was crucial, that developing a rapport with him was beyond important, but necessary. Claire had brought him to the tent, violating several rules she was very aware of, and he knew Claire well enough to know she wasn't the rebellious sort. He was going to use a little damage control on the situation to keep his daughter's reputation intact, both as a medical student and as a woman, but he also knew what he was going to do. He was going to call in a little favor with Angelique and get her to agree to leave Luka recovering in his tent for now.
He couldn't put his finger on the moment he'd made the decision. At the same time, he wasn't truly interested in taking over the case fully from Angelique. She was more than welcome to come and go in the tent. But he'd still have
plenty of time to spend with Luka...one on one. Time to explore this unsettling situation, and figure out if he was here to help Luka...or Luka was to help him.
To be continued....
Friday, August 26, 2005
By M. Blais and J.D.
Another day, she fretted. Another day they had sent her away from the medical tent and away from Luka. No doubt by now he'd think she forgot her promise. Gritting her teeth, Claire bent her concentration back to the pills she was
sorting. She had visited other refugees, her basic grasp of Croatian a valuable resource. Much of her morning, then afternoon, was translating instructions and transcribing medical histories. Then taking down complaints after that. If only she'd been able to check on him, no more than a quick
visit even, she wouldn't suffer from the restlessness now. From the niggling concern at the back of her mind, a small voice rising from her intuition.
Today was the day. She had watched it's approach with a nervous resignation. She wasn't a doctor, just a med student volunteer, and an American at that, so she couldn't stop the inevitable interrogations that the Croatian army had started. They needed to know what had happened in the outbreaks of fighting, she recognized that. But she knew just as certainly that it would plunge Luka further into despair to relive it...to talk about it. Just speaking to her had been an ordeal. Somehow, she didn't expect the army to be so sympathetic.
Word had traveled quickly through the camp of the debriefings. New arrivals and those too injured to speak before were summoned to the tents to tell their stories. Luka had been among those, Angelique only able to spare him from it for a week. A week. So much happened in one week, Claire thought, finishing her task with an impatient sigh. She'd made a tenuous connection with him, enough to get him thinking of things other than the war. Would that fragile
connection withstand a reintroduction of the horror that brought him here in the first place?
She waited long past the time it should have taken before seeking out Angelique. She knew the news was bad before the French doctor even spoke, just from her expression. Yes, the questioners had come and gone. Yet when it was
over, he hadn't returned to the clinic.
He hadn't come back.
Dusk fell, and with it more of the steady, chilling rain. Raincoats, or any plastic for that matter, was scarce, and so Claire had gone out with just an extra layer, a denim shirt over her normal t-shirt. No one bothered to stop her, or even try. Now, both were soaked, and her hair was slicked back by her
fruitless efforts to keep it from dripping into her eyes. She had to stop twice already to fetch in other wanderers from different points in the camp, but now she was beyond the usual spots. She hesitated at the border of the camp, knowing that the farther she went, the more dangerous it could become. But Luka was nowhere within the camp's limits. She couldn't stop now. The rain made visibility low, and the mud clung to her shoes, sucking them down and
making the going slow.
I didn't break my promise, she wanted to tell him. I was trying to get there, I really was.
"Luka!" she yelled, cupping her hands over her mouth. She didn't expect him to answer, but she had to try, mucking her way across the landscape. The fence materialized out of the condensation, and she grabbed it with her fingers, using the leverage to draw her feet out of the mud. Holding on with her hands, she moved alongside it. "Luka!!" She didn't try to
amplify it now, just kept calling out. The fence kept her from stumbling once or twice. Her shoe was nearly pulled off by the sucking mud. "You have to be here somewhere," she said aloud, into the rain, although she did not shout it.
Sluicing water off her hair again, with the moisture trickling down her back, she slogged forward, before she saw the dark, indistinct shape against the fence. "Luka?" she shouted, working to get closer.
His body materialized out of the rain's twilight, and she felt boneless with relief, even as new worry seized her. The rain was freezing, and he'd just gotten over pneumonia. At this rate, she expected to get sick herself. If he heard her, he didn't acknowledge it, his thoughts far away from the camp. His dress was the same as it had been each time she saw him, though the shirt was soaked and plastered to his too thin frame.
She didn't know if he knew where he was going, if all of this was on purpose or only aimless wandering. The fence he leaned against was his only support, the crutches up against the fence. He rested his arms on the rail, dropping his
head in his hands. The fence was too sturdy to cross, or climb over for that matter, especially in the shape he was. He hunched his shoulders up, as if that would somehow make a difference in the chill that was running through him, then gave in to the cough.
He didn't turn or show any indication of even being aware she had joined him. She reached him, grasping his wet shirt. "Thank God....it is you." As she grabbed him he flinched, pulling away even as he turned, his face registering first panic then relief as he identified who it was. She let go of the fabric, seeing the fleeting emotions cross his face, and feeling like she had slapped him. "I'm sorry....I called your name.." In the step back he lost the stability of the crutches and fell heavily against the railing. Reflexively, she reached for him again, to keep him from falling. "Luka..."
"Claire?" Her name came out hoarser then his usual tone... his voice raspy from the coughing.
"You have to come back," she begged. "You can't stay out here like this....please." She heard the desperation in her voice but she was unable to stop it. Some doctor she would be..
He shook his head. "I can't...not yet." He seemed oblivious to the water dripping from his hair, and the shivers running through him.
"But....it's freezing rain, Luka." She clenched her hands in the folds of his shirt. "You've already been out here too long.... you're going to get sick, all over again."
"Maybe it's my turn..." He seemed to look through her as he spoke.
"Your turn?" she asked, horrified. He couldn't mean that. "No, Luka, it's not.....damn you, look at me! This isn't right." She shook him, with her fists in his shirt. He dropped his eyes to her, a dullness in them that hadn't been there before. "Please....come back with me. Don't just give in like this."
His gaze was devoid of emotion. "I know you are a fighter. Please, Luka."
"They all died...my family...." He interrupted himself as he coughed. "Those at the hospital...I should have been one of them.."
"But you weren't," she insisted. "Luka, there's a reason you survived, even if you don't know what it is yet." She shivered as she gripped him, the rain drumming on them both. "I know there is a reason. You can't just give up without knowing what it is."
He shook his head, his teeth chattering with the cold. "I'm tired...I don't want to do this anymore."
"All you have to do is live, Luka," she said, plaintively. "Just try to live. For me, if not for yourself. Or for Angelique. Please." She drew him closer, wrapping her arms around him in an effort to warm him.
He didn't pull away from her which in itself said much, as did his shivering. "I don't want to talk about it to them...I don't want to keep remembering." He lost anything else to another round of coughing.
"No more talking, Luka. No more right now." She held him tightly as the coughs wracked his body, aching with sympathy and worry. "Just come back with me...I'll make sure no one makes you do anything. I promise."
He debated saying more but the tone of her words stopped him and instead he simply nodded.
"Thank you," she murmured, gratefully.
He steadied the crutches though the numbness of his fingers made holding them difficult. "What if he's there...with more questions?" He asked the question quietly.
She released him, just barely, looking up to meet her eyes with his. "I won't let him get anywhere near you. I promised you, Luka. I meant it. Even if I have to..to.." She struggled, trying to find words strong enough to convince him. "Even if I have to knock him out." He drew a shuddered breath, the chattering of teeth audible in the stillness of the moment before he again nodded his acceptance to her words. "Come....come with me," she urged, stepping away just enough for him to move forward, towards her. She peeled off her denim shirt, even though it was soaked as well, and wrung it out as best she could, then put it around his shoulders. She hoped the extra layer would help, even if it was still wet.
He did as she asked, moving the crutches ahead then stepping forward to meet them. If he noticed her action he said nothing to register it, instead dropping his eyes to the muddy ground. She moved with him, coaxing when she
had to, although her own lips were numb now as well. Once or twice she stumbled, as she watched him instead of her own feet, as they reached the border of camp. He stopped as they hit the camp, drawing up short and making her trip. She was saved by the mud clinging to her shoes. "D-don't stop," she urged, shivering. "We're almost there.."
"What if he's there?" His voice was shaky as he spoke. The fear seemed to paralyze him for a moment.
She cast her gaze all about, but she still wasn't sure who hespoke of. Taking a deep breath, she turned a little, away from the medical tent. "C-come this way. We won't let him know we are here. We'll go to my tent."
His surprise at the suggestion was obvious. But inexplicably, he nodded his acceptance and began to follow. She led him away from the bigger tents into a more isolated area, with smaller ones. Her arms were clasped tight across her
chest to ward off the chill, but she sneezed anyway, as she kept her movements slow, and close to him. "Almost... there.." He didn't bother to try and answer. His concentration was on just moving the crutches ahead then following, bursts of coughing breaking his silence. Reaching her own, at the
end of a short line of tents, she drew up, stopping to hold the flaps open for him. As she lifted the flaps, he glanced to her before finally entering.
Why had she taken this step? She couldn't answer the question in his eyes. Most of all, she wanted to protect him. There was nothing she could do about the past, but the future she could control, at least a little. She couldn't explain the crushing responsibility to keep him alive, and safe. It went
beyond being a doctor, beyond helping another human being. Somehow, she knew if she didn't protect him, he would die. The knowledge was certain, and painful. She had to do this.
The tent was small, but neatly kept. There were two cots, across the space from one another, each with a small table next to it. A foot locker was at the end of each cot, and a bigger table with camp chairs stored under it. A few books
spilled off the one closer to him, the one she gestured him to. "Please...sit. We have to get dry..."
As he stopped, his shivering became more obvious, his teeth chattering, as he looked to her. "It'll...get..wet..." He stammered the words out, more concerned for the conditions of her tent then himself.
"I-it will dry," she replied, pulling several blankets from the locker. "The longer we stay wet, the better c-chance of getting sick.." She moved over, gently pushing him towards the cot, her own clothes dripping onto the floor. "Luka..."
He couldn't argue her logic and his unsteadiness was growing. He moved over by the bed and lowered himself to it, before leaning the crutches beside him as he hugged his arms around himself.
She clutched the blanketsclose as she moved over. "You have to take off your shirt..." She didn't wait for an argument, simply reached for his worn clothing, to help him remove it. The denim shirt she had given him was gone...fallen off somewhere along the way? He fumbled with the buttons, then dropped his hands as she moved to help. Deftly, she undid the buttons, peeling the wet material off his chest and arms, and depositing it unceremoniously on the floor. Unfolding one of the blankets, she draped it around him, pulling it tight and then rubbing it briskly up and down his arms. That he hadn't been eating well was clear. The oversized shirt had hid the extent of his thinness, but
numerous scrapes and bruises were still present from the ordeal of his escape. He dropped his eyes as he knew she couldn't help but see them. He wrapped his fingers in the blanket as he drew it around himself, unable yet to stop the shivering. She took a second one up and placed it over his head, absorbing the wetness in his hair. "It's alright....you'll be warm soon," she said, quietly, as she covered him with the blanket. "Lie down...."
He lifted his eyes to her in as she dropped the second blanket over the first then stretched his injured leg out in front of him. She pushed gently on his shoulders to make him lie back. "You need to get dry..." he protested, his voice settling into a raspy croak.
"I will....just, let me get you taken care of first." At her words, he lay back from where he was, not even making it as far back to bring his legs on the cot. She unlaced the boots, pulling each one off carefully, and setting them aside and using the edges of the blanket to dry his feet. "You have to.." She paused, sneezing again, then continued, "move up.... your legs need to rest as well." She moved to his shoulders, sliding her arm under him to help him get fully onto the cot. At her request he slid his hands under his injured leg and
pulled himself back.
She gave a small grunt of satisfaction, rocking back on her knees with a sigh, then pulled the blankets better to cover him. He lay back once he was fully on the cot, then rolled to his side as a coughing spell hit him again. She chewed
her lower lip, her hands going to rest on his back as he moved. This wasn't working yet. The chill had gone through him, to places she couldn'treach with just the blankets. "I have to g-get you warmer...."
"Get dry...yourself..." He forced the words out between coughs. He pulled the blanket around him tighter.
"I will....but I think you need to take off those pants as well. You're chilled..." She didn't know how he would take the order, but she wasn't going to back down. The material was icy, and it only made matters worse. He released a sigh, then moved to unfasten the belt that held them up.
Determinedly, she reached to also undo the clasp of the pants. "The bandages are soaked too, I think...but I can't replace them yet..." She sneezed once more, violently. He rolled to his back and used his good leg for leverage to
raise up and ease them down.
His right leg was wrapped, the knee still badly swollen. There was a matching bandage a little higher...the bullet wound. She knew from talking to the others what it would look like, how he had earned it. Something angry and animalistic surged it her as she thought of someone taking a gun and shooting at him, to kill. To kill Luka. But none of it showed on her face, she made sure. Pushing it away, she deposited the pants as well on the floor.
She never thought about him being naked. Only getting him warm mattered, only making sure he didn't take a turn for the worse. She tucked a third blanket in and around his waist and legs once he was settled again. He rolled back onto his side as he lost the rest of his clothing, hunching the blanket over his shoulders as he shivered under it.
Suddenly he sat up, his face panicked. "Jasna..." he gasped, making the blankets fall in his efforts.
Startled, she grabbed his shoulders. "Luka....lie down. What.." As weak as he was, he pushed against her hands with unusual force. "Luka, please, you have to rest, get warm.."
"No...I have to have it..." In his panic, his words came in Croatian, and she struggled to comprehend.
"Have what?" Her eyes searched his, not understanding, until she realized what it was. "The picture..." Gasping, she felt ice crawl down her spine. Was it lost out in the rain? "Where did you leave it, Luka?" Her words were urgent, trying to get him to look at her, instead of panicking.
"It's all I have..." He kept his words in his native tongue, as he started to move his legs from the bed to find it. He was unaware of the strain on the bandages.
"No, Luka.....stay here," she commanded, trying to sound firm. "I'll go get it. Just tell me where it is."
He flicked his eyes from her to his pants. "My pocket....oh God...let it be there..." His words came in the rush of irrational thought, and his English was gone as they did.
She grabbed the pants from the floor, delving her hands into the pockets. His eyes burned into her, locked on her actions. Having no luck with the first one, she pulled her hand out and searched the second pocket, and withdrew the picture, wilted some at the corners with the rain. "Here..... here it is, Luka." His relief was immediate, as if she had found something much more valuable. She placed it in his hands, gently, curling his fingers around it like she might do to a child with a cherished toy. "See....it's fine." He
swallowed as his eyes settled on it, confirming it was true. He touched each of the faces with his finger before giving in and laying back again. Sighing with her own relief, she replaced the blankets around his legs carefully. He laid it on the cot beside him, blotting it with the corner of the blanket. Exhausted, she laid her head on the cot, closing her eyes for a moment.
It took him a moment to realize she was still there, then he shifted his eyes to her. "You need to get dry..." He slid back into English, though his voice was little more then a croak now.
For a long moment, it seemed like she had fallen asleep, then she opened her eyes slowly. "Hmm?"
His own shivering was still evident as he spoke again, chattering teeth breaking his words. "You need to get dry."
She lifted her head, having forgotten about her clothes still being soaked. "I didn't even notice," she murmured, rising to her feet unsteadily. She moved to the trunk at the foot of the cot, opening it and drawing out some of her clothes. Wincing, she pulled the wet shirt over her head, depositing it
on the ground, and turned her back a little as she got rid of the bra as well, then used a blanket to dry herself. She kept one of her eyes on him, over her shoulder, but he let his eyes close as she dressed, giving her a sense of privacy in the small tent.
Only a cough breaking the moment's silence. She did the same with her jeans, and panties, then changed into dry clothes, still keeping the blanket pulled tightly around her. Like him, she still shivered, and sneezed once. Once her
clothes were on, she moved over and sat on the floor next to the cot, rocking back and forth a little. Her hair was still wet, and left damp imprints on the blanket. Even in the dry clothes, she felt cold seep up through the ground and into her. No doubt it would be better on the cot, but she didn't want to move even the few feet away from him. What if he panicked again? What if he needed her? What...if...
He dozed fitfully...the dreams of his ordeal still too fresh for him to sleep long...when he came awake it was with the cry of interrupted anguish. She slept with her head propped against the edge of the cot, and woke when he cried out. Quickly, she put her hand on his exposed arm, reassuringly. His eyes snapped open with the touch...momentary confusion registering at the unfamiliar surroundings. "Ssh... you're safe, Luka. It's me, Claire.."
He released a shuddered breath with realization...then relaxed.
"Go back to sleep." She stifled a yawn, her eyes tired. Gently, she readjusted the blankets with one hand, making sure he was covered.
He offered a ragged cough in response..."You should go to bed..." His voice had deepened even more with sleep.
She chuckled, drawing her own blanket closer around herself. "I was sleeping, too. I'm fine right here."
"You sure?" He asked the question with the drowsiness of sleep already calling him.
"Mmm. Rest now, Luka."
He offered another run of coughs before touching the picture at his head.."'kay..."
To be continued...
Thursday, August 25, 2005
By M. Blais and J.D.
It was raining again...no...had been raining since the previous night, and between that and the wind there seemed no way to get warm. Luka lay on his cot, the cough settled deep in his chest and the thin blanket pulled tightly around him. Claire crept over, quietly, holding a mug in her hand. If any of the nurses saw her bringing contraband to the refugees, she'd be sent right out, med student or not. She paused, then circled the cot, coming to where he was facing. Like a child's game, she thought irrelevantly. Always in circles...
She almost stepped on a book that was lying by his boots. Carefully, she lifted her foot and bent to retrieve the abandoned volume. A Croatian poetry book, from what she could translate. Here? She glanced around the tent. The
damp chill hung heavy in the tent and even the nurses and doctors had layers of sweaters on. "Luka?" she said, softly. Her eyes went from the book she held to where he lay.
He opened his eyes, dark even against the dark circles under his eyes. With a resigned sigh, he rose up, only to suffer an attack of coughing. "You came...back." He voiced the obvious quietly.
Claire carefully folded her legs and sat crosslegged on the floor, facing his cot. "I told you I would." She righted the pages of the book and set it down. "Reading?"
He coughed and shoved the thin pillow under his back so he could sit more. "Should have stayed in." He glanced up to emphasize his point. Minor drips of water hinted to the age of the tents and the dampness made the floor bitterly cold under her legs, but she didn't move.
She tucked a damp hair behind her ear. "Nah....I had something for you." She held up the mug, steam escaping from the surface of the liquid.
He eyed the cup, but the thought of anything warm broke through his low resistance and he extended a hand for it. "What is it?"
She grinned, seeing that he was already intrigued. "It's cocoa," she said, dropping her voice to a secretive whisper. "Don't tell anyone. It's from my private stash." She wrapped his fingers around the mug.
The tremble to his hand from the chill was obvious under her own hand, and he raised it to his lips carefully taking a slow sip before lowering it. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She picked up the abandoned book, turning it over in her hands. "What is this?"
He looked to the book. "Something Angelique left."
She read the title silently, then opened the book and flipped a few pages. "It looks like poetry. Is it any good?" She looked up at him. He clutched the cup with both hands to keep it from spilling as he coughed harshly, and nodded.
She rose on her knees, forgetting the book, and put one hand around his own. She didn't want him to spill the hot liquid on himself. The other hand went to his back. Under her palm, the shirt was thin and he wore no tee underneath.
The blanket was his only other cover from the chill. "You're so cold," she said, softly.
"Damp in here." He coughed again then took a breath as it eased.
She looked around the tent again, her eyes darkening, but knowing there was little she could do. "Here, drink the cocoa," she urged. "It's still nice and hot."
"Others worse then me..." His words were more habit than protest, she could already tell. He aquiesced to her suggestion, and raised it to his lips again.
"I know." Her hand rubbed his back in little circles. He took a couple sips then lowered the cup again. "I'll try and get some more blankets in here," she offered. "I think some new goods are coming in soon."
"People out there need them too...have the heat in here." The heat, he did not say, amounted to one small unit at the far corner of the tent near those patients in the worse condition.
"Hey, no arguing with me," she teased, her eyes flicking over to the tiny heater he obliquely referred to. "I'm going to do all I can for everyone...but I think I can spare one at least for you." His response was another round of coughs that caused the cocoa to slosh slightly. She continued to rub, hoping the heat from her hand would transfer. His thinness was obvious under her hand, even if she had never seen him without the oversized shirt. "Tell you what," she said, easing her hand away. "You drink that, and I'll try some of this poetry, out loud." She sat again, cross-legged. "Then you can laugh at it." Studiously, she picked up the book, turning a few pages as she contemplated the Croatianwords.
As they spoke one of the nurses came over, a cup of pills in her hand. "Luka...I need you to take these. They'll help the cough." Claire glanced up as the nurse came over, hoping she wouldn't tell her to go. Admittedly, she looked like nothing more than a loafing teenager, crosslegged and with a book on her lap. Glancing at Luka, she caught his barely tolerated look.
This was telling, to her anyway. Would he refuse the medication? It was clear to her, had been clear, that he had no desire to recuperate. It was what drove her here every day, the worry that he might convince his own body to give up
out of sheer willpower. But before she could take action, he took the cup. When it was obvious the nurse wasn't leaving until they were in his mouth he tipped them back, washing them down with the water she offered as a follow-up.
She glanced to Claire, assessing her critically then looked back at him. "Thank you...you should rest soon." With that she headed off for her next victim..
He coughed again then took another sip of the cocoa before turning his dark eyes on Claire. "You read Croatian?"
Escaped from Nurse Ratchet, she thought. "A little," she said, with forced cheerfulness, not wanting to admit her reading was poor. She searched for a poem she could manage. Settling on a short one, she silently mouthed it to
herself first, getting the meaning down pat. Better than to inadvertantly read anything sad.
He watched her silently, sipping on the cocoa even as it cooled. "Not so easy.." He finally said quietly.
She looked up, with a sheepish smile. "No, it's really not."
"You don't have to..." He interrupted himself with a round of coughs. "It's okay."
"Well, I think I can try this one." She held the book with her fingers, clearing her throat. "Go on, drink up."
He raised the cup, ready to finish the cocoa off.
She started to read, slowly and painstakingly at first, and still managed to mispronouce a few of the words, like a schoolchild reading. The poem was fairly simple, just a piece about a Croatian sunset. He coughed into the cup as she
began to read at first, then gave an apologetic smile as it improved. She didn't notice the smile, concentrating hard on the poem until at last it was finished, then she lifted her face, with a grin. "How was that?"
The old man at the cot behind her obviously found it more amusing and laughed aloud. She half-turned, her grin bubbling into a laugh of her own. "I know! I'm terrible at it..."
"Not too bad.." He sat the empty cup beside his leg.
She flicked her eyes to the cup, pleased that he drank it all. "Well, practice makes perfect." She flipped through the book again.
He leaned forward as he was racked by a stronger run of coughing, one that left him a bit short of breath. "Be...glad... when this...is gone." He choked out between coughs.
She froze with her eyes intent on him, her hands stilling on the book, worried. The sound of his cough made her heart squeeze painfully. "It's the damp...it aggravates it."
"I guess..." He pulled the blanket more tightly around him, it's thinness offering only minimal warmth.
The nurse walked over again, eyeing him critically with a frown. "I think maybe you need some rest. The cough is worse and talking isn't helping you."
Claire sighed, knowing what was coming. "How about I just read to you some more, and you can try and sleep?" She gave the nurse a small smile, then shifted her eyes back to Luka. Argue with that, she thought, mulishly.
"All right...5 minutes," she agreed reluctantly. The woman walked away as Luka leaned back, foregoing an attempt at lying flat.
Claire touched his arm. "Just lie down, and no more talking. You can just listen..."
"Okay." His chest hurt far too much for him to argue and he simply nodded and eased his eyes closed.
Without him watching she could more visibly notice the rough rise and fall of his chest as he struggled for air to fill his lungs. She pitched her voice quieter, holding the book up so she could scoot closer to the cot. She chose
another poem, a longer one, and started to read, trying not to stumble over the words but instead keep her voice pitched at a soothing level.
He was asleep before she finished. Her shoulders slumping, Claire closed the poetry book and slid it beside his boots. Everything here was worn down, damaged....ailing. Boots and clothing, threadbare blankets, thin cots. She hugged her knees a moment as the chill made itself known again, insidiously. How could anyone get better in here, like this? But compared to the life or death struggle in the city, at least this was...what?...peaceful, perhaps.
It was difficult working here. Difficult to see the victims that succumbed every day to sickness and injuries, difficult to see all the new refugees coming in. The cold and the damp made her ache, and the endless tension took it's toll. She did everything she could with the others she treated, with the
limited resources and medicines that she had. But she wanted to make a real difference in someone's life. Saving them physically was one thing. Most of all, she wanted to save their spirit....Luka's spirit.
He was asleep, and the practical side of her knew that it was the best right now, the best for recuperation, for recovery. And she couldn't stay and watch him sleep. Although she didn't talk about it to him, there were others she needed to see, and speak to. Others she needed to help. Gently, her fingers unsure and hesitant, she patted his shoulder before retrieving the mug. "I'll always come back," she promised, quietly. "Always."
Outside, the rain waited to drench her, but it couldn't wash away determination.
To be continued...