Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December Prompt from October 003: Peaceful/Artistic License

The decision to celebrate Christmas in Croatia with his brother Niko and his family was one that he and Abby had been considering for over six months. For Luka it would be a chance to reconnect with old friends and family without the weight that had hung over him when he'd been back the previous two times. For Abby, it would mean a chance to see the country, without having to hide behind the secrets and lies that had marred her first trip, and almost cost her both her husband and her marriage. Those days were behind them though, sobriety, honesty, and a life in a new city had assured them of that, and this, they had decided could bring final closure to the past that they both wanted to find.

Since the decision to go had been reached, calls between the two brothers had become an almost daily occurrence as one or the other found something that needed an immediate answer before they could go a step further.

"Luka, Niko's on the phone, again." Abby held the receiver in her outstretched hand as she waited for Luka to stick his head out of the bathroom.

"Did you ask him what he needs? I'm in the middle of shaving."

"No, I didn't ask, but, it's costing him money, so you had better hurry." Laying the phone down, the woman turned her attention to the toddler who was currently finishing a bowl of cereal at the table.

"You almost done, Joe, we need to get you cleaned up, you're going to daycare so Tata and I can get ready for the airplane tonight." As she spoke, she reached for the washcloth that lay on the sink before going to him.

"Going on the airplane?" Joe spoke around the bite of cereal in his month causing half the milk to run down his chin.

"Niko, how are you?" Luka cast a smile to his wife and son as he joined them in the kitchen before picking up the phone and slipping into Croatian to talk to his older brother. "Yes, the flight is at 8pm, we change planes in Frankfurt, and should be in early afternoon. No, I don't have the time, I sent you the itinerary, didn't you get it?" Rolling his eyes he glanced to where Abby was still dealing with their son.

"Abby, didn't I send Niko our flight information?" He slid back into English

"I thought you did, you can send it again can't you? Okay, Joe, that's enough, you're just playing now." Taking the spoon from the soon to be 4 year old she set it aside as so she could begin wiping his hands and face.

"Yes," Turning back to his call, Luka quickly reassured his brother that the itinerary would be resent, before ending the call. "He's a little bit excited, so is Ivka by the way, I hope you'll be okay with her wanting to spend time alone with you." As he hung the phone back up, Luka moved behind her so that he could wrap his arms around her.

"I think I'll survive, what about you? Niko isn't going to corrupt you by dragging you to the pub all day? She covered his hands with hers are she released Joe.

"How can you say that, he's my big brother?" Luka laughed as he answered her before nuzzling her neck.

"Um hmm, that's what I'm afraid of. Okay, turn me loose, we don't have time for that, and you still have to take Joe to daycare so we can finish packing and get everything ready before we have to go to the airport." Turning to face him, Abby gave him a quick kiss. "Now, get your son, we've got a busy day ahead of us."

The flight from Frankfurt to Zagreb seemed endless to Abby, and while both Luka and Joe had quickly been able to fall asleep, she'd instead found her mind too consumed by worry. It had been almost a year since Josip Kovac had passed, a year since she had told Luka of her indiscretion, and it would be the first time she would be facing his family since almost destroying him and their marriage. It was eating her up, how would they see her? She had no way of knowing what Luka had told them in the months since they'd returned to the States and he'd learned the truth of what she'd done while he had been caring for his dying father. Since they had moved to Boston, Abby no longer feared for their marriage, if anything the relationship she had with Luka was the strongest it had ever been, if they knew about her betrayal, would his family be as willing to forgive her? What would it mean to them knowing that it had taken place while Luka was not just nursing his dying father, but, missing six months of his young son's life?

As Luka shifted positions in his sleep, Abby turned to face him, then brushed his bangs out of his eyes gently. He'd had every right to take Joe and leave her, she'd been convinced his plan was to do just that when he'd initially moved out of the apartment in Chicago, but, he hadn't. When he had come to her and told her that wanted to give things another chance she'd at first been shocked, then grateful. He'd seen something in their relationship that she had still been too blind to see at the time, and he was willing to give her another chance.

Boston had saved them, she was convinced of that. The decision to leave Chicago had been the fresh start they'd needed, it had given them a chance to start over in all aspects of their lives. Boston had meant the end of any secrets or lies between them plus their marriage and relationship as a couple was stronger because of it. However, even knowing all of that, she was still left to worry about how his family would see her.

"Are you all right?" Luka's groggy question came as he opened his eyes to find Abby watching him.

"I don't know." Her words were honest, and she followed them with a small smile.

"Do you want to talk about it? Moving one hand to support Joe's weight as he changed position, Luka resettled himself in his seat.

"I'm just nervous about meeting everyone I think. I don't know how they're going to feel about me after what I did to you." Her gaze dropped to her hands as she revealed the truth of her fears.

"Abby, they are going to see you as my wife, as the mother of my son, and as the woman I love. Whatever happened in the past is over, you have to let it go, I know I have." Taking one of her hands he brought it to his lips and kissed it, a moment later the fasten seat belt warning sounded.

"I hope you're right." Abby smiled again, glad to let the subject drop as they began the task of waking Joe and getting ready to disembark, besides, why worry now, they'd find out soon enough.

As it turned out, Luka seemed to be right, if Niko and the others were holding any grudges, they certainly weren't showing it as they welcomed the family back to Croatia. After exchanging hugs and kisses all around at the airport, the party moved to two small awaiting cars and the journey back to the elder Kovac's house.

The days leading up to Christmas were busy ones for everyone, filled not just with last minute shopping, but often with a house full of Ivka's extended family as well as friends of both she and Niko. If Abby had expected the holiday to be a solemn one with days spent mourning the absence of the Kovac Patriarch, she couldn't have been more wrong, and laughter seemed a common ingredient in all of the day's activities.

"How are you doing?" Her thoughts were broken as Luka came up behind her and slid his arms around her waist, the smell of beer present on his breath.

"You've been drinking." She turning in his arms to face him, her voice only mildly chastising.

"Blame Niko, he's a bad influence." Luka smiled as he tried to deflect the blame.

"Right. Do I need to call a doctor for the twisted arm you got while he was forcing you to join him?" Her smile almost immediately matched his as she teased him.

"It's okay?" Luka found himself unable to hide his reaction to her response.

"Yes, it's okay. Luka, I don't expect you to give up drinking just because I'm an alcoholic." Stretching up on her toes, Abby gave him a kiss.

"All I ask is that you just try not to get falling down drunk if you can help it, I'm not ready to explain to Joe why his Tata is acting funny."

"I'll do my best." He returned her kiss before saying more. "Abby, are you going to be all right going to Christmas Eve Mass with us? I mean, I'd like you to be there, but, if you'd rather not, I'll understand." Luka's eyes remained hopeful even as his words seemed ready to accept defeat.

"I think I'd like to go with you and Joe, to honor your father's memory, and just be at your side. Is that reason enough?" It was Abby's turn to study her husband and when his smile broke, she couldn't help but return it.

I would like that very much, and I think it's a perfect reason." Luka kissed his wife again.

"Luka!" Niko's voice broke the moment as the elder Kovac called from the other room.

"Coming! I'd better go, I'll look for you later, maybe we can go for a walk , just the two of us?" He bussed a quick kiss on her lips before releasing her.

"I'd like that. Now, go see what your brother wants, I'll be fine."

If Abby had thought that Niko and Ivka's house had been full in the day's leading up to Christmas Eve, it began to overflow in the hours leading up to evening Mass. With each ring of the doorbell arrived yet another of either Ivka's or Niko and Luka's. In all of the time she'd known her husband, she'd just assumed he had little or no family outside of his father and brother, yet, here were all of these people embracing not just him, but, her and Joe as if they had always been a part of their lives. Why had he chosen to cut himself off from so much love for all of those years?

Joe's laughter brought Abby out of her own thoughts and she automatically began searching for him among the room of people. She'd just spotted him, giggling happily as he was held in the air by a silver haired man who looked to be in his seventies when she saw Luka approaching her.

"That's Stjepan, one of Tata's brothers, I'll introduce you later." He slid his arm around Abby's waist as he identified the elderly man for her.

"Luka, why didn't you ever tell me you had such a large family?" She moved in closer as her arm encircled him.

"I don't know. I think when I left, it was just easier to cut off contact with everyone. You know, pretend they weren't there?" His voice grew quieter as he spoke.

"I'm not sure I understand why you would want to do that." As the conversation grew more serious she leaned into him, offering unspoken support in case he found it difficult to go on.

"Losing Danijela and our children was like losing all of the good parts of myself. After I left the camp, I tried going back home, living with Tata, having family around."Luka drew a slow breath and forced himself to continue. "Everyone thought that the best way to help me was to keep reminding me of what I'd lost. I don't mean that they said it like that, but, they always want to retell stories of things that had happened with Danijela or the children. I finally couldn't take it anymore, I knew I had to let them go, I had to forget, and I couldn't do that when everyone had so many memories they wanted to share. That's one of the reasons Niko and I had our falling out, he didn't understand how hard it was for me. He thought my leaving would be like I'd died with them, and inflicting that on Tata was just selfishness on my part. The worst part of it all was that the Luka they all were remembering had died that day, I wasn't that man anymore and I wasn't sure I would ever be able to be him again." His voice broke as he finished and rather then saying anything more his eyes settled on Joe.

"Are you regretting our coming back here, doing this?" Abby's voice held a note of concern for him.

"I don't think so, I think it was time I came to terms with it for good, besides, this is Joe's family, they're yours too, it's not fair for me to deprive you of their love anymore than it is for me to deprive you of the chance to know them." The seriousness of their conversation was suddenly broken by Stjepan's laugh in response to something that Joe had said to him in Croatian.

"He's certainly holding his own with them, isn't he?" A slight note of pride surfaced as Luka drew Abby's attention to Joe and his great uncle.

"That's all because of you, and your decision to start teaching him Croatian from the day he was born. I wish I'd paid more attention." Abby's smile broadened as Stjepan knelt to listen to whatever the three year old trying to explain.

"Okay, everyone, time to find coats, Ivka says we have to leave in five minutes or we'll be late for Mass." It was Niko who made the announcement, and while she knew no one else likely needed it, Abby was grateful to see that he followed his Croatian one with another in English.

While the mood on the walk to the church was light and mixed with laughter, Abby couldn't help but notice that the closer they got to the church, the quieter Luka became. By the time they reached the steps themselves, she found herself wondering if he would even follow through by going inside.

"Luka, are you all right?" As she spoke, Abby touched his arm, stopping him before he climbed the stairs.

"Yeah." While he at first offered the lie without thinking, he immediately amended it. "I don't know. I think I need to do something before I sit down, will you take Joe and find our seats?" His eyes held a sadness in them she hadn't seen in sometime as he made the request.

"Of course. You don't want us to come though?" Even as she asked the question she knew he would refuse.

"No, I have to do this alone. Thank you though." Pausing, he leaned down to kiss her before picking up Joe so they could enter. Once inside Luka passed the toddler to his mother.

"Be good for Mama."

"No, wanna go wi' Tata." Joe automatically resisted the transfer and reached out for Luka.

"No, you go with Mama, I'll be right back." Freeing his sweater from Joe's grip, Luka gave first his son, then Abby a kiss. "I won't be long."

"Want, Tata." Joe's protest carried into the church as the couple separated and while they joined Ivka and many of her family in the pews, she couldn't help but notice that many of the Kovac's, Luka included, made their way into a small alcove to light candles in memory of those they had lost. After lighting his candles, Luka knelt in prayer and she noticed that Niko and his uncle took places on either side of him, offering silent support as he reached out to those long gone. Then, when Luka's shoulder's slumped and Stjepan reached out to pull his nephew to him, Abby was left wishing that it were she there in his place.

After what to Abby seemed an eternity the three men rose and after embraces and kisses were exchanged they made their way to the pews where their families were waiting. As Luka slid into his seat beside her, Abby searched his face for clues to what might be going on in his head. If she had expected to find grief, she was disappointed for if anything, there seemed to be a peace in him that she she hadn't seen before.

"You're okay?" Abby leaned close to her husband as she spoke.

"Yeah, I am." Unlike earlier his response was true, and that in itself amazed him. How long had it been since he could say that and really mean it? For the first time in almost seventeen years the past was truly in the past where it belonged.

As the Mass began, Abby leaned against Luka's shoulder as he held Joe, the choir's music bringing a smile to her face. They had been through so many years of pain and struggle and now everything finally seemed to have finally fallen into place for them. When had she last felt this peaceful? When had either of them? Sitting here now, she couldn't imagine a more perfect way to celebrate that then in this place surrounded by those who loved Luka unconditionally, and who had now welcomed she and Joe into their family as well. What better gift could they have received for Christmas then this?

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