As he sat in the darkness of the livingroom, staring at the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, Luka found his thoughts drifting.For so long the coming of the holiday season had been a time that he had dreaded. It wasn't just because their approach followed so closely on the heels of the anniversary of Danijela and the children's deaths, though he knew that likely was part of it. For so long he had held those few brief years that Danijela and he had shared as a marker, a marker that in his mind nothing would ever again equal. All of the memories of those short years they'd shared together he'd cherished for so long, capturing each fragment as a snapshot in his mind, that he only needed to close his eyes to see again. It didn't matter how many years had passed, they were there as a reminder of what he had lost, the life he was sure he would never again find.
He'd tried of course, tried only to fail. In those early years he'd foolishly thought he could reclaim the feeling by going home to the things that used to be safe. Abandoning Vukovar and then the camp that became his home in the months after it fell, he'd returned to live with Tata. He'd somehow thought that if he were with him and Niko, surrounded by the familiarity of traditions he'd grown up with he'd find again what he'd lost, but, it was too soon and the pain was too great. There were far too many reminders of Danijela there, too many memories of Jasna's smile, and later her excitement as she discovered all the holidays had to offer. There were memories too of Marko, but far too few, as he lost his life before he'd even had a chance to live it. As difficult as it was to leave Croatia and those he would leave behind, it would have been even more painful to stay. He had no choice, he said his good-byes and hoped one day Tata would understand why he had to go.
It wasn't until he found his way to Chicago that he gave myself permission to start living again and even then it wasn't intentional. He went into County expecting it to be like every other hospital he'd picked up shifts at, another place to escape his past, another place to hide, and then he met Carol. Even now he couldn't say he thought about there ever being anyone else in his life but Danijela until he met her. Looking back on that time now, it was clear he'd never seen what developed between us as anything more than a friendship until it was too late. In Carol he'd found someone willing to listen as he relived the parts of his life that were lost to him, and he liked to think his presence in her life filled a need she had. She allowed him to laugh again, and through her daughters he was given the gift of fatherhood even if it was only for an hour or two a day. Sharing that first Christmas with her and the twins allowed him to believe that maybe Tata had been right, but, then she was gone and he was back where he started, or so he thought.
His thoughts were brought back to the present as Joe's laugh drifted down the stairs. Listening more carefully he heard the splash of the bathwater, then the give and take of first Abby's, then Joe's voices as they talked about the evening to come. This would be his son's first Midnight Mass, and while Abby wasn't Catholic herself, she had agreed to share this moment with them. Turning back to the tree, he allowed the lights to draw him back into his thoughts...He never could have predicted what came next, Abby was so different from Danijela, so different from Carol, and maybe he'd needed that. He couldn't help wondering if things might have turned out differently had they not been attacked by that mugger on that first date. He had no doubt that his actions that night changed him, they had to, He had another man's blood on his hands, he took someone's life to protect theirs, to protect Abby. He'd replayed that night so many times and he'd wished it could have ended differently, but, the fact remains, he'd killed him, and his death forever bound them together. He wanted things between Abby and him to work, but, the truth was, he wasn't ready for a relationship, she was right, He was married to a ghost, and until he could come to terms with his past he couldn't begin to think of a future with anyone else.
It was easy to see his mistakes now, he couldn't then and because of that his life had begun to spiral out of control. It wasn't enough that he became someone that even he no longer recognized, he became someone that he was ashamed of. He was out of control, in every sense of the word and he'd reached the point where his actions began to affect those around him. If there was any bright spot in all of those months of darkness, it was seeing Abby happy, because, as hard as it was knowing they'd had their differences, it couldn't change the fact that he still had feelings for her. He was sure that was why he bought the snowglobe that year, there was something about the world inside of it that gave him hope and there'd been so little of it during that time. Abby wouldn't know it came from him until much later, but he would know, and it gave him something to cling to in the weeks and months that followed.
When he'd left for the Congo, he honestly believed he had gone as low as he could go in his life. Everything he had worked for, everything he had believed, he'd betrayed it all. If he were to look back on the man he was then, it wasn't just that he didn't recognize myself in what he'd become, it was how much he hated him. While he hadn't even admitted it to himself, he welcomed the threat of danger he was going to face, and went so far as to taunt it, without even caring about the consequences. In his mind, he had nothing to lose, he had already lost everything and he was ready to die. If only he could say he knew the moment that everything changed, but, he didn't. It might have been when Patrique sacrificed his life to save his, it could have been when Sakima risked the lives of both herself and her daughter. He honestly didn't remember much about those last days, those last weeks. There was no question that he was there, or that it changed him. It was only that he owed far too many people to begin to thank them all.
Could he ever have imagined that he would be where he now was? The question lingered as he climbed to his feet, Joe's laughter drifting down the stairs, too much of a draw to avoid any longer.
"What are you doing Joe?" The words were out of his mouth before he reached the stairs, and it took barely a moment more for the toddler's answering squeal of delight to reach him.
"Tata...Tata! Escaping his mother's hold as she tried to finish dressing him, Joe darted to the stairs, only to wrap himself around his father's legs as the man reached the landing.
"Joe, come back here." Abby appeared in the doorway, the boy's coat and tie in her hand.
"You're not helping you know?" She gave Luka a look of exasperation as he picked their son up.
"We've got time yet, but, if you need to finish getting ready, I'll take over here." Shifting Joe to his hip, he extended his hand for the boy's coat and tie, then, as Abby came close, he leaned in to kiss her.
"You smell nice." He gave her a smile as he straightened again.
"I smell like bubble bath thanks to your son's joy of splashing." The smile on her face betrayed the anger in her words.
"Well, I like it. I'll take him downstairs with me. You want to go down and see the tree, Joe?" Ducking Abby's answering swat, he turned his attention to his son as he carried him down the stairs.
"Tree." As he caught sight of the blinking lights Joe pointed to it, then attempted to wriggle free of his father's hold. "Joe, down, Tata."
"Okay, but, let's finish getting you dressed." Setting the almost 3 year old on the ground in front of him, he knelt so he was close to his eye level.
"Stand still now so Tata can do this." As he caught his son's eye, Luka clipped a red and green striped tie to his shirt, then helped him into a red double breasted suitcoat.
"Go bye-bye?" Joe pointed to the door as Luka finished and released him.
"Pretty soon, we're waiting for Mama. Do you want to get your book while we wait?" He pointed to a chunky book that sat on the coffeetable.
"Book." Joe offered the word as confirmation before picking up the treasured picturebook, but, stopped short of carrying it back to his father as he noticed something new on the table. Almost simultaneously Luka and Joe both seemed to register the appearance of the compass, though the toddler couldn't know the significance of the object. As it caught his attention he let the book drop. though as he went to grab for it, he found his efforts thwarted by his father.
"Mine..." The wail went up as soon as the item disappeared from view, and he moved closer to Luka in an attempt to snatch it away from him.
"No, Joe...it's Mama's."Luka tried first to hide the compass behind his back, then slid it away from view into his pocket, as Joe continued his attempts to get it away from him.
"What's Mama's?" Abby's voice on the stairs announced her arrival, while at the same time providing the distraction Luka needed to move the compass out of his son's reach.
"Mama!" As Joe saw Abby, his interest in the item was forgotten, and he ran to greet her as if it had been hours instead of minutes since he'd last seen her.
"Hey, Joe, did Tata get you all dressed up?" As her son stretched his arms up to her, Abby picked him up before giving him a kiss.
"Are you ready to give Tata your surprise?" Abby leaned her head closer to the boy's to whisper in his ear.
"Santa, Santa...down, Mama." At her son's demand she set his feet back on the floor before going to the bookshelf and retrieving a brightly colored paper bag which she handed to him.
"There you go, Joe, give it to Tata." Abby's smile began before she finished the instructions, as her husband knelt so he was at Joe's eye level it only grew broader. When Luka pulled it from the bag she lost it, they had come so far, been through so much, and now, to experience this moment. It was hard to know if the tears that were wetting her cheeks were ones of joy or ones drawing off the sadness of how close they had come to losing it all. Watching Luka now as he hugged his son, the child's gift in his hand, she was left to wonder, could their life be any more perfect?
Joe's gift to Luka
Muse: Luka Kovac