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Deliverance

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On a winter day, when Abby could have sworn that they were both meant to have been stuck at County with the waiting room full of soccer moms who slipped on icy driveways, the homeless looking for a warm bed and the frat boys having their last hurrah before returning home for Thanksgiving, he was nowhere to be found.

She was halfway through her shift when someone-in-scrubs-but-she-wasn’t-looking said no, he had traded days before. No answer when Jerry paged him, her hands too full between hanging IVs and placing catheters and a needy hypochondriac in the curtain area for her to call him herself. It took four tries and a promise to trade for a swing shift to get Lydia to come in early and cover her last few hours.

His tie was slung over the back of a chair when she showed up at his place later that night. Light blue with stripes, navy and grey- her favorite, she loved it on him. She didn’t immediately wonder why or where he had worn a tie on his day off. Luka and a bottle of whisky, alone at the table. It must have been half empty. She walked towards him, first with purpose, then faltering, realizing that for all of the times she had seen him vulnerable, she had always known him to try and hide it from her. Something was different that night.

“You didn't show up to work today. I thought we had the same shift.”

“I’m sorry. I had somewhere to be.” He sounded sober enough for the moment. “We didn't have plans, did we? I was sure we didn't.”

“No, it’s okay. We didn't have any plans, I just thought we could go get dinner. Or maybe if you want to stay in, we could--”

“Abby, please.”

“Okay.” She nodded slowly, apologetic. Nobody understood the way she did.

Luka’s hands were at her sides almost immediately, resting there a moment before he wrapped his arms around her. He needed to ground himself to something; to her, the only person he’d felt alive with in so long. Nothing seemed real anymore, like walking through fog so dense he wasn't sure he would find the other side.

Alone in the apartment, in the dark, he could pretend. But with Abby standing in front of him everything he had avoided that day, with that bottle of whisky, hit him all at once. He had only been 19 when he’d been married to Danijela. Had it really been 15 years? Had it really been so long since he’d lost them? It was too much, too heavy, and he slid his hands back down her sides again; then up, underneath her skirt, pulling her to him. No chance for them to talk, no chance for her questions.

She had never cared much for scotch, but she thought that if she were ever to drink it again, she would remember tasting it as she kissed him that night. Or remember how deftly her fingers worked to undo his belt, how she had fit there with him, with her skirt pushed up around her hips just enough, with his breath on her neck. How no one else had ever held onto her the way he did, like the thought of her ever leaving him might be too much to bear.

How she wasn't sure if she ever wanted to, and how much it scared her to realize it.

And it was quiet afterward, and he didn't think of Danijela and she didn't think of the fact that they were hiding from each other. Deep down, they both knew that it was there. They would bury it alive and one day it would crawl back out of the earth to drag them both down. They couldn't know, that night, that it was already the beginning of the end.

After a time, there were few mysteries left. Just the vague ‘because’ that they never did address. She knew their birthdays, knew Luka and Danijela’s anniversary, the date he had lost them, even the date he had come to the States. She had spent sleepless nights with him; nights when he would wake, nauseated and disoriented, and slip away to hide in the bathroom until he could catch his breath and his hands stopped shaking.

He would climb back into bed with her, the lamp on her bedside table switched on by then, and she was quiet every time as she moved in to place her arms around him. Luka, acting as if everything was fine; Abby, pretending she hadn't heard him call out for them in his sleep. There were bits and pieces that he'd shared with her, but she was never sure if she wanted to know the rest. Once he told her what had happened the night he lost them, he never bothered to talk about it again and she never pried. Eventually he simply stayed with her afterward instead- after the myriad nights of reliving whistling artillery rounds and the JNA storming through the hospital’s basement. But still, they didn't speak. He just turned to her, holding onto her until his breathing slowed.

Then, sometimes for comfort and sometimes thanks to sheer proximity, he would find himself kissing her until his heart was racing again. Then, in the dark, he never learned how to put himself back together as much as how to let himself fall apart.

The first time he had finally come to her, he had found himself conflicted- apprehensive, but knowing in some small way that she would be there. On the second he was less hesitant and in a way, it felt like their first night together. The stillness of it all, the way she knew what he needed. There was a kind of certainty there that he had forgotten how to rely on.

But moving forward was a trial, one he had put off for a decade by then.

The city was warm and bright when things began to change between the two of them as well. For better, for worse, for what would eventually prove to be too much. Just off of a double shift and facing a 12-hour workday, realizing that her bed was empty again, Abby woke one night to find Luka sitting in the living room with the Weather Channel muted, medical journals open in front of him. She wanted him with her- she was tired though, short and impatient. It was more than either of them needed at that hour.

It was Luka’s opportunity to begin a pointless argument. Because nobody is wide awake at 3:00 a.m. when they have a shift in the morning unless something is wrong, and why sit and be heartbroken when you can be angry?

They fought until she finally snapped at him, “Where the fuck is being stubborn going to get you?” Stubborn herself, she stomped back to her bedroom to sleep alone, slamming the door behind her.

As he sat there, staring at the wind patterns over the Southeast on the television, he considered her words over and over again. Where had it gotten him? To Abby, he didn't regret that part. To Chicago, which he found himself indifferent about. To a place with no Marko to ask for him in the mornings and no Jasna running to open the door for him after work, no Danijela to kiss him when the children weren't looking.

All because he stayed to finish his internship, to do CPR on a dead girl and let his wife slowly bleed out, while a little boy with his father’s green eyes lay crushed to death, in the remains of what used to be a home. Certain parts he always remembered most: he hadn't been able to look up from Jasna without seeing Marko there, meters in front of him, blood pooling on the floor around the crib. That was exactly where being stubborn had gotten him.

And he picked up the remote control, turned the volume back on and cried- he hadn't cried alone in years- until his father’s number appeared on his cell phone. The way it always did, like clockwork, on the morning of Danijela’s birthday.

Zagreb time, of course, because Josip knew his son, no matter how hard his son might have tried not to let anybody ever know him again.

Luka woke to find Abby wrapped around him, the television still on (she knew, by then, that he would wake if she switched it off) but the medical journals bookmarked and stacked neatly on the table. She apologized before he could and his stomach was in knots with guilt. In truth, he was hardly sure of what they had argued about in the first place. All he knew was that he had provoked her for entirely disparate, selfish reasons. He had to explain and over coffee, he did- why he had yelled, why it wasn't her fault.

"You could have said something, Luka."

"I'm sorry. I didn't do it to hurt you, Abby, I just--"

"I know. Forget it, I know. Let's talk about it later, I need a shower before work." It was a moment where he found himself at a loss. He couldn't read her, and she looked back to see him fidgeting with the stack of journals as she walked off. "Are you coming with me, or do you need an invitation?"

They left work together later that evening and sat on the grass along the lakefront trail, in the last of the day's warm summer breeze, eating takeout for dinner. Abby stretched out afterward, her head resting on his lap, mulling over that morning and she guessed that he must have been doing the same, if the silence between them was any indication. His fingertips traced patterns along her arm, and more than anything, Luka simply thought about how grateful he was to have her there with him, after all he had said and done. And when he asked where he ought to drop her off before he went to church, the way Danijela might have liked, she hesitated.

“Could I come with you? I know my scrubs are dirty, but I think I might have something else in my locker.” She faltered, rambling on and wondering if she had crossed the line by asking. “Or I could borrow something from Chuny, or go home and change. Your place is even closer…”

“Abby, it’s okay." He spoke softly, his hand coming to rest over hers as he looked down at her. "It’s okay.”

He meant it- it was okay- part of him was touched by the fact that she had asked. So she did go, and to her it seemed right, and meaningful, but only insofar as she had finally grasped the magnitude of what she felt for him. Obstinate and guarded, Abby would push it down for years, but she loved him. If that meant sitting in the back of a church that she didn't believe in, wearing scrubs stained with Betadine while he loved someone else, she would do it. She knew he couldn't let her into that part of his life unless he loved her too.

But she never did go again, because it was his. It could never resonate the same way with her, and the intent was enough for both of them. Still, he kept the one secret she would always wonder about.