Part 5
By Kat

Before leaving the daycare center, Peter Benton kissed the top of Reese's head -- it was part of their little morning routine. To complete the ritual, he signed “I love you” and smiled broadly as Reese signed back “I love you Daddy.”

Having Reese in his life meant the world to Peter. He imagined how empty his life would be now if Carla had succeeded in taking Reese away from him. “Thank God I don't have to worry about that!” Peter thought to himself as he stepped onto the elevator and pressed “G”, ready to start his shift in the E.R. Suddenly, Peter's thoughts turned to Luka Kovac… to the horrible story that unfolded two days ago when the priest translated Kovac's anguished ramblings after the shooting. His wife and children torn from his arms and murdered… Kovac had lost so much! Peter thought again how lucky he was to have Reese. As the elevator doors closed, Peter quickly hit “5” and checked his watch. “Only 7:30 -- good!” he thought, “That gives me half an hour to check on Kovac before my shift starts.”

As he stepped off the elevator, the I.C.U. nurse called out “Good morning Dr. Benton. Dr. Kovac is stable, but he had a very restless night.” When Peter asked if Kerry Weaver was still there, the nurse replied “Oh no, she left before 5 this morning. She came back again with another doctor around 6:30 but they didn't stay in there very long. Dr. Kovac must have been asleep.”

When Peter entered the room, Luka turned towards the door, eyes wide and cold. Peter noticed that Kovac was in restraints and made a mental note to ask Weaver about that. “Dr. Kovac, how are you feeling today?” he asked.

Luka replied wearily “I'm very tired and I'd like to be left alone if you don't mind. Please tell Kerry Weaver that I don't need a babysitter.” Peter answered, “Kerry didn't send me. I've got a few minutes before my shift starts and I wanted to make sure you r sutures held this time. Two surgeries in as many days is more than enough for anyone.”

“Don't worry,” Luka almost spat out the words, “Dr. Weaver has left orders to keep me in restraints until further notice. As you can see, I can barely move, so there's little danger of the sutures tearing.” Peter wasn't sure if it was anger or merely exhaustion he heard in Kovac's voice.

Picking up Kovac's chart, Peter said, “Well, I know you can't be very comfortable that way, but it's probably for the best. According to your chart, you've been tossing and turning in your sleep -- not good for sutures. That explains why Weaver ordered the restraints.” Peter smiled as he spoke, but Kovac didn't smile back -- his eyes were still hard and cold. Peter added “I don't think your body could take another trip to the O.R.”

“It's survived worse than that, not that it really matters,” Luka said flatly. Those words reminded Peter of how much Kovac had suffered… how he'd lost his family to incomprehensible violence. He felt compelled to offer the man some comfort. “Look, Kovac, I know we've had our differences, but I respect you. You really came through for Carter after the stabbing. I never told you how much I appreciated that.”

Luka replied modestly “I didn't do any more than anyone else. Everyone did their best for Carter and Lucy that night. We were lucky with Carter…” his voice trailed off as he thought of Lucy. Peter noticed that Kovac no longer sounded angry, just very sad.

“Yeah, but from what I hear, when everyone else got emotional, you stayed calm and kept them focused on helping Carter instead of speculating about what happened.” Peter hesitated a moment before adding “I guess you had a lot of experience staying focused in the middle of chaos -- during the war I mean.”

With Peter's words, all the horrible memories, never far from the surface, flooded Luka's mind. In his weakened condition, he didn't have the strength to force them back. His temples began to throb, a wave of nausea followed, and he could barely breathe. Luka tried to turn away so Peter wouldn't see the pain in his eyes… but he wasn't fast enough. He tried to take a deep breath, but that only added physical pain to the emotional ache that was threatening to drown him. “I …I'd rather not talk about that,” he managed to say before choking up.

Peter ignored Luka's words and pressed on, “Look, Kovac, I know about your family. Down in the E.R., after you were shot, you had a flashback to the day your wife and children were taken. I know you were shot trying to save them and then you were taken to one of those concentration camps. When you escaped and found their bodies in a mass grave… I can't even imagine the hell you went through.”

Luka shut his eyes against the memories, but it was a futile gesture. The horrible scene played over and over in his head. Soldiers invading the hospital… shooting doctors… patients. Trying to shield his wife and children with his body. Marko and Jasna crying “Tata! Tata! (Daddy! Daddy!) and his wife screaming in terror as the soldiers shot him again and again. His family being dragged away as he lay on the floor, bloody, barely conscious, unable to save them. Waking up in the camp… realizing they weren't there. The soldiers bragging… laughing about what they'd done to the women and children. Escaping… searching, all the time praying he'd find them alive. Finding the pit… carrying them out, cradling them one last time before burying them together in that godforsaken place. Finally, he saw himself crumpled on the ground next to their grave, covered with blood… his blood, their blood… it all ran together… staining his hands, his clothes, the very soil, a deep crimson. Luka felt himself drowning in a sea of blood.

Peter's voice brought Luka back from the edge “Kovac, I don't want to pry. I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about what happened to your family and ask if there's anything I can do to help.”

Luka opened his eyes. They were no longer hard and cold. “Thank you for that, Dr. Benton. But there's nothing anyone can do.”

“Hey, call me Peter or Benton, and just forget about the 'Doctor.' Too formal, okay?”

“Okay… Peter then,” Luka replied.

“Look, Kovac…. Luka…. I can't pretend to understand what it's like to lose a child. But not long ago, my ex-girlfriend tried to take my son to Germany. I was afraid I'd never see him again. It's all I thought about day and night. Luckily, I was able to stop her. I thank God every day for letting me keep Reese in my life. Just the possibility of losing him tore me up inside. I know it's nothing like what you've gone through, but…” Peter stopped in mid-sentence, unsure of what to say next.

Luka never felt he had anything in common with Peter Benton. He'd never seen this side of Benton, had never imagined they shared the bond of fatherhood. “I didn't know you almost lost your son. I'm glad you were able to keep him in your life. I wish I …” Luka's voice trailed off.

Peter finished the thought for him, “You wish you'd been able to keep your wife and children in your life. It's okay to wish it… it's okay to say it out loud. I understand. But you have to deal with it and put it behind you or you'll be haunted by flashbacks for the rest of your life. I'm not saying you should forget about your family. I'm just saying you need to come to terms with what happened and move on with your life.”

“My family was my life. I should have fought harder… I should have saved them,” Luka cried.

“Let go of the guilt, man. You're only human… you almost died trying to save them! It's time to forgive yourself.” Peter hesitated, wondering if he'd said too much. Until now, he'd never had a conversation with Kovac unless it involved hospital business. “Look man, I'm sorry, I know we barely know each other… and I'm no shrink. So if you want me to shut up, just tell me and I will.”

Luka's answer surprised Peter “No, that's okay. I'd rather talk to you than some psychiatrist. I'm so tired of them telling me what I should do. They have no idea how I feel. They always talk in clinical terms like 'the stages of grief' … as if my life were just another case study. You're the first person in so long who has talked to me like… like one father to another. You have no idea just how much that means to me.” Luka's lips were trembling now and he bit down hard in an effort to regain his composure.

After a moment, he continued, “You've thought about what your life would be like if your son were taken away. How you could never tell him another bedtime story… tuck him in at night… or comfort him when he had a bad dream. You know how empty your arms would feel… how they would ache to hold him just one more time…” Luka's voice broke and tears flowed freely down his cheeks. But with his hands and feet still restrained, he couldn't wipe them away.

Without a word, Peter moved closer to the bed and removed the restraints from Luka's wrists and ankles. As he dried his face with the back of his hand, Luka whispered “Thank you, Peter.”

“Don't mention it, man. I'll straighten it out with Weaver. But you have to do something for me -- promise to call me if the memories start to overwhelm you. You gotta keep those flashbacks at bay. We can't have you tearing your sutures again.”

to be continued...


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