Patches Of Sunlight

"Our most difficult task as a friend is to offer understanding when we don't understand." - Robert Brault

The first time he visits the veterans' hospital it's one month and five days since the war ended.

He finds the bed quickly, standing awkwardly beside it, forcing himself to study the pale face against the pillow. Swathed in bandages with only his closed eyes exposed, Sam looks fragile and weak, but otherwise normal, and he tells himself that the doctors are wrong, that as soon as he wakes up everything will be as it was, they're home, they're safe, ready to start new lives.

But somewhere in the middle of his thoughts Sam's eyes drift open and he holds his breath, his own eyes pinned to his friend's face, waiting for the sloppy smile, the "why're you staring at me? Trying to get fresh or something?", anything that will tell him that Sam, the Sam Hansen who's his best, his only friend, is still in there.

But the eyes flicker past him, bouncing across the walls, looking at nothing and everything at once and his stomach clenches like a bayonet slicing through him, cutting him in two, as he knows deep inside, in the pit of him, that the doctors are right, that his Sam is gone. Oh he lives and breathes, heart beating, organs functioning, but everything that made him Sam has been shattered and erased with the entrance and exit of a bullet splintering the side of his skull. He's gone forever.

Lucavich doesn't stay long.

The second time he visits the hospital it's six weeks since the war ended and he's prepared himself better this time, resigned himself to what he'll see.

They've bundled Sam into a wheelchair, back to the window, and the bandages are gone now, allowing him to see where the doctors shaved his hair to the scalp and cut into him in an attempt to save his life. The jagged wound is beginning to heal, leaving a thickly corded scar behind. It's disturbing and he can't look at it.

He tries to block out the memories of his childhood, of Mrs. Peterson going away committed, was touched in the head, of the little boy down the street who wasn't right in the head, poor child, his poor mother having to care for a baby forever, and of the insults thrown carelessly around, giggled terms that seem so caustic now.

He sits on the bed next to his friend and talks of things occurring beyond the gray walls of this place that has become Sam's home and prison, of people they used to know, of his girl that he'll marry any day now, and even of the job he's gotten. Anything and everything to cover up the silence and the horrible vacant look in Sam's eyes.

And all the time he talks he silently mourns the loss of a man still living.

The third time he visits the hospital it's eight weeks since the war ended and he finally works up the nerve to touch him.

He was afraid to at first, haunted by the memory of Sam lying broken and bloody on the field, of his own hands coming up to cover and hold down on the gaping wound as it gushes crimson between his fingers, of Captain Benedict yelling at him in a hoarse and strained voice, and the knowing that's it's bad.

Later on he was frightened, afraid of the reaction he might receive. There might be jerking in the limbs, the doctors had warned, muscle spasms. In time he may walk a little, move his arms and hands almost normally. Physically he may be as he was within the year.

Only his mind will forever be altered, lost and buried in the bloody mud of Italy like amputated arms and legs or forgotten canteens. He's a child again, they say, five years old at best.

Lucavich remembers being five only faintly. He and Sam were towheaded sticky fingered kids then, learning A B Cs and snitching candy. They understood little, their world consisting of toy soldiers and popsicle stick forts. He can't think of Sam like that.

He touches him gently, knowing the wounds have almost completely healed, and yet uncertain if a rougher grasp may harm him. He waits for a twitch, a jerking limb, a trembling wave of a hand as Sam, tucked up somewhere behind those empty eyes, struggles to make himself known.

But the hand beneath his never moves, skin cool and still.

And after a while his own hand falls back limp to his side.

The fourth time he visits the hospital it's three months since the war ended and he hasn't seen Sam in almost a month of that time.

He doesn't talk or sit down this time, only paces uncertainly, glancing out of the corners of his eyes every now and then to notice that Sam's eyes are bouncing after him, jerking every few seconds in their path. The uneven pattern sends a lump in his throat that threatens to choke him as Sam looks almost normal except for those eyes and that hideous scar, and for an instant he can pretend, imagine as it were, that nothing has changed, that it's an ordinary day and he's simply visiting a recovering friend and not a man who will never get any better than he is now.

For the first and only time he wishes -a fleeting wish - that Sam hadn't lived to the field hospital, that he'd been killed instantly in that battle. And then he remembers the sounds of the night around him, the feel of his best friend dying in his arms, the murmured whispers of D'Angelo saying the Rosary pray for us sinners in the hour of our deaths, the shelling in the distance, the rocking of the truck, and his own frantic pleas let him live, just let him live, and he hates himself for even thinking it.

But he doesn't touch him.

The fifth time he visits the hospital it's more duty than compassion, a ritualistic duty he's been performing for half a year now, the weekly hour of one-sided conversation across a colorless room.

But this time he thinks about Sam, little five year old Sam, and he brings Lucky along with him, the little flop-eared mutt who only understands German commands that only Sam could say.

He places the dog on Sam's lap, sitting next to him and noticing almost absently that the wheelchair is gone, replaced by a hard-backed wooden chair, Sam's feet tangled behind the rungs, toe tips scuffed as if he's been dragging his feet. He remembers how Sam used to scuff up his shoes as a child, and how his mother scolded him, and he smiles despite himself, the first shadow of a smile in all the times he's been here.

Sam's hands, jerky and clumsy, gently pat the dog's head, reaching down his back to tangle in the soft fur. Lucavich doubts that he recognizes the dog, or has any memory at all of finding him or the endless weeks of marching, carrying the dog in his arms so he wouldn't have to be left behind.

He brought the animal home and cares for Lucky now, the only thing he can do for Sam, and he notes with a faint sense of satisfaction that the dog seems to comfort him. He even laughs when the mutt starts licking all over Sam's face.

And then Sam looks up, and grins, a sideways, impish, childish grin of a five year old boy, and he stops laughing, heart twisting into a knot and plummeting to the bottom of his stomach until he thinks he'll be ill.

He doesn't laugh again.

The sixth time he visits the hospital he's missed three visits, telling himself Sam doesn't notice and he can't stand to be in there, to look at what's happened to the man who was his best friend, as close as a brother to him.

It's summer, muggy and filled with sunshine, and Sam is perched on the steps of the hospital, face upturned to the sun, drinking in the rays. Lucavich stops at the first step, watching him only a moment before starting to turn and leave.

"Ernie?"

He stops short, breath hitching in his chest with a suffocating force.

"Ernie?"

It's garbled, a mockery of Sam's voice, so frail, the first sound he's heard him utter since the day he carried him into the field hospital. He turns back.

The eyes are still a little boy's, and he knows they always will be. Nothing has changed, nothing will get better. It isn't the moment in movies when the man comes out of a coma and speaks. This is real life and there won't be any happy ending.

But within those childish eyes there's the trace of tears.

"Ernie? Stay?"

He walks slowly to the porch, as if bearing something heavy, steps sluggish, eyes down. He stops when he reaches the scuffed tips of Sam's shoes.

Sam holds up his hand, revealing a rubber ball and a cluster of sweaty jacks.

"Play?"

It tears his heart out. He sinks to the step, covers his face with his hand and starts to sob, shoulders shaking. A pair of hands come around him. Lucavich lifts his head.

"Ernie? Don't. Be. Sad."

Each word is slowly formed. But the little boy eyes hold an aching sadness. He reaches up and makes himself touch those sticky hands, pat them as he would a child.

"It's okay, Sam."

The tears fade, a smile brushing his friend's face.

"Play?"

He studies the jacks for a long moment.

"Okay, Sam."

As they play, Lucavich looks at Sam, truly looks at him, past the five year old eyes and the jagged scar, into the face and into the heart. And somewhere within, beyond the memories, the knowledge, his own heart starts to warm. It's still Sam, changed yes, but Sam. Still his best friend forever, and nothing can change that.

He goes for fives and Sam lets out a shriek of delight when he accomplishes it.

He thinks it will be okay. It will take time, and a lot of heartache. It won't be the same, but he knows Sam's worth every ounce of the tears he'll shed.

He can still be best man at his wedding, they can still fish together, still walk in the sunshine and talk of nothing in particular. It doesn't matter that he can't understand everything, that he'll be a child forever and Lucavich will remember who he was before he became so young. It doesn't matter because he's still Sam.

And someday, soon he thinks, he'll build on a room in his house for Sam, to take care of him.

After all, that's what friends are for.