Author's note: archiving my old ER fic apparently.
She would always remember her first day at County General Hospital – because of the fateful phone call. Neela Roskotra was brilliant at molecular biology, flawless in her medical facts and figures. But reading people was not her strength – it was an art she was eager to learn. In the week that passed since she'd answered the clamor of that insistent ring, no-one had mentioned it again, at least not to her. She didn't understand.
It was Dr. Corday who finally broke the silence, pausing by the nurses' station as she prepared to leave. "I suppose we ought to have some sort of memorial service," she said. There was always a gathering of hospital staff in that vicinity, sometimes passing through in a hurry, sometimes loitering to chat. But she had directed her suggestion at a blank spot on the wall, meeting no-one's eyes.
All traffic stopped. The words hung heavy in the air, like soot over a funeral pyre.
Neela looked around and it seemed to her as though everyone had stopped breathing as well as moving. Finally Jerry, the affable desk clerk, heaved a sigh and shrugged. "Maybe we should wait until Dr. Carter returns, with, uh … you know … his body."
"We have to be practical," Corday said. "He might not be able to bring … his remains back. If everything was in order, we'd have heard by now."
There was a sadness in Dr. Corday's eyes, but it seemed to Neela that it came from an older grief and not just the raw pain of the last week. She thought perhaps Dr. Corday had lost someone else close to her in recent months. But it was so like the British, she thought, to face tragedy with a sense of duty and a stiff upper lip. Americans would pretend nothing had happened – it was a Brit who would think of responsibilities.
Dr. Chen set down the chart she'd been studying and reached a tentative hand to the other woman's shoulder. "What do you suggest?" Jing-mei asked gently.
"Well, there is just so much that needs to be done, isn't there?" Corday answered. "Notify his friends and family…."
"I don't think he has any family in this country," Dr. Lewis interjected. "Didn't you ever notice - he usually works - worked - all the holidays, so those of you who do have families can spend time with them." Neela realized that Susan had not put herself in that category. But the other doctors shuffled their feet. She supposed they'd all been happy enough to get the time off; and never gave a thought before to whether the same people were carrying their burden for them year after year.
"He went to Croatia for Christmas once," Haleh said. "Abby, do you know if he has any family left there?"
Any family left – that was a curious phrase, Neela thought, pondering what it must mean as she turned to look at Abby. Abby had been the first to offer Neela a kind word when she arrived at County and Neela was dismayed to see her new friend struggling to control her feelings. "His dad lives in Zagreb." She said stonily. "John tried to call but there were too many Kovac's there."
"You don't know his father's first name?" Gallant sounded a little incredulous. Family was important to him – everyone at County - even Neela - knew something about his parents and siblings.
"It never came up, okay?"
Elizabeth tried to soothe the tension. "Perhaps we should notify his neighbors. Any organizations. His church? Does anyone know if he belonged anywhere?"
It was a sobering choice of words. Luka Kovac belonged – at work. If he had a life outside of the hospital, apparently he didn't share it and it seemed to Neela that maybe no-one had cared enough to ask. Then she realized that one by one, the others turned to look at Abby again.
"What, am I the only person here who knew him?" Abby sounded upset.
"I guess none of you will be submitting his obituary then," Dr. Pratt said, striding up to the desk and joining the conversation. "Family – don't know. Organizations – don't know. Church – don't know. Education? Anyone know where he went to medical school?"
There was no answer.
"I didn't think so. Does anyone even know his date of birth?"
The silence that greeted this challenge was tinged with a little shame.
Neela stirred her coffee, embarrassed by the silence and wanting a reason to explain the how the doctor could be such a cipher to his colleagues. "How long did Dr. Kovac work here?" she asked.
"He started around the same time I did," Chen said. "Guess that would make it over four years now."
Neela's eyes widened. Had he been a ghost to them all those years, even before the tragedy in the Congo?
"I think Carol got him to talk about himself a little," One of the nurses, Lydia, said. "I think it was those babies of hers that brought them closer together. Remember how he practically carried her here through the snow when she passed out during labor?" A warm smile lit her face and was soon reflected in the faces of the other nurses in the room, nodding at the memory.
"That wasn't the only time he brought someone into the ER without waiting for the EMTs. Remember when that little girl was hit by the drunk driver?" Malik added. "Luka hijacked a plumber's truck to get her here! He got in trouble for that," Malik added, "but Dr. Benton said it took a lot of guts, and saved her life."
"One of the things I remember best," Chuny began, "was the time there was the fire at that sweat shop. One of the workers, Ernesto, had full thickness burns over most of his body. I remember his name," she explained, "because Luka helped me write a letter to the man's widow. Luka promised Ernesto he'd go to his house and find his savings to mail them to his wife in Guatemala. He could have left that for me to do, or for the police, or a friend, but he did it himself. And the money he gave me to send to Maria was more than the patient had hidden. I know, because Ernesto had told us, in Spanish, how much there was."
"Luka would give you the shirt off his back," Jerry said.
"He did," Elizabeth said, sniffing, "Literally. Mark was wearing Luka's shirt when we got married. Mark had gotten blood on his, you see. And of course, Luka wasn't coming to the wedding because he had offered to work that day so the others could be there…." Her eyes grew misty.
"So Dr. Kovac was a bit of a saint then?" Neela asked, still trying to put the pieces together.
"No, I wouldn't say that," Susan said, smiling ruefully. "Sometimes I think maybe he was both a little more saintly and a little more damaged than the rest of us." She paused and Neela saw understanding in those who had been around a few years, and confusion on the newer faces. "But we all have our good days and our bad days," she added, "and Luka did too."
"I'll never forget April Fool's Day, 2001!" Yosh blurted out. "Dr. Malucci was playing a trick on Abby, pretending to be a patient who'd attacked a nurse up in the psych ward. Luka saw there was trouble and came to the rescue and shot the "patient" full of Haldol before anyone could get hurt."
Chuny giggled. "You don't suppose he had anything to do with Dr. Dave waking up with his hand glued to his forehead, do you?"
"I'll miss the ways he used to mangle English sometimes," Conni sighed.
It was quiet for a moment. Until now, everyone's thoughts were of days when Luka was with now. Suddenly, they were all realizing that those days were over.
"I think he did it on purpose sometimes," Susan said. "I mean, how can he say pericardiocentesis without a stumble and then not know what a pumpkin is?"
Neela could identify with the language struggles though. Then again, maybe Dr. Kovac did have a mischievous streak. She didn't know. She didn't know him.
But she felt that she knew him better now than she had an hour before. And she felt heartened that even though his colleagues didn't seem to know the personal details that he had chosen to keep private, he wasn't such a ghost to them after all. They would miss him.
The phone rang then, startling everyone. Jerry picked it up and looked puzzled as he apparently struggled with a bad connection, and then a look of wonder spread across his broad features like the morning sun lightening the sky.
"It's Dr. Carter," he said. "He's found Luka!"
And even though they'd been expecting the call, Jerry's exuberant tone and smile were not what they'd expected, not at all, and Neela felt hope stirring, tangible in the room.
* * * The end * * *