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  • Elena K.

Fiction - I Will Be Back

A short fiction story about two men on an island that discover they have much more in common than they originally thought...

photograph by Tania Mousinho


A long line of homeless people and refugees wait to enter the only shelter on Lesvos island in Greece. The doors close, and a tall man dismisses the rest of them. Some men yell and fight with each other until police arrive on the scene to disperse them. As they walk away, the heavy rain soaks their clothes. Leonida sneaks out of the crowd and moves towards the island’s port. Every time it rains, Leonida finds a spot under a fisherman's tent. Sometimes, the fisherman has leftover lemony oysters, and he offers them to Leonida, who devours them with appreciation. Leonida’s skinny, frail body shakes in satisfaction as the sour taste of oysters hit his tongue. Leonida waits patiently for the rain to stop and watches the boats cruising the Aegean waters on the horizon. He can't see the fisherman's boat. Leonida touches his stringy beard and feels the scars on his face. He thinks of stopping at the nearest pharmacy to see if the owner will spare him some antibiotic cream, but he decides to return “home” instead.

He sleeps by a bench on a narrow street that connects the island's biggest church to the port. He has four ripped blankets, a plastic cup, and a sign that reads: “Please help. Homeless and hungry. Thank you.” Sometimes the faithful will drop coins in his cup on their way to church. The narrow street is surrounded by different paths that are like pieces of a white and blue puzzle. Each path is filled with small houses and open windows that move the smell of pies of all kinds to Leonida's nostrils. The islanders are kind people; they know Leonida for twenty years now. They've seen his hair turn gray, his face become wrinkled, but the tattoo on the side of his neck has not changed. It says, “Never give up.”

When Leonida returns “home,” the rain has left the bench wet. Leonida tucks himself in with the blankets and closes his eyes. The summer breeze gives him goosebumps. He manages to sleep at four in the morning when the tourists have finally cleared the streets. Suddenly, he hears a loud noise. A 20-year-old wearing a black hoodie crashes on Leonida’s bench with his skateboard. Leonida jumps up in fear and looks at the man.

“Are you okay?” Leonida asks.

The man gets up, looks at his bloody knees, pushes the long, black hair away from his face, and picks up his skateboard.

“It's your fault, asshole,” the man spits on Leonida and grabs one of his blankets.

Leonida stands in shock. The man rides away. “Hey, hey! Come back,” Leonida yells.

He hears the man laughing from a distance. Leonida throws off his blankets and chases him, but his knees collapse, and he gives up. Leonida returns to his makeshift bed and covers himself with the remaining blankets. He tries to fall asleep, but a pounding headache keeps him awake until the sun rises and slowly paints the sky in hues of orange. The first tourists wake up, filling the streets with their flip flops ready to head to the beach. The warm sun burns Leonida’s face. He moves away from the bench and starts walking away from the village to a nearby valley where he can hide behind the bushes and pee when the streets get too crowded. He can't stop thinking of the young man. He decides to return to the bench and spend the rest of the day, observing people strolling the streets. His plastic cup fills with coins from generous strangers. The moon replaces the sun, and Leonida finally closes his eyes.

Suddenly, he hears footsteps. The same young man stands over Leonida and stares at him with disgust. Leonida gets a tighter grip on his blanket.

“Please,” he says.

The young man starts to pull on Leonida’s blankets.

“Let go,” the man says.

Leonida uses all his power to hold on to the blankets.

“Please, I need them. Just tell me why you're doing this. Who are you?” Leonida says.

“Why does it matter who I am?” the man says. He lets go of Leonida’s blankets and grabs his plastic cup, emptying the money in his pockets.

“No, no! That's my food for tomorrow.” Leonida let's go of the blankets. The man grabs his blankets.

“Spiros. My name is Spiros, and I'll be back.”

Leonida runs after him. “God! What have I done to you?” Spiros flees on his skateboard; he glances at Leonida gasping behind him. Leonida pauses and buries his head in his hands. He starts to cry.

Spiros returns home to a run-down house near the homeless shelter. He is carrying the stolen blankets; the pockets of his jeans are filled with money. He finds his father, Dimitri, a forty-year-old bald man, unshaven passed out on the couch. Ten empty beer cans stand next to him. Spiros opens the fridge and sees only a loaf of bread and some butter. He opens a cabinet and sees a half-empty box of cereal. He eats the rest of the cereal. He walks into his parents' bedroom and finds his mother, Katerina, a blonde-haired woman with bruises and scratches on her body and face, lying on the bed. Spiro covers her with the blankets.

“Sweetheart? Are you back?” she asks.

“Yes, back. Go to sleep. I'm okay,” Spiro says. He gives her a kiss on the forehead. She notices the ripped blankets.

“Where did you get that?” she asks.

“Don't worry about it.” Katerina extends her hand to touch Spiros’s face. “Mom, this needs to stop. Spiros stares at her bruises.” She stays silent. “Here, like you asked.” Spiros places the money on her palm. “I love you,” he says and disappears before she can respond.

Leonida gathers his sign from the bench and heads towards the valley. The island is quiet. Leonida waits for the birds' songs to fill his ears with music. On his way to the valley, Leonida hears the noise of the skateboard. He freezes and starts to look around in panic.

“I have nothing else. Nothing else, please leave me alone,” Leonida says.

Spiros approaches him from behind and pulls Leonida’s ripped shirt.

“I'm sick of you people. You're violent; you hurt women. You—"

Spiros stops. He notices the tattoo on the side of Leonida's neck. Spiros freezes and looks at the tattoo on his wrist: “Never give up.”

“Impossible,” he mutters.

“What?” Leonidas looks at him, puzzled.

“What is this?” Spiros asks him, pointing at Leonida’s tattoo.

Leonida stutters. “I, I got it a while ago. It's a memory.”

“Whatever; I don't care,” Spiros starts to walk away.

“Wait! What's your deal?” Leonida asks.

“You mean, why am I a jerk?”

“That's not what I said,” Leonida responds.

“Why do you care, anyway? Do you have nothing better to do?” Spiros asks.

“Actually... no. I was just heading to the valley,” Leonida says.

Spiros laughs. They start walking together.

“Can you tell me about your tattoo?” he asks Leonida.

“What about it?”

“Why did you pick that quote?” asks Spiros.

“Oh, it's a long story,” Leonida says.

“I'm all ears." They reach the valley and sit on the grass.

“I used to work at a construction site. You know, carrying bricks and stuff. Back in the days when people were building houses, there was always work. There was always enough food. I never got married, and my mother lost my father early in life. My father had a weak heart, but he was a great man. My mom couldn’t sustain herself with her pension.” Leonida takes a picture out of his shorts' pocket and shows Spiros his mother. “Anyway, when my mother also fell sick, I was devastated. I almost quit my job to be with her. During the month that she spent in the hospital, she kept telling me, “Leonida, don't give up.” You see, I had asked her so many times whether I should quit my job to be with her. She just kept repeating herself.” A tear runs down Leonida's cheek. “You see, now that I think about her words, she didn't mean to not give up my job; she meant to not give up on life. When she died, the only way for me to stay strong was to keep reminding myself of her words, so that's why I got a tattoo. Then the economic crisis hit; I was fired, and all I had left was that tattoo. It means the world to me.” Spiros sits in silence, looking into Leonida's eyes. “I'm sorry that might have been too much information,” Leonida says.

Spiros still says nothing. He pulls up his long sleeve and shows Leonida the tattoo on his wrist. Leonida stares at it.

“Unbelievable,” Leonida's mouth drops.

“Yeah... You know, I'm sorry about your mom and your dad,” Spiros says.

They start to hear the birds singing.

“It's okay,” says Leonida. “Well, what about you? The same tattoo?”

“Don't expect much. My family is shit. My father is a jerk who gets drunk and hits my mother. And she takes it, or should I say took it for all these years. She asked me the other day if I can help her run away if I can give her money. And I did. That was your money…” Spiros pauses. “I'm sorry.”

“Oh. Now, I understand,” Leonida pats him in the back. “Did she leave?”

“I think so. I don't want to go back and find my father alone because he'll take it out on me. Neither of them cared about me when everything was good. I had tried helping my mom when things went bad, but she never listened. She was always too scared. Anyway, when I was fifteen, I asked her for a birthday gift. Like every year, she said to ask my father. My father always said no. But for some reason, I was a fucking rebel at fifteen, even worse than I'm now. It was the age I started graffiti and always got in trouble.” Leonida glances at Spiros's backpack. “So, I had a friend who was a tattoo artist. I had told him how upset I was that I had never gotten a gift for my birthday. I told him that my life didn't matter anymore. He said never to give up, and that kept me going. He offered to give me a free tattoo for my birthday and asked me what I wanted. I didn't give it any thought. I just told him to write, ‘never give up.’”

“Wow,” Leonida says.

“Whatever.”

“So that woman figure on the bus station, did you draw that?” asks Leonida.

“Yes, that was me with the graffiti. It’s my mom… The islanders hate me for it.”

“Maybe you should leave too then,” Leonida says.

The sun rises, and they start to hear noises from far away. Soon, the tourists will pass the valley and fill the beach with inflatable flamingos and fancy hats.

“I have nowhere to go.”

“You don't have any relatives in Athens?” Leonida asks.

“I mean my grandma; she leaves alone. I bet that's where my mother will go,” Spiros says.

“And you will too. Get up; we'll collect some money to buy you a ticket,” Leonida says.

“You really don't have to do this. After everything… After the way I treated you. You—”

“I want to,” says Leonidas.

They walk up and down the scenic roads begging for money. Some people ignore them, others run away from them, and a few decide to help them. By late afternoon, they've gathered enough money to buy a ticket and something to eat. They’re both sunburned; Leonida's scars are bleeding. He wipes the blood off on his ripped shirt. Leonida takes the coins out of his pocket and walks to a nearby food kiosk. He grabs a packet of crackers while the shop owner stares at him skeptically.

“I have money to pay for it,” Leonida says.

Leonida takes the coins out of his pocket; the shop owner says nothing. He and Spiros walk together to the port to wait for the evening boat. They pass the line of homeless people and refugees waiting to enter the only shelter on the island.

“Good Luck and remember… Never give up,” Leonida hugs Spiros.

“I will be back,” Spiros says and walks towards the boat. He takes a last look at the mixture of white and blue houses, sandy beaches, colorful valleys, and crowded streets.

Leonida waves at him. The island fills with the second wave of tourists who have just arrived. The boat starts to load those who are departing. Spiros makes it inside. Leonida watches the boat disappear in the distance; the waves replace Leonida's last image of Spiros. Sitting under the fisherman's tent, Leonida closes his eyes and imagines eating the lemony oysters.


E.K.

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