Uncle John by Elliot Andreopoulos
John and Mary walked to the general store to purchase a jug of milk for their mother. The vibrant summer sun burnt their skin and the wind blew parched soil into their faces. The year was 1938 and the countryside of Greece was being terrorized by Turkish rebels whose crimes ranged from burning crops to raping and murdering children. John carried a pistol with him, though it wouldn’t do much good if they were swarmed or they faced a Turk with an automatic weapon. Basically, the gun was for peace of mind.
Mary was eleven with greasy blonde hair that had never been washed with shampoo. She had a tremendous amount of cystic facial acne and small slanted eyes from a birth defect. Despite her external imperfections, she had seven marriage proposals, all of which she rejected. She planned to withhold as long as possible, recognizing the monotonous routine of housework and the abuse she would endure.
John was sixteen and extremely tall, which correlated into being a valuable farmhand. He was the most apt pupil in the village, but his father pulled him out of school to work the farm. He planned to run away because he realized education was the only outlet out of the poverty his family was entrenched in for generations. Mary was the only person who could keep him at home. He loved her more than anything and would sacrifice everything for her.
Mary went into a vicious coughing fit. She was getting over a bronchial ailment that nearly took her life. The family did not have enough money for a doctor and prepared to leave her fate to the will of God. John refused to take the sedentary resignation to her death, so he went to Mr. Leussis and sold his body to get the money for the doctor’s appointment that saved her life. The gonorrhea that infected his anus was the price he had to pay. He would’ve done it again.
“I saw Mr. Vakavakolos over today,” John said. “Sorry.”
“He’s too old for me.”
“If you don’t want to marry him you don’t have to,” John said. “But if somebody good comes, you have to take him. Father will notice your stubbornness and sell you to the highest bidder.”
Mary sighed, resigned to her miserable fate.
John decided to go off the main trail and show Mary a shortcut, figuring she would be able to handle the rocky uphill climb. It was treacherous, but she didn’t complain, encountering difficulty and overcoming it was part of growing up. The birds chirped and the mosquitoes bit their skin, it was just like any other day. They cut through the area where the garbage was burned and Mary stepped on a jagged piece of glass that pierced through her sandal. She cried terrified screams, with the excruciating pain numbing all of her senses. Infection was imminent if the glass wasn’t removed, but John left it in because it acted like a cork to control the gushing blood. He lifted her onto his shoulder and ran home, using her screams to fuel him to run faster.
The last half mile felt like an eternity, but he found the strength in his weak legs to fight the anal burning and carry her home. His body gave out and he collapsed outside the front gate of their house. Their mother heard their torturous screams and ran outside to tend to them, leaving the potatoes she was frying unattended.
A strong wind pushed the flames into the book of recipes beside the stove and the embers flew into the curtains. The intensity of the flames increased exponentially engulfing everything in its destructive path. By the time they smelled the smoke, the fire was out of control. Despite the frantic efforts by the entire village to contain the fire, the house burned to the ground. They believed nothing could be worse than that.
John lifted Mary on his shoulders to stop her from kicking stones. The wind blew through her hair and she laughed playfully, it was the first time she smiled in weeks. His shoulders ached and his legs buckled under the pressure of her weight, but he didn’t put her down because she was enjoying herself too much. He noticed broken glass and walked around it.
When the general store was in view, a pack of Turks in a pickup truck pulled in front of them. John put Mary down and commanded her to run away as fast as she could. If they captured her, they’d rape and kill her, and then rape her again. He pulled out the pistol from his pocket and nervously pointed it at the six Turks. None of them looked intimidated. They pulled out their automatics and approached him as he nervously walked backwards.
“Back down!” John yelled.
They laughed at him for commanding them when they had the advantage.
“Let me go home! Please!” he pleaded.
“I want your sister,” one of the Turks said.
John shot at him dead. The feeling was unimaginable, but short lived. The Turks concentrated their gunfire on him until there were only a few recognizable body parts in the mess of blood and guts. They searched for Mary. She took the shortcut that John showed her. They did not know about it and were unable to locate her.
The entire village searched for John, hoping for the best but expecting the worse. The efforts were in vain because the Turks carried his body to their base and fed him to the dogs. The boy who had dreams of greatness was reduced to dog chow, an improper sendoff from the Earth. The search was given up after a week. It was extremely difficult for the family because there could be no closure without a body.
The Turks surrounded John as Mary ran into the distance. His finger was trembling on the trigger and his mind went blank out of nervousness. He knew it was the end and wasn’t ready to die. Why was this happening to him? The Turks looked so angry and unforgiving.
“Put the gun down!” a Turk commanded.
If he pulled the trigger, he could only kill one before they rip him apart. If he put the gun down, he was at their mercy. Each option would likely lead to his demise. He looked behind him and couldn’t see Mary, he hoped she took the shortcut. The Turks screamed unintelligible profanities at him. He put the gun down, hoping his surrender would make them leave Mary alone. Her safety was more valuable to him than his own.
He was driven to the base and thrown into a dank underground prison chamber where he was only given a piece of mold encrusted bread a day. He supplemented the bread with insects that crawled all over him. Most days they would forget to give him water and he was forced to drink the urine showers he would receive from the guards. The gonorrhea turned into gangrene. He could no longer stand or lay on his back. There was not much time to live.
Only one guard arrived to deliver the bread. Never before had this happened, there was always two, sometimes three. This was his only chance to escape. Apprehension filled his body and when the guard set down the bread, John went to tackle him. He overestimated the strength of his depraved body and when he made contact with the guard, he crumpled to the ground. The guard put a bullet in between his tired eyes.
The guard laughed at John’s pathetic escape attempt and left him to rot and suffer, not wanting to end his misery.
John never came home. The details are unknown. For all I know, he joined the Turks and fought alongside them against his countrymen. The world is a cruel place, it isn’t as safe and beautiful as where you are reading this story. I wish I knew my uncle. He’s become dehumanized to me, just a piece of family folklore, just another life that was taken away for no reason at all. Life is beautiful. Never forget that. It may leave you when you least expect it. Forget about your possessions because possessions, even an entire house can be replaced. Losing it is not the worst thing in the world, losing a child or sibling is. You must cherish love because it is forever resonating, everything else is gravy.
Elliot Andreopoulos lives with his family in New York. His favorite writers include Tim O'Brien, E. Annie Proulx and Stephen King. He is very joyous to be published in Up the Staircase.