Photo of

Mike Lee is a writer and editor at a trade union in New York City and the chief blogger for Focus on the Story. His work appears in or is forthcoming in Literary Heist, The Quarantine Review, Drunk Monkeys, and many others. In addition, his story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online bookselling outlets. He was also recently nominated for Best Microfiction by Ghost Parachute.


Trigger Warning

Alex summed it up at their last meeting: “The way the world works is you are the one who gets shot. Ethan is the one ordered to shoot you, and I am the man who signs the order.”

Mitchell was quick to respond. “You are the one who gets the statues, the monuments, and framed portraits on the ministry walls. You are also the one with all those monuments eradicated, the statues scrapped, and the portraits burned in the street in a generation. I may also add your descendants will change their names to forget the connection.”

“Yes, all this is true. Yet I will die in bed. That is all that matters.”

“Of course, but I will die with my dignity intact.”

Unflinchingly, Alex responded, “But you will still be dead.” Then, pausing to stare down at the wrapped manila envelope placed neatly in front of him, he added, “I value our friendship.”

Tapping his index finger on the envelope, he averted his gaze when he said. “This is your ticket out of here. Take it.”

Mitchell reached across the desk, grasping the package between thumb and forefinger, and nonchalantly placed the sealed envelope into his bag in contrast to its value and purpose.

Mitchell waved instead of a handshake and quietly left.

He had the afternoon to pack what he believed was necessary to take. As his heels echoed down the polished marble of the hall leading to the elevator, he wondered if this was how it was done. Fidel sending Che to Congo came to mind. He smiled, knowing it was more complex than that. There was nothing for him to do at his eventual destination. With the attendant local bank account and a seemingly limitless supply of Euros, the eternal vacation was deposited monthly as a pension, along with a deed to a condo with his forged signature and, vitally, a passport from another country. Same name, too. The authorities over there will know who he is. That was the rope Alex tied around his waist, pulling Mitchell to him when he felt expedient, and his insurance policy to prevent Mitchell from writing polemics and memoirs or giving interviews. Money doesn’t buy his silence, but maintaining one’s identity, in this case, is a burden and a curse.

On to my new life, Mitchell murmured as he entered the elevator. After pressing the button, he looked up to see his reflection. Weariness showed, as did age. He had felt plenty regarding the former in the three years since he made his first mistake in this situation.

He should have remained a journalist and written what he was told instead of recording what he believed. Yet Mitchell believed in something, even though he learned that one, he was wrong, and two, it was all bullshit. After figuring out the first, the second closely followed, and while epiphanies are suitable for the soul, Mitchell was far from St. Paul. The redemption of comfortable exile may assuage some of the guilt of being married to the regime. However, the stench remains after the divorce.

Ethan waited under the arch at the front doors, wearing mirror Ray-Bans and gray Armani, standing arms crossed, slouched in boredom. He straightened at attention when he saw Mitchell.

“Hey, Mitchy! Wha’s happening?”

Mitchell suppressed a sigh. “I take it you are driving me today.”

“All the way.” Ethan smiled, his eyes betraying the look of psychotropic medication. He was a jittery punk, and the prominent bulge under his jacket made Mitchell wince.

Mitchell realized Alex could jack anyone on a deal, and he had no reason to cut him any slack. Still, their old ties of friendship perhaps held tautly, and the agreement worked to Alex’s advantage. Keeping Mitchell alive and quiet is worth more than creating a dead martyr of the counter-revolutionary cause. Moreover, the mutually agreed upon exile was isolated enough from the refugee communities scattered throughout the world for Mitchell to contact if he had the urgent desire and was just comfortable enough not to let him suffer.

Mitchell had no family to bring with him, and his alienation from the regime superseded any wish to return to the fold. Instead, Mitchell chose life; any sense of moral outrage was between him and God and remained the top priority. Being dead face down on the floor of a basement jail cell wasn’t worth the trouble, despite his defiant words to Alex in his office.

In reality, Mitchell had grown indifferent. He wanted most to sleep and to reduce his anxieties. The last year was full of such, enough to learn to remain silent, though he knew Alex would remain an intrusive force, though distant, for the foreseeable future.

The alternative, however, was permanent, and Mitchell didn’t like to think about that.

Mitchell sat in the front seat. He used to sit in the back when he was the Commissioner.

He looked out the window, passing half-constructed tower blocks of sand-colored concrete and iron rails bent and rusting. Another project takes forever to build until an order comes down, then quick, slapdash work, tenants moved in before the windows are put in, and forget about finishing the walls. Yes, the people living their new life under the regime in the modern poverty of fallen expectations while the concrete crumbles. Mitchell knew without looking closely that the concrete for the new apartments was already beginning to decay.

This was no longer his problem.

Mitchell bit his lip, remembering what life used to be like before the Alexes and the Ethans—and especially the Mitchells—created this new world. It indeed was better back then.

That past is gone, and in a few hours, so too shall be the present.

When they arrived at his house, Mitchell saw the moving truck and workmen in orange jumpsuits, prison labor, wearing uniforms held over from the old regime, scurrying mechanically but languidly, carting boxes to the car.

Ethan turned to Mitchell and said, “He never misses a beat, does he?” He was smiling, showing all his teeth. Even from the several feet distance from the driver’s side to where he sat in the back, his breath continued to smell of his breakfast.

The cop from Internal was in a navy blue suit. The cop’s clothes were well-worn, unlike Ethan’s, the man likely originating from a used clothing distribution center. Only the nomenklatura bought new. He carried a clipboard and handed it to Ethan.

“Mitchy, you are going to have to sign for this.”

“Sure. Hand it over.” Mitchell didn’t bother to suppress the sigh. He took and signed without looking, using his pen for the signature. He handed the clipboard back to Ethan, who returned it to the cop.

“Should I even bother going into my own house?”

“You may want to get your luggage. Security probably packed your bags, too.”

“This is Internal we’re talking about. Fuck this.”

“Okay, if you say so.” Ethan put the car in gear and drove Mitchell to the airport.

They did not speak during the drive. Mitchell looked out the window, half-interested. Before the Revolution, he believed that this was not his country. The years since were a delusion; this place remains not his country.

Now he no longer cared.

Mitchell preferred the western coast of Australia for his exile, but this country would do. He admitted he honestly liked this small city on the shore from the plane turned toward the airport, and he looked out the window. Antanzia for decades was used as a secret NATO military base and had the dubious distinction of having been abandoned because of an embarrassing incident regarding South Atlantic nuclear testing, a loyal ally, and three sketchy nations the Antanzians hosted without informing NATO.

The ensuing scandal led to the abandonment, yet the city served as a listening post for various intelligence agencies and, after the Revolution, the country became an ally.

Antanzia was relatively isolated and friendly enough for Mitchell to be safely inserted into its midst. However, once the plane touched down at the international airport, Mitchell was already familiar enough with the surrounding area’s geography that he might as well have been deposited on an asteroid. Antanzia hugged the South Atlantic like a needy child, but beyond the suburbs was one highway out, leading across the tundra-like pampas and the sandy desert to the capital city. Therefore, Mitchell was nowhere but alive.

When Mitchell was a teenager in the mid-1970s, the local public television station broadcast a British series called The Prisoner. He and his mother loved that program, though for Mitchell liking the show was more about impressing his classmates in junior high school than paying attention to the message behind the plot. Nevertheless, Mitchell thought about the show while being driven from the airport to the sandy peninsula where most Antanzia was built.

The show’s idea was about a spy who resigned from his position, was drugged, kidnapped, and taken to an isolated seashore resort serving as a prison. The authorities give him a number for an identity, and all the plots revolve around various tropes and caprices designed to get the prisoner to reveal why he resigned. Mitchell considered the idea remarkably silly; now, he was no longer sure.

However, in this foreign shore of exile, Mitchell was no number and free to answer questions from the proper people in power. Mitchell’s only threat was he wrote a series of pseudonymous editorials published outside the country. His identity was discovered in the international press, thus embarrassing the State President, Glorious Leader, and best friend. Of course, it is never a good idea to piss off your best friend, but in a way, it is better than ending up dead if the friend was but a passing acquaintance.

The hotel was suitable, luxurious by Revolution standards, and designed in the 1960s. Stucco flipped over a tin box, two stories in staggering blue and fading red on the southern end of the beach boulevard, in a more or less middle-class tourist district of Antanzia. The name was very old American—The Blue Diamond—and the cactus outside reminded him of the desert. The driver chattered away in heavily accented English, his origin not local. Mitchell guessed Middle Eastern.

Mitchell assumed he was an informer. He knew he would be watched and understood this was the way things would be for the foreseeable future. Just buck up, Mitchell thought, and keep going. There was nothing he could do except try to relax.

The Blue Diamond was his temporary home until his arranged house was ready. Mitchell spied from the taxi window into the city and noticed this was the greenest part of the island. Hopefully, this new house would make for a comfortable exile, though, knowing he would be watched and the place packed with spying devices. Such is the price he was willing to pay.

But, of course, Mitchell was not totally relying on that being the case. Still, for now, all he wanted was hot water and someone to launder his clothes since he’d worn the same clothes for two days, enduring the long flight and various skip-stop layovers until finally arriving in Antanzia. The lag also got to him. After being shown his room and bagging up his clothes, leaving them outside to be washed, he took a long, hot, European-style bath. Lingering for three hours, occasionally running the seeming seemingly limitless hot water from the spigots, manipulating them with his toes.

He soaked in the tub, making an effort not to think. As there was no longer anything he could say, Mitchell added thoughtlessness to the pile. The knock on the door distracted him from his not thinking. He rose from the tub, wrapping a towel around his waist, and collected his clothes from the hotel laundryman.

He shaved, dressed, and asked for a taxi to the beach. He bought a pack of Dunhill Reds from the concession, putting it on his hotel tab. Then, he decided to reclaim his old vice and puffed away in the plaza outside the entrance until the taxi arrived.

The driver took a longer, more leisurely route, assuming he was a new visitor. Mitchell viewed the stucco and concrete blocks, all whitewashed or in tropical tones, flat, angled, a blank slate with window painted in. Finally, they arrived at the shore, and Mitchell paid him in Euros, the preferred currency in Antanzia; the envelope Alex handed him was stuffed with them. Change for a chump, Mitchell figured, as he recalled opening the envelope when waiting to disembark from his past.

He found a café and ordered a scotch neat, top shelf, moving his metal chair to face the sea. Lighting another cigarette and taking a slow sip from the glass, he deliberated on what he should do in the days to follow. His belongings will soon arrive at the small villa provided for him nearby, including his library. He would read. He would write poetry. Fiction. Draw doodles. Chain smoke Dunhill Reds. Get drunk on scotch.

Or Mitchell could stare unthinkingly toward the sea and the horizon. There, at that point, his world ended. Behind the city, there are mountains at the edge of the desert steppe. He would turn to stare at them, the sun and the clouds shifting to the moon and stars. Staring does not require thought, and thinking brought him to Antanzia. Perhaps if he did not think long enough, he would be brought back.

Leave a Reply