Michael woke to the sound of the phone. He remained still in bed until the ringing stopped before reaching for a cigarette. He lit it and inhaled, which caused a pleasurable burning sensation in his throat. He knew the pain was intensified by staying awake with four nameless others until all hours of the morning discussing with vehemence the administration’s latest stand on Persia. The conversation went along the same predictable, sing-song mantra, academia lines that hundreds, if not thousands of discussions Michael had involved himself in over the years.
Snippets and sentences of tired platform statements rolled in his mind as he studied the room, eyes settling on the bookcase beside the bed.
“We the educators, students, and artists of the nation need to have our voices heard,” a nameless professor of art history said. Others urged a petition drive to protest the administration.
We, 1984, Brave New World.
“This can’t be our reaction,” Michael said to the professor and to the others. “All we’re going to do is sign a petition in response to an act of international aggression?”
“Yes, that is exactly what we are going to do,” The professor responded with vigor. “Fill the mailbox of your local elected representatives until we are heard. That is democracy in action.”
Michael sighed as the others agreed, the very memory of their weakness causing him to close his eyes. He opened them again, seeing a picture of Malcolm X on the bookshelf. Below the photo were more books: The Possessed, Fathers and Sons, and One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich.
We don't need a petition, he said to himself, crushing the cigarette against the ashtray. He rolled out of bed and threw a bathrobe over his shoulders. Turning on the television, he sat in the easy chair next to the bed, running ragged fingernails over the worn brown cloth of the chair’s arm.
The news drawled on, the hate of the new day much like the one before it and the day the previous week he first heart of possible operations against Persia. He glanced up at the world map hanging above the television. “Between which two countries does one find Persia?” He asked, his voice cracking with cigarette strain and hollow mirth.
“Tic, tac, toe.”
He turned off the television and left the bedroom, ready to begin his morning routine. He started the coffee, measured the previous evening before turning in for bed. Opening the front door, he picked up the morning paper from the top step and brought the mail inside to the kitchen table.
“Death, taxes and war. The usual.”
He poured coffee and began flipping through the mail, tossing aside official looking envelopes.
“Bill, bill, bill, junk, junk, and more junk.”
Two pieces of mail demanded attention; a letter from a writer Michael knew and a plain envelope, lacking stamp or address marked only with the word attention. He pushed that aside for the moment and opened the first.
Michael, I have not heart from you in some time. How goes the battle? Has there been any progress on your novel? I speak of your novel of revolution and not the romance rubbish you had planned. I fear you may lose heart if you isolate yourself, so please write or come to the city for a weekend. Edgardo
Michael lit another cigarette, leaving the letter open on the table before him. Had he made progress on his novel? He hadn’t made progress in months, the last entry in the manuscript reading like a helpless plea.
“What can I do to stop the train of current events? I am merely one ant in a sea of billions.”
He shook his head, as if to dispel the thought and took up the envelope marked, Attention. He opened it and removed a single sheet of paper, which contained four typed lines.
Inaction ends today. The revolution begins today at ______ building. Meet in the back room.
Nothing was printed on the reverse side, no name or contact numbers. He knew the building referred to in the note, an abandoned warehouse outside the jewelry district, approximately a mile from downtown and less than two miles from his apartment. Checking the time, knew he could make the appointed time if he left immediately. He ran his fingers over the letter and took one final sip of coffee.
“What can this be about?” He entered the bedroom, changing into jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt. “I might as well see who sent me this memo.”
With haste, he grabbed a jacket and cigarettes and stepped into a rainy early spring afternoon. He walked quickly, not giving notice to his surroundings or even to the traffic passing him. In less than twenty minutes, he reached his destination, standing across the street from the warehouse.
He observed no movement of any kind, save for a bit of trash which blew about in the light spring wind. The paper stopped at his feet and he picked it up off the ground. It was identical in every respect to the note he received in the mail that morning. He crumpled the paper, dropped it to the ground, and crossed the street to reach the warehouse.
Faded brick greeted him, cracked in places, holes large enough to see through in others. The building stared back at him in silence, a shouting stillness that unnerved him, bringing sweat on his temples. He reached for the door, a giant of peeling fire engine red and turned the knob. With a show of intended boldness, he pulled the door open and stepped quickly into the darkness.
He guided himself along the wall, the dirt and grit of years falling from the wallpaper. He followed a dim light through a doorway into a wide open space.
“Hello.” He heard a voice.
He froze, his knees threatening to fail below him, the sinking sensation in his stomach nearly causing him to vomit. He spun round to find a man in the archway to a side room, chewing on a cigar.
“The others thought you wouldn’t come,” the man said, his voice a cold steel monotone, which Michael felt deep inside his chest.
Michael tried to swallow, but his throat failed him. The man walked towards him, bringing into focus his features. He was a tall, bald man of sturdy build wearing a long brown overcoat. Michael didn’t recognize his face or his voice.
“I told them Michael. I knew.”
He lit the cigar and stood for some moments in silence, puffing, keeping his eyes on Michael. Michael became aware, slowly, with dawning knowledge, of the presence of others, lurking in the quiet and shadows, watching him.
“What is your name?” Michael managed to ask, his throat dry and cracked from cigarettes, which made speaking painful.
“You’ll never know.” Michael could see the weapon in his hand, glinting glow red with each puff of the cigar.
“What of the note?” He asked to fulfill a final curiosity.
“It is not a deception. It tells you all you need to know. You are, after all, the writer my friend.”
Michael felt the anger rising useless and red from his stomach, bringing bile to his throat.
“I’m not your friend, Nazi.” He said spitting his words with all the contempt and hate he could muster.
The man laughed and the other faceless, hidden men joined the cold, steely mirth, laughing with empty identical guttural sounds, a vocal applause.
“A Nazi?” Hardly, my friend. I am an American. I am here to protect my country, which I love with all my heart,” he said, no emotion to be heard in his voice.
“Liar.” Michael said.
“I am an American!” The man roared, the sudden violence in his voice making Michael jump back in shock.
The man came closer, within arm’s reach, and pressed the weapon into Michael’s ribs. Michael saw the empty cold hate inside pale gray eyes, which bore into his own with an energy that made him lose all hope.
He pushed Michael in the direction of the stairs at the end of the room, following closely behind and pressing the gun into his back. The man grabbed his shoulder and stopped him at the top of the stairs, reaching past him and turning on the light with the pull of a hidden cord. Michael saw the bodies piled upon each other at the bottom, arms crossed with legs, all bathed in blood red and the stench of death.
He exhaled a moment before a flash of pain exploded in the back of his head. Michael fell and fell, his scream extinguished as he landed in the mass of bodies at the bottom of the stairs.