Week 53

Mila quickly averted her eyes and began peeling a potato when she realized the staring man was shuffling toward her.

After an agonizing length of time, the shuffling stopped. Mila could hear slow, rasping breaths above her head; it was quite disturbing.

She continued fumbling with the spud, hoping the creep would shamble away, but “Odin pozhaluysta,” came the halting voice from above.

It sounded like a rock was crushing his chest. Mila suppressed a shudder before looking up: First, no recognition, but then it came.

The Commander! But changed. His clothes hung from his wasted frame, his skin was ashen, his eyes blank like a shark’s.

“Sir,” said Mila. She looked down again quickly, trying to regain her composure as she prepared a potato. What had happened to him?

But she was no novice agent; she pushed her shock and disgust down deep inside, refocusing on the task at hand.

When she looked back up, the Commander did not seem quite as repulsive as before. “Here you are,” she said, handing him a warm potato.

He paused for a moment, took one labored breath, then reached out his hand for the spud without taking his eyes off Mila.

Still staring at her, the Commander took another slow breath, blew on the potato to cool it, and began coughing uncontrollably.

Mila had not the slightest idea what was going on, yet felt the meeting was a success: At least she’d have new intel for the Green Mother.

Eventually, the Commander stopped his retching cough, straightened up, and stared at Mila again.

He brushed a fleck of spittle from the corner of his mouth without taking his eyes off her, and finally opened his mouth to speak.

“A-gent Mmm … Your mission … go smoothly?” “There’s a slowness to him,” thought Mila, “like he’s had a stroke or something.”

“Da, Commander,” she said. “Putin is quite confident these days. He expects Yeltsin to appoint him to an even more important position soon.”

The Commander’s pupils drifted away from Mila like jellyfish in the tide. “He’s … right. Will become … key adviser. … prestigious.”

Mila nodded. “I’ll do everything I can to help him.” She knew she was supposed to say this. The Commander’s mouth turned up slightly.

Now she decided to press her luck. “Commander, if there’s anything else I can do to help you, personally, do not hesitate to ask.”

The Commander simply stared and respirated. Finally, he refocused his eyes. “Bring … scarabs … lots of … them. Dead or alive. … Many.”

Mila looked puzzled. “Scarabs, sir?” The Commander’s face contorted into a ghoulish mask. “Dung … beetles,” he replied.

“Delicacy … Kim Jong-il gave me … years ago. I want. Dead bugs rolled … in dried shit … .” He looked into the distance and drooled.