SMOKE SIGNALS

On the day of the first fire, the faculty dean summoned me to his office, asked me point-blank if the rumors were true: that Coliseum was burning excess stock. I asked if I could take a seat and he refused, saying that if I needed a seat, I could order one online on Coliseum and have it delivered by drone to my husband’s company-assigned luxury condo in Long Island City.

“I haven’t heard anything,” I said, standing midway between his desk and the closed oak door. “Besides, wouldn’t they just return unsold stock to the publishers?”

He leaned forward in his chair. It was a nice chair, leather cracked like a coffee bean, squawked when he swiveled. Probably bought many years ago, before the existence of online shopping.

“There is a giant plume of smoke blowing eastward from the warehouse,” he replied. “You should ask your husband about it.”

“He’s not in operations. He’s a software engineer.”

“First they undercut book prices. Then they set up bricks-and-mortar locations to sell at those same prices. When that failed, they went back online. Next they set up their second headquarters in Queens. Now they’re sending a message to the entire publishing industry: that no one is buying print, and that it is cheaper for them to burn books than to dispose of them in the East River.”

“It would be cheaper to burn them than to be fined for dumping them in the river.”

He pointed at me with a swollen finger, as if anger was pooling in his extremities. “Ha! So, you admit it: you think e-books are making a comeback and that print books are garbage!”

“Didn’t you say in your lecture this morning that some books, particularly romance novels, are garbage? It’s blowing up on Twitter. You’re becoming a meme.” I pulled out my phone to show him, but he was making a shoo-ing gesture. “They’re recreating your novel covers in bodice-ripper style. It’s very clever.”

“Get out.” His voice had tired, no sting left. “But mark my words, you are dangerously close to becoming a traitor.”

⭐

For the rest of the day, the ads in my browser and on my social media apps were for garbage disposal units and romance e-books. I tried to explain the dean’s accusations to Kevin over dinner but his English was too limited to grasp the full context, and the translation app threw up a cartoon of a clown in a diamond-patterned costume.

“No, not that harlequin.” I enunciated carefully into my phone. “Romance!”

The app translated the word for romance into Kevin’s native tongue and showed a picture of a love heart. He nodded and laughed nervously, as he tended to do when he thought I was trying to seduce him on a work day.

I waved my hands. “No, no. Misunderstanding.”

“Oh, okay,” he said, cheeks flushing. “Translation wrong.”

Inside, we could not smell the smoke. Outside the air crackled, acrid with a metallic tang that sat in the back of your throat, as if someone had burnt toast and torched the toaster along with it. I kept thinking I’d draw the curtain to find a mountain of blackened crumbs, a scaffold of warped steel shimmering like tinsel.

⭐

Kevin is not Kevin’s real name. It was the name assigned to him by Coliseum’s immigration agent.

“So, here’s the deal,” the agent said to me in hushed tones at the second consultation. “We don’t want the feds to have any reason to look into you two. Whatever you do, don’t talk about ‘Kevin’ as a foreigner. Don’t reference his country of origin, his cultural heritage, the foods he might like, his native language—nothing. Homeland Security hears everything. He’s a New American, got it?”

I squirmed in my seat, having literally no room to move. The office was a hole-in-the-wall in the East Village. Google Maps still thought it was a ramen bar.

“Yes.” The government was cracking down big time on foreign workers, even skilled labor. “Although, what is ‘Kevin’ supposed to do about those, surely essential, parts of his identity?”

“Don’t worry about him. He’s had assimilation training. You’ll be glad to know he’s working on his conversational English. After all, he can’t exactly speak to you in code.”

“Pardon?”

“Computer code.”

The agent showed me a 3D rendering of the condominium on his tablet. I would live rent-free and have my student loans paid off if I signed on. I was a thirty-two-year-old struggling freelance copywriter and adjunct lecturer living in an L-shaped fraction of a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. An L with unpolished concrete as a floor and walls that were really curtains stolen from a children’s hospital. I had met Kevin once. He seemed sweet.

“I should probably double check,” I said to the agent, “that you’re not selling me into—”

“Kevin comes from a country that is, at best, awkwardly conservative. He’ll be too afraid to even hold your hand.” He tapped the tablet with his stylus. “Help us help you. Plus, you’ll receive a forty-percent Coliseum discount for life.”

“Seriously?” I snatched the stylus from him. “You should have led with that.”

⭐

On the morning of the second fire, the air quality was compromised in all five boroughs. It was reportedly smoky over the Hudson in New Jersey as well. Vehicular traffic crawled in the poor visibility. Closest to home, the Queensboro bridge was at a standstill, sending the public into the ailing subways.

The man seated next to me on the 7 train was rocking back and forth, his sanity fraying. I couldn’t blame him—we’d been stationary for at least thirty minutes in the Steinway Tunnel, although we could hardly confirm that in the darkness; there were that many people crammed in the aisle. The only movement: knees popping as legs buckled.

“This is what happens when you let the richest guy in the world buy into our city,” the man said, his voice strung out as if it were trying to reach Manhattan. “Why does a giant warehouse have a chimney? They burnin’ something in there, and it ain’t money.”

A middle-aged woman in red-rimmed glasses sat on my left. She held up her phone to show the suited men in front of us the last tweet from the NY Fire Department. She nudged me, and added, “Coliseum’s like Wonka’s factory. Nobody goes in and nobody goes out.”

I knew this wasn’t completely true. The company had made efforts to employ locals so as to dampen criticism of its tech-bro migration plan from Silicon Valley. Not everyone lived in the company compound, and family members like me did venture out.

Not that I was about to admit that right now.

“My boss thinks they’re burning books,” I said.

A student in a Columbia hoodie shook her head. “Nah. They’d be burning e-book readers. No one reads on those. I hear print sales are up.”

A disembodied voice spoke. “That land was for low-income housing.”

At some point the lack of fresh air made me dizzy. My vision blurred. We began rotating so that other passengers could sit down. When I stood, the seat’s plastic prickled with static. Useless friction.

⭐

That night, I wrote out the question using pen and paper and showed Kevin as he climbed into bed.

What are they burning?

He seemed to understand what I was asking. Placed a finger on his lips.

I tore up the paper. Coughed to cover the sound. Opened up my phone and played a video on YouTube of two service dogs chasing each other. The ad that played after was for cough drops.

I used to think browser cookies were called cookies because you’re essentially dropping crumbs like in Hansel & Gretel; leaving a trail so you can find your way back.

I still believe this fairytale explanation on some level, despite Kevin having half-explained about “magic-cookies” and UNIX. A definition is not a definition if you have to look it up.

⭐

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, the public forgave Coliseum for its environmental pollution of the city. Black Friday and Cyber Monday would bring massive savings, and Coliseum did not disappoint, starting as early as the Sunday before, offering new deals every fifteen minutes.

Drones delivered goods with amazing efficiency. They flew themselves, dispatching from the warehouse and zipping throughout the city, never colliding, never dropping a package. The mayor didn’t bother with his usual overtures about regulating air space and privacy. The EPA was silent. Elsewhere, the rest of the country complained about same-day shipping, saying they wanted the same-hour shipping that we enjoyed.

On the local news, I spotted the man from the 7 train in the Thanksgiving Day parade footage. He waved his arms at the camera, pointing to his sweater, which was emblazoned with IT’S A PLAGUE.

The camera cut away to a float: Coliseum’s logo inflated in three dimensions. The balloon swayed erratically, a bloated Leaning Tower of Pisa trying to shake off the strings that held it to Earth.

⭐

On the day of the third fire, classes were canceled due to the poor air quality. Once again buildings were singed by the burnt smell, inside and out. The faculty members who’d been able to make it in congregated in the lounge with a stack of newspapers and a cheesecake from Junior’s. Some wore doctor’s masks swiped from the university medical center.

I made my way over to the table where the dean’s PA had saved me a seat. She’d noticed my hobbling. “Should I ask?”

I was thankful for a chair. “The ‘hams’ situation has become unexpectedly lively. I don’t know the reason. I mean, I’m having a great time, but I’m exhausted.”

I had never known Kevin to be so frisky. He seemed apologetic in the way a college student was sorry for being interminably horny. I put it down to him not having had a college phase, at least not an American one, and maybe after two years of marriage he felt comfortable enough to ask rather than waiting for Saturday, which had been our standard. The sham marriage brief hadn’t encouraged relations; it hadn’t banned them either.

Putting these deliberations aside, I gobbled up my slice of cheesecake as I combed The Wall Street Journal. There was nothing unusual reported about Coliseum, just bumper sales figures and forecasts for what the CEO hoped would be a record-breaking holiday season.

There was, however, an odd two-line article contained in a small box, hidden in the depths of the newspaper like an Easter egg. No headline, no byline. Simply: This is America, where you can buy anything, even your privacy. You just need to know the right people in the right company and be willing to pay the price.

I looked up to share my discovery with my colleague, but a note on lined paper was being passed around. I recognized the dean’s handwriting.

Maybe they’re burning drones. AI these days is out of control.

⭐

I should’ve known something was off when the ads for hams didn’t appear like they usually did. “Hams” is my way of saying “sham” without actually saying it. An anagram. But somewhere along the line, tech had figured out that I didn’t really like ham that much, had neither purchased nor eaten it in years, not even at Christmas.

For a week before New Year’s, wherever I browsed online, all sponsored ads were for cheesecake, immigration lawyers, divorce lawyers, English lessons, or the Department of Homeland Security: Citizenship and Immigration Services tip line.

The federal government knew. I wasn’t sure how—maybe they could finally read our thoughts—but we were in trouble. I wrote frantic notes to Kevin as soon as he got home every night, and each time he would nod in understanding but without overt concern, leading me to cry silently with a hardcopy dictionary of his home language, hoping to find words that would press the gravity of the situation into his consciousness. He would wipe my tears and we would end up in the bedroom, and it all seemed like the end; how he was calm and primal at the same time.

I rode the subway when Kevin was at work. Underground where cell service couldn’t penetrate, not fully. I disabled wifi. At above-ground stations, I would stare at the carriage floor, fearful of the drones zipping past in new formations.

Then, on January 2nd, the targeted ads ceased completely. It was as if the internet had no data to mine, at least not on me. I wondered if this meant I would be eliminated today. Arrested and thrown into federal prison. Or worse, stripped of citizenship and made to work for the state as a stateless alien; that was how we’d afforded the border wall.

My phone pinged with an alert for compromised air quality. I kept the curtains closed and cowered in the living room, too afraid to answer my cell phone when the display read Kevin. It could be a lie. It could be the authorities.

When he came home during his lunch break with a smile on his face, I wondered if his identity was a lie. A set up. His overcoat was covered in ash particles, yet he did not appear to be frightened. Gently he touched my cheek and said something to me in his home language, a word I recognized as “freedom.” Then he went over, drew the curtain and opened the balcony door.

I cried out as the hot air from the fourth fire came rushing in, ash blowing into my eyes and onto my tongue, and that’s when I realized what he’d bought, and how he’d been able to do so. I spluttered: torched plastic and metal, crumbs itching my throat. Burnt cookies.

Kevin returned to my side and took my hand, soothing me with words only he understood.

.


Belinda Hermawan is a HR professional/lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in Pigeon Pages NYC, Flock, Split Lip Magazine, Westerly, Going Down Swinging, and Typishly. You can find her online at www.bd-writer.com or on Twitter @bd_writer