Editor’s note: I have to say, when I commissioned a story for our newsletter from Juan Martinez, I didn't think he'd go all-in on the giant-corporate-newsletter-from-the-future format, but I'm so glad he did.
~ Julian Yap, January 23, 2022.
A Subscribers-Only Sneak Peek into the Preliminary Report on the Conditions of the Camps
Not bad. Really. Seriously. Not bad, or at least definitely not as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Pretty okay conditions overall.
There’s been this narrative out there that FloriCorp and maybe all of Colombia has been obfuscating, that they—we—have been denying outside observers access into the perimeter, that we keep a shifting account of the number of deaths and disappearances, that anytime we’re asked to provide a straightforward answer to a simple question, we just go around in circles, that we’re negligent re: the high incidence of injuries, that all we care about is the bottom line, that now that we are wealthy, we’re just doing what the wealthy do. But if that were the case, why would I be writing this (preliminary) report? I mean, why would I even try to tell you of everything that’s going on with the color variation issues re: the Consumers?
I mean, sure, you’d likely say, Well, it’s not like they can hide it. But we’re not hiding it!
Here’s what we know: the Consumers’ thoraxes have always been a pleasant translucent yellow, which filters more sunlight than some environmental activists claim. So it’s been fine to have them up there, our extraterrestrial friends, hovering in the sky, their enormous feathered wings making their distinctive buzz. Yes, blocking the sun. Yes, also disrupting our weather patterns. Yes, radically altering the world economy with their constant demand for cut flowers. But: also affording our country a prosperity that was heretofore unknown.
And we do know that the color of the Consumers nearest the camps have, for reasons also unknown, darkened as of this week—that the Bogotá sky is more twilight-y than we’d like.
But their demand for flowers is still strong. The one particular Consumer (we call it “Mauricio”) whose carapace first grew opaque still eats every delivery of carnations with the same delightful gusto. So do the others around him. They still gracefully reoxygenate the thin, high air we all breathe. Life goes on up there.
So, too, down here: FloriCorp is curious as to the (slightly) darkening sky, and also as to the international community’s concerns re: the refugees, who have been working our crops for years. I’m also concerned, as the recently appointed cultural affairs attaché for the camp. Also, as the newsletter writer. Also, personally as a human: me, Mario Betancourt, a Colombian who is practically American since I spent so much time up there. We are not heartless.
We’re trying to figure out the Mauricio situation even as I’m dictating this, in the back of an armored Hyundai Santa Fe, as we wind our way down the makeshift camp roads that stretch from the perimeter deep into the valley—all those long, narrow roads whose names I couldn’t quite tell you, which is why Richard’s here.
Richard grew up here.
Richard is fifteen. His mom is one of the original refugees. We’ve known each other a few days. I’ve only just arrived six months ago from Virginia, (practically) near his mother’s original birthplace, and I tell him that my wife is an American, that my children grew up within the gleaming walled compounds of the Research Triangle, and that I am a huge fan of America’s tremendous cultural legacy, particularly Steely Dan. He tells me he doesn’t know them, so I make the Hyundai play “Deacon Blues,” then the rest of Aja. He says it’s fine, he likes the part about the saxophone, about dying behind the wheel. I tell him how much I love driving in America, how much I loved the idea of hiking in America. That once, with an armed escort, we hiked the New Outer Banks. That people only tried to kidnap us three times, and it was the last nearly successful attempt that prompted my wife (Samantha) to urge me to accept this particular consulting gig in my home country. She was sick of the States, she said, with its rampant crime and instability and how all our children’s friends were either the children of rich South American assholes strip-mining what was left of the country or the same wealthy American families who did fine no matter what. I told her that I’d miss what remained of the highways and franchises, that I’d always cherish her country’s rich heritage. She said fuck the heritage, she was ready to live in a neighborhood that didn’t have walls and guards around it.
“But there are walls here,” Richard says, pointing at the perimeter through our thick windows. We bounce deeper into the camp.
“But not in the real neighborhoods,” I tell him. I do this parabolic motion, this kind of basketball swoosh. I say, “Out there, beyond those walls, there are no walls. So my wife’s right. There are no walls if you don’t count these walls.”
“Oh,” he says.
“Yeah, it’s nice,” I say. “I’ll show you.”
I pull out my phone and show him a photo of our neighborhood, with its two Crepes & Waffles, its Montessori schools, its skating teenagers, its plaza with pigeons and our two children eating ice cream, its gleaming condos.
“We’ve been here a few months,” I say. “It’s really nice.”
“Oh,” he says again. The truck hits a pothole and we bump our heads against the Hyundai’s reinforced sunroof. From the turret there’s a spray of gunfire, but I can’t tell if that was just an oopsie because of the pothole or a response to an actual threat.
That’s when the humming subsides, briefly, a shift in the enormous pressure of the Consumers hovering above us. It’s like a coming storm.
The earth trembles. A shadow darkens our dark sky. We look up through the sunroof.
We feel his descent, the air troubling the comfort of our vehicle. The Consumers are long, their wings comically birdlike, and I’ve never seen them this close. Mauricio’s long thorax contracts as it falls. Terror, surely. The poor thing tries to make itself small as it grows big in our line of sight. The wings are still moving, but there’s no lift. At first it doesn’t feel like it’s going to make much of an impact. The Consumers are enormous insects, but insects are light, yes? Even when they’re as big as a city block?
We feel the crash in our bones. I’ve felt bombs—far-off IEDs from disgruntled Americans in the Carolinas. This is worse.
Mauricio’s legs crack open and the mandibles stop their incessant motion. For the first time in nearly three decades, this one particular Consumer has stopped eating the flowers FloriCorp delivered, day in and day out.
“We all love Mauricio,” I tell Richard. “Mauricio’s in our brochures, our website, our work-camp app.”
“He just crushed a whole block.”
It’s true. That’s where we’re heading: it’s a whole block plus half of another block, from what I can see through the smoke and the panic and the fire.
Richard says, “The bug crushed the Cheesecake Factory.”
That’s what the refugees like to call this part of the camp, because of all the beige sheeting used for the shelters. There’s awful moaning coming from the site. I call my supervisors, but there’s no need. Help is already on the way, they say, but we’re closer, we’re only three blocks away.
We go as fast as the Hyundai allows, as fast as these sad roads let us.
Through the windows: smoke and shelter on top of improvised shelter. A store here and there. Everything strung with reclaimed fibers and poles and improvised antennae.
Mauricio’s legs look like antennae, and at first I think there’s some kind of religious ceremony going on, all the migrants gathered around the fallen bug, all the improvised fires. What Americans call a “tent revival.” Then I see what they’re doing.
“I wonder why they’re going for the legs,” I say. “You’d think the abdomen.”
“We’re nearly there,” Richard says.
“You’d get more calories from the juices in the abdomen,” I say.
“You can’t go straight,” Richard says. “We have to turn and circle around.”
“I guess the thorax would be harder to barbecue.”
The Hyundai crawls around roads so narrow and cramped, you could reach through the translucent vinyl sheeting and into people’s homes. They say the camp’s sanitary conditions are appalling, but they could be worse. There are mattresses strewn about. We have provided practically every shelter with working flat-screens and one working channel. At first it was a cultural introduction, an English-language primer on Colombian culture, but I was able to convince the higher-ups that this was more upsetting than helpful—it wasn’t like they’d leave the perimeter and join us in the real Bogotá. Now we broadcast the newly remastered entirety of the HGTV archive. If you’re going to have one channel, you might as well go for the most soothing. I’ll even tune in from home. Everyone loves Love It or List It.
The premise of that show is why these refugees left, basically: you can love your country even if it’s a mess, if it’s a fixer-upper past any possibility of fixing up, but sometimes you have to go. You list it. But that’s also why it’s so hard to leave, to make the hard journey across the Appalachians, down the dry basin of the Colorado River, through the mines and drones of the great desert, through Mexico and around the aggressive borders of Belize, Costa Rica, Panama. Down the nightmare that is the Darién Gap. All the way here. To where the Consumers cluster most heavily above us. It’s hard to leave because it was so nice there, once. Also, because you can die trying, because you do so often die. But also, who wants to leave home?
That’s what the children are watching as we park: a show about their old home, unrecognizable in its beauty and prosperity. The children huddle in the same shelter, all of it made of smudged translucent sheeting, some fifteen toddlers and big boys and girls transfixed as Love It or List It’s Hilary makes a face at a basement that has let her down.
An eight-year-old keeps watch. She holds a baseball bat, guards the entrance flap. She gives me the stink eye.
There should be an adult here, but the adults are at the barbecue.
“They’ll be fine,” Richard says. “Let’s see what’s going on with your friend Mauricio.”
But there’s nothing to be said or done for Mauricio. Mauricio’s current state is dinner.
You’d think your first impulse would be to help people. It’s sad, how all these grown men and women have nothing in their minds except their stomachs. They’re not trying to help anyone who might still be alive. They’re not even minding that their camp, their actual and unfortunately super-flammable home, is going up in flames. They’re just eating.
Which, okay, Mauricio smells delicious—meaty, rich, sweet.
“We used to eat ants,” I tell Richard. “It’s not a big thing in Colombia, but it’s big in this little part of Colombia where my mom was born. Hormigas culonas. You fry them up.”
Richard says he’s eaten a few small bugs. Some crickets, some roaches. Everyone at camp has.
“So you know,” I say. “They’re not bad.”
The sirens are still faint. The drones ask people to clear the area, to leave Mauricio alone, but no one’s listening.
“You should try it,” Richard says. “You should absolutely try Mauricio.”
There is this natural hesitancy. Like, I even stop this dictation. I tell the Hyundai to stop recording. You don’t want to eat the folk responsible for your country’s wealth. It feels honestly a little gross, even if the meat looks mostly fine, the dark of the carapace giving way to tissue that gives off this orange glow. My fingers dig into Mauricio’s soft, delicious-looking flesh. Our two guards—our security contingent—have shot off a few rounds into the air, to clear the crowd. I feel for Richard, for the people here. Imagine feeling overjoyed by this calamity. Imagine your life being so awful that you see a troubling incident and mistake it for a gift from the heavens. Imagine the hunger involved.
So. Again. Not bad, the camp conditions. We’ve done our best to feed the refugees, but there’s much to be said for American know-how—for people finding a way, even in the most abject of circumstances.
Poor children. I’m thinking of my own two kids, their completely fine lives in what is (pretty much) the exact same patch of land. Only: no improvised flimsy shelters or smoldering smoke or hunger or 24/7 HGTV or dead Mauricios.
My parents had this memory of Bogotá: you flew into the capital and landed in the El Dorado Airport, and even before the Consumers arrived, half la Sabana was covered in translucent plastic greenhouses. You saw nothing but flowers in every direction. They shipped them everywhere. Mostly they shipped them north, before the world realigned. Colombia’s good fortune was just sheer dumb luck, the weird luck of having exactly what someone needed when everyone else did not.
“Let’s get the kids,” I tell Richard. “Now that we’ve cleared the grown-ups. Let’s get them so they can have a little.”
“You first,” Richard says. “Eat. You deserve to. It doesn’t seem fair that everyone tried Mauricio and you didn’t.”
I want to. I’m holding a piece of one of our first Consumers. Richard’s waiting for me to eat. He’s thin, as thin as everyone else here. Hungry, too. Mauricio could feed the whole camp for days. It’d be a blessing, on the one hand, for FloriCorp’s budget woes. Our security contingent now has their hands inside Mauricio.
“Long ago,” I tell Richard, “long before we were born, Americans competed for a brand-new car. It was this whole thing. They’d put their hands on the car, and whoever kept it there the longest won the car. People would pass out. It’d be days and days. All for a car. And before that there’d be a dance contest where you’d just dance and dance and dance. The last couple on the dance floor would win. People would pass out there, too. People would die.”
“Oh,” Richard says.
Now it’s just the two people with the guns eating. The two Colombians responsible for our security.
“Yeah,” I say. “I think the prize was dinner.”
The children have found us. The eight-year-old leads the way, baseball bat held high. The security detail point their guns at the little group, but it’s just children—all of them too thin, holding one another’s hands, trying to make their way to the food. I tell the guards to put the guns down, to let the children get near, there’s enough Mauricio for everyone. The guards don’t, not at first, not until I tell them again, not till I remind them we’re on video, that I’m going to ask the drones to capture this whole moment in slow motion: the FloriCorp guards making way for these pale kids.
I explain, “This is how we show we care. By feeding them. By letting them eat.”
The guards finally get it. That’s what I want to stress here: I know these two, sort of. They’re family men, with children of their own. There’s some compassion here.
“Make sure you’re smiling,” I tell them. “This is for the preliminary report. We’re live. I’m recording us.”
The children run to the meal, the girl with the baseball bat picking up one of the smaller, sadder toddlers who can’t quite navigate the debris—the smoldering sheeting, the discarded boxes of carnations.
Richard smacks the girl’s bat-free hand. She’s trying to get him with the bat now, and he’s dodging, but she’s pretty brutal and fast, and there’s a sound you don’t want to hear when the bat comes into contact with Richard’s knee. The guards aren’t helping. They’re still smiling. Richard’s telling the girl not to. To please don’t. And the girl’s not even listening, because she’s about to swing again when I grab the top of the bat.
Richard’s still saying no. It’s not about getting attacked, his nos.
It’s about Mauricio.
Don’t eat Mauricio is what he’s been trying to tell these children. Not what he was trying to tell me or the guards or even the adult refugees.
Richard’s not moving. He’s on the ground, on his good knee, moaning.
“You poisoned a Consumer,” I say. I’m holding the children back, which is much easier now that I’ve got the older girl’s bat. I’m just making this big moving wall with my arms, keeping them at bay. “You and who else? Why? And why Mauricio, why the first bug?”
Richard’s not talking. He’s on the ground laughing.
That’s when the first of the guards falls. He doesn’t even moan. He just vomits, and he’s not vomiting Mauricio. What comes out is bloody and copious and organ-looking. The other guard joins him.
The children shrink back.
“Dude,” I tell Richard. “Dude. Why? We gave you work. We gave your family a life. We didn’t ask you to come here.” I might as well be talking to Mauricio. Richard’s not saying anything. “Dude, I played Steely Dan for you.” Richard’s on the ground, looking evil. Hateful. “You said you liked the part about the saxophone.”
Richard gets up, slowly. The girl—an American, camp-born, like him—is still snarling, even though he technically saved her life. I mean, endangered her life first, yes, with the whole poisoning thing. But then saved. Richard’s all teeth now. Just awful. This awful, mean, desperate face.
“Why would you go after Mauricio?” I say again. “What did it ever do to you?”
“Why do you think it’s just Mauricio?” he says.
They’re not falling, the other Consumers, but they’re about to.
Up there, the early signs: the dark thorax, the skips in the wing hums, the odd variations in sound that might indicate distress. The air feels different. Acrid. Foul. Thick. Richard and Lord knows who else poisoned the flowers, and our friends up there kept eating them and eating them and now it’s all happening, it’s all about to happen. I mean, it can’t happen, it’s hard to imagine a disaster of this scale happening, but here we are, with two dead guards and who knows how many dead refugees and one evil laughing Richard and all these children, these angry children still trying to get at a poisoned meal, even though Richard and I are both telling them not to.
“I’ve got energy bars,” I say. “In the Hyundai. Come.”
That’s when the second enormous Consumer begins its descent. The sky grows lighter: another hole punched through. Whatever. It’s not like Bogotá’s sky was that pretty to begin with. It’s not like we’re going from darkness into light. The sky is still gray. Bogotá is cloudy no matter what.
Also, yes, we’re running. And I’m running and doing my best to keep talking, to keep the newsletter going. All of us who can run are running. I pack the children into the Hyundai. I hand the energy bar to the girl in the hopes that she’ll stop snarling at me, but she snarls away even as she tears the bar into little pieces and distributes it to her brood, even as I yell at the driver to get us out, to find a way out, even as we brace for impact. Even as we leave Richard on the ground, laughing, and even as we feel the air change around us and I think, No way. No way we’re making it out alive. Because now they’re all falling, all of our Consumers, the sky is all insect groans, all around us. They’ll fall, they’ll die. We’ll die too.
* * *
This is my And-I-alone-survived-to-tell-thee moment, newsletter subscriber. This is where I tell you that I made it, that some children and a driver whose name I’m not 100 % on and I made it out alive, but we’re still driving, that we’ve been driving awhile, that enormous bugs keep falling out of the sky, that they keep crushing blocks of the camp, and that whatever poison they ingested radiated from that awful core out into the perimeter. So the bugs will fall on the rest of Bogotá, the rest of Colombia.
Soon, I suppose, they’ll fall elsewhere.
I’ve given the driver my address.
We’re off to find my family, to drive them far from here, to rescue them from this calamity and find refuge somewhere, anywhere, and these American children are coming with, I suppose. That’s what I imagine I’ll have to tell Samantha, what I’ll have to tell my kids.
We’re responsible for them now, I’ll say.
They’re children just like you are, I’ll say, even if that’s a lie. They’ve seen things we haven’t. They’ve lived lives we would never want to live. They’re nothing like us, no matter what I say to my own children, they’re nothing like us at all.
Thank you for being part of The Sunday Morning Transport journey this week.
Juan Martinez lives and writes in the Chicago area. He is the author of Best Worst American, a story collection published by Small Beer Press.
“A Subscribers-Only Sneak Peek into the Preliminary Report on the Conditions of the Camps” © Juan Martinez, 2022.
My favorite line: “Out there, beyond those walls, there are no walls. So my wife’s right. There are no walls if you don’t count these walls.”
Thank you so much for this story, Juan!