Off Grid

As she stared at the ocean, Selene wondered if anyone had noticed the moment it became almost impossible to go off grid. Had anyone stopped and frowned when the last security camera wove into the cell phones that pinged off the delivery drones as they took their orders from the web of satellites silently orbiting the Earth? Could they ping her location now, triangulate the chill of the waves lapping over her toes?

Thinking back, Selene thought that Rico might have been the first to pay attention. But perhaps not. She had been aware from the time she was very young that she did not understand things as well as many other people. DeeAnn, her older sister, had pointed it out often enough. Her very successful husband fully agreed.

Maybe that was what had attracted her to Rico. While other men whispered age-old nonsense to her, Rico talked restlessly about the evils of the social order, the loss of freedom that technology had brought about. She remembered sitting on a picnic blanket, watching ants while he explained it all. The ants hurried on in solitary determination, but they gently touched antennae and then dashed about their tasks for the good of the entire ant civilization.

As Rico talked about government conspiracy, Selene remembered a fragment of a poem read in high school, “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd. If anything was wrong we should certainly have heard.”

“Do you think the ants feel free?” she asked Rico.

“Don’t be stupider than you have to be,” he snapped.

As he told her more about why government needed to be destroyed, she watched the ants.

When they got married, Selene hoped Rico would forget his growing rage at society. DeeAnn told her bluntly the guy was crazy and dangerous. Selene pushed down her vague fear that her sister was right. But what could she do? And with a baby on the way, surely even an obsessive computer geek would abandon all that stuff he hunted down and wrote about on the internet.
While she was in hospital, someone broke into their studio apartment. Rico went berserk, stomping and shouting that the government was closing in on him.

Selene sank into a chair and cried most about the photo album tossed on the floor – the torn apart memories…photos of her and DeeAnn sticky with ice cream…their first day of school…the cottage on the ocean where the waves sometimes rose so high anyone could be swept out to sea...

“My computer!” Rico screamed. “They hacked me! They’re stealing my soul!”

“But they didn’t take your computer,” Selene mumbled.

She held baby Tia tight against her while, still shrieking rage, Rico tore the machine off its cables. With animal grunts, he heaved it through the window. Glass shattered; people shouted from the sidewalk; Selene cried and pulled Tia closer. The baby howled. While Selene huddled in bed, Rico tore the apartment apart until nothing of their home remained.

Then he left.

Shattered, Selene stayed in a cocoon of blankets until the primal needs of the baby superseded her own anguish. Ants had climbed up the wall and through the broken window, and were ringing a pool of spilled juice as devotedly as religious converts. Selene found some crackers that were mostly untouched and chewed the dry stuff. No food for her meant no milk for the baby.

She looked after all their needs somehow. Rico would not return to her – and she was relieved. These last few weeks, his anger against society had vacillated between violent rages and stony cold anger. Selene wondered why she had thought she loved him.

But she needed groceries. And a broom. She carried Tia to the corner store and slid her card into the ATM. The machine kept the card, flashed some words about customer service, and gave back nothing. She stared at it as though it was a beast waiting to pounce.

Tia squirmed against her. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” Selene murmured.

Mr. Patel watched uneasily from the counter.

“My card isn’t working,” she told him. “I don’t know…”

He handed her a paper sack. “Shop,” he said. “I know you, Selene. You smile. You are kind. You tried to save your crazy husband. Now shop in my store and we will settle later.”

Eyes brimming, Selene tried to hug him, missed, and they both laughed. She chose groceries carefully, food that would keep because if she had no money, the electricity would be turned off. She was about to leave with another round of thanks, when Mr. Patel gestured her to stop.

“Wait,” he said. “Those people are going into your apartment again.”

“Again?” Selene stared as a man and woman inserted a key into her door and walked in. A minute or two later, they came back out and looked around.

“Those two did the same while you were away having the baby,” Mr. Patel said. “My wife said they must be relatives, friends. But me, I don’t think they look like friends.”

“They aren’t friends,” Selene said. “I don’t know who they are.” The baby began to cry, and the heads of the non-friends whipped in her direction.

Before she could move, another man and a woman stood on either side of her. Mr. Patel shrank backwards.

“Hi, Selene,” the woman said. “We need to talk with you. This way.”

They took her in a car to a cold building where the offices had blank doors. They asked about Rico, about his friends, about his plans.

“Rico doesn’t have friends.” Selene tried to stop the quaver in her voice. “I need to go home. Maybe at work. He works at Big Buy in their computer section.”

“That’s what he told you, did he?” the man said. “Are you that stupid? Your husband is up to his dirty eyeballs in terrorist activities. What is your part in this?”

The questions lasted a long time, and then they let her go home. They even drove her – and they replaced her ATM card.

In her shattered home, Selene fed the baby and stared at the card laid out squarely on the sheet in front of her. Fragments of the one-sided conversations with Rico drifted back. She could be tracked…through her phone…her cards…traffic cameras…computers…banks…

They could always find her.

As the hours passed and she stared at the wall, Selene thought that perhaps she had simply been casually stupid. She was not fit for society because she had not understood…had not cared. DeeAnn had warned her about Rico…Rico had warned her about the government…the government had done…what?

While Tia slept, Selene cleaned up the apartment. She wondered if she should search it for bugs, and giggled hysterically thinking that she was surrounded by ants and surveillance.

“Surreal,” she murmured. Whose job was it to listen to her words? Or was it like Rico said, everything recorded and scanned by a computer. In panic she wondered if they could listen to her thoughts too.

“Don’t be stupid, Selene,” she ordered herself.

She went and stood over her sleeping child, swelling in the sudden clarity of love. She would raise her child not to be so stupid. Or maybe it would be better to raise her to be stupid like DeeAnn – full of intelligence but unaware of how her life was manipulated. That was better than brilliant and tortured like Rico. He had said they had to escape, go off grid. But how?

She slowly turned, looking at the walls of her apartment. Were they bugged like a spy movie? Was she too damned simplistic to realize that there were a thousand ways they could find, watch, listen?

Rico came back that night. He came in stealthily and Selene laughed, thinking how naive he was. Now, even she knew they were watching.

“What did you tell them?” he demanded, leaning too close.

She pushed him away. “Nothing. I don’t know anything.”

He chewed his lip. “You must know things. We lived together. I know you were watching the screen over my shoulder while I worked. Did you tell them?” His voice rose and he pushed her against the wall, his hand flashing a knife. “I’ll slit your throat, if you tell them anything.” Tia wailed and his eyes slid to the baby. “And your bastard’s throat, too.”

“I…I….” She couldn’t make words.

Rico’s shoulders drooped suddenly and he stepped back. “Don’t tell them anything, Selene.”

He left the way he had come. She sat on the bed, rocking herself, and then she rocked Tia. She thought about the ants that looked happy as they hustled about living and dying in the hive mind. Somehow her own mind had been torn from the social nest. Had she been born with an insidious social deformity that separated her from people? DeeAnn had tried to warn her she was too trusting. Rico’s mental deformity had torn her all the way away. When someone was driven from the hive, could she be forgiven and taken back?

How much had she never realized? What would her stupidity cost her daughter?

She had started to thumb DeeAnn’s number into the phone, when they walked in. They took her. There was no politeness this time. Tia wailed as the woman picked her up.

Selene screamed, but no one cared.

Questions, and questions. She had no answers no matter how hard she tried. She begged them to bring back her baby. They looked at her with cold, cold eyes and told her that they had heard Rico threaten Tia, that she herself was suspect in a terrorist cell.

That they would keep the baby safe…away from her.

They dumped her back at the apartment. Bait for Rico. She knew they would never let her see Tia again. But somehow, she had to save her baby. Off grid.

Selene called DeeAnn. “You were right,” she whispered. “About everything. When they can’t use her against me any more, don’t let her grow up stupid like me. Love you…”

She hung up, while DeeAnn screamed her name in the phone.

The ATM card did work. She laughed a little thinking how they would be trying to second-guess how her actions would lead them to more terrorists. Selene chose a comfortable rental and began driving backwards through her memories. Paused at the house where she grew up. Cruised past the school. Bought a chocolate ripple cone at an ice cream parlor. Watched kids running and shrieking in a playground.

She nearly lost it when she realized she would never watch Tia playing.

At last she stood on the beach, smelling the salt tang, listening to the endless waves. The sound carried echoes of hers and DeeAnn’s childhood laughter from a thousand years before.

All done. It was time.

Dropping her cell phone and the remains of the cone in the sand, she waded into the surf. The shock of cold took her breath away, but she waded farther and began swimming. With a bubble of laughter Selene realized that in the depths of the ocean, there was no grid.

On the beach, the phone rang and rang. The ants found the remains of the cone and carried it back to their nest.