Am I Free to Go?
Am I Free to Go?
illustration by scott bakal

The line between utopia and dystopia...is, often, who you are. Or who your neighbors think you are.

Read “Am I Free to Go?”, a new original short story by Kathryn Cramer, the editor or co-editor of over two dozen science fiction and fantasy anthologies.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

 

I.

For most of my life I have allowed myself to think that jail is for other people. People I don’t need to think about. Drug dealers, career criminals, gang members, embezzlers, guys who don’t pay their child support. People getting what they deserve. But here I am. Again.

You want me to talk about utopia. Utopia here in the mountains. Utopia by the lake. Our utopia.

How I hacked the bio-monitoring system. How I took it over. The password to the artificial intelligence in the water treatment plant. Security holes. Intelligent agents. My keystroke loggers in the county equipment. My fascination with high-tech botany. All that. I’ll tell you, but it will take a while. But I guess we’ve got all night. It seems that I’m not going anywhere.

Who knew that the cops are all chipped like dogs? It’s a beautiful thing.

 

I know how this story begins. Here’s the sequence:

  • I was hauled out of bed by cops in the middle of the night.
  • I escaped out the side door with my kids.
  • We hid in the woods for hours.
  • We came back to the house eventually.
  • We hid in the basement.

Maybe I should be saying this with PowerPoint, projecting it all on the wall. Helvetica Bold.

  • I got arrested.
  • I spent the night in jail.

Understand that this story sits on the surface of my skin, lives on the backs of my arms, and some days, there are no words. It’s a jail-based utopia we live in.

 

The story starts in my bed. 11:30 p.m. A flashlight shining in my face. Police. What do the police want? Why are they in my bedroom?

Think fast. Don’t even consider using the W word — as in “do you have a warrant?” Respect authority if you want to come out of this alive.

I was asleep. This had never happened to me before. I handled it a lot better the next time.

 

Above the bed hangs a wedding kimono I bought in Tokyo, white with wide red borders embroidered with golden peacocks and red cherry blossoms. Henry’s got more shoes in the closet than I own, and there’s this whole suitcase of neckties . . .

OK. I get lost, following details down holes. I think you call it “avoidance.”

A friend of mine who is also a psychotherapist told me, “You need to stop thinking of this place as utopia. It’s not utopia. It’s a police state. The state troopers train here and they get to practice on us. Once they are competent to do their jobs, they get sent elsewhere.”

I’ll try again.

 

3:00 a.m. The police come in holding floodlights. The kids and I are back from our escape and are hiding in the basement, in my office, sleeping on gym mats and some of my quilts. The sheriff’s deputy—whose name I have repressed; let’s call him Officer Friendly—stands on the cement steps in my office diagonally across the room. Next to him is a plainclothes cop filming the scene with a great big video camera.

Somewhere there exists a videotape of my arrest.

Officer Friendly said, “Come over here so you don’t traumatize your children.”

 

I didn't move. I stared him down, saying, “That horse is already out of the barn.”

We had been hiding in the woods for hours, and they were hunting us with cars and floodlights, and, I later found out, police dogs. When it seemed like this would go on all night, I let us back into the house, entering through my office using the key I’d left outside . . .

I didn’t leave my kids. Not except in handcuffs. I knew when they found us that there was nothing more I could do.

 

Officer Friendly hauled me to my feet, telling me I was under arrest, and handcuffed me.

He never read me my rights. He wasn’t big on cop formalities.

That night, as the cops were hauling me barefoot out my front door in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms and handcuffs, without my purse, I said to them, “Please don’t let out the cat.”

(The cops who raid my house have this habit of leaving the front door standing wide open.)

A short cop on my porch said, “You really screwed up,” as I was being stuffed in the squad car.

 

Officer Friendly charged me with resisting arrest for flinching when he grabbed me so hard that he left fingerprint-shaped bruises on my arms.

 

His paperwork would later say that this scene took place in Ticonderoga. He was not good with facts. Facts do not play a big role in his world.

Details.

I hate that man.

 

II.

Here are some hard-won facts from time sheets it took me a long time to get. On August 16, Officer Friendly punched in at 11 a.m. He didn’t punch out again until 6 a.m. on August 17; he billed it as twenty hours, though it was actually a nineteen-hour shift. The day before that, he’d worked noon until midnight. And the day before that, his timesheet shows he worked a seventeen-hour shift.

His partner’s timesheet shows she worked eighteen and a half hours covering the night of my arrest, and that she worked thirty hours in the two days previous. I have the documentation. I can prove it.

 

What else is on the videotape? Dishes in the sink? Henry’s piles of science fiction novels? The cat box? Or maybe they have videos of the inside of my neighbor Frank’s house, which they searched three times in the middle of the night without a warrant.

Afterward, Frank bought himself this great T-shirt to commemorate that night; in all capital letters, it says “INNOCENT BYSTANDER.”

The DA dropped all three charges. The downside of the DA dropping all charges against me is that my morbid curiosity as to what data they collected will never be satisfied. Or hasn’t been yet, anyway.

I have lost a lot of sleep trying to think about this. In the middle of the night—Was it last night? How long have I been here?—I got out of bed to look at my photos from about one month after the first home invasion.

And there they were: Henry’s photos of my bruises. He took them a couple of days after, but for some reason I didn’t upload them to my account until a month later. I’d thought I’d lost them.

There are four, two of each arm with and without flash. Henry took them at the instructions of my lawyer after my first appearance in court. I am wearing a sleeveless white shirt with pink cherry blossoms.

Below my arm is a construction of Tinkertoys; in the background, a brass sculpture that resembles Jonathan Livingston Seagull that my son bought at a yard sale.

There is something about the way I am holding my arms—more like a martial arts posture than a victim displaying an injury.

There is nothing in these photos that expresses how Henry feels. They’re purely instrumental, depicting bruises to be shown in court as part of my criminal defense.

 

One is the photo I copied for the quilt I never made, entitled “Officer Friendly Leaves a Bad Impression on Mother.” I bought pink fabric for my skin and blue and purple fabric for my bruises . . .

 

How odd that I wanted to make all this about me.

The way here was gradual. The environmentalism behind the creation of this place was simultaneous with the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws. The white rural poor have been disenfranchised to make way for a protected wilderness where there are no jobs. And so the State built prisons in the woods and shipped in the black urban poor in order to create jobs.

Then the money ran out and in came the tax rebellions, and the tax caps. The county built the Public Safety Building with the idea of renting out cells to the state and to the Feds and to Immigration Services, but the market collapsed.

And so they all had to get a lot more flexible about how all those empty cells were filled. They began taking prisoners from other states; prisoners from other countries; corporate prisoners; corporate prisoners from other countries: men, women, and children from nowhere, incarcerated for no reason.

So here we sit, you and I.

 

My fantasy was that I would exhibit the quilt at the county fair a dozen yards from where Officer Friendly would be at the sheriff’s department booth, fingerprinting little children—to prepare them for later life. I wanted to take a picture.

 

Did you know that the State now keeps a database of the kids’ biometrics? The equipment package that cops use at fairs is billed on the manufacturer’s website as “an important new tool in combatting juvenile delinquency.” The kids come away from the booth with a helium balloon, a couple of sheriff’s department temporary tattoos, a spiffy looking ID card, and a chipped dog tag. 

 

The other day I found my photos of the escape route. I don’t remember taking them, but they exist. A day after the home invasion, I apparently walked the escape route with my camera.

 

I was arrested about three a.m. on the seventeenth. The long, leisurely process of getting me into a jail cell lasted most of the rest of the night. No one was in a hurry to allow me to get some sleep. So I spent most of the day of seventeenth sleeping off my misadventure.

 

They had me shower before my mug shot. But it confused them when I asked to comb my hair. Having me wash my hair before the photo was a deliberate tactic to make me look ridiculous. My wet hair was sticking out every which way; in the photo I probably look quite insane. I smiled for the mug shot.

 

I never did find out what they do about brushes and combs in that jail.

 

About 5:30 a.m., my captors gave me a bed. It may have been later, since Officer Friendly’s time sheet records him as punching out at six. It was cold in my cell, maybe sixty degrees, maybe colder, and the blanket they gave me was thin.

August 17 was the hottest day of the year! I looked it up.

 

The previous summer, without Henry’s permission, I brought home a friendly cat named Bro from the animal shelter. He’d lived in the shelter for a year and a half; he was a kitten who’d never been adopted because of his runny nose. I wasn't looking for a cat, but he charmed his way out of the cage. He’s a teddy bear of a cat with minky black fur.

 

The first night Henry and Bro spent under the same roof, Bro got up on our bed and went to sleep between my legs with one large paw stretched up my bare thigh.

 

In the morning, Henry insisted I find the overfamiliar cat another place to live.

 

I got a friend to take him, but the cat’s sneezing was disgusting, and her husband didn’t like him either, so eventually the cat, now renamed “Darth,” was once again ours. By crying a lot and locking myself in the bathroom, I persuaded Henry to let me keep the cat, who we then renamed “Ambrose.”

 

Our kids were still in the school in Westchester County, so we spent time in Westchester, even though I hated it there. We had new neighbors who’d bought an enormous house up the block. They built themselves an executive hen house. Raising chickens in our suburb is prohibited by the zoning. The wife, I’m told, trapped and rehomed the neighborhood cats because she wanted to have free-range chickens.  

 

Brosie disappeared. I was heartbroken. Never name a cat after Ambrose Bierce!

 

In mid-August, I got a cell phone call from a nervous man who wouldn’t identify himself. He had taken the cat to the vet. The vet had discovered that the cat was chipped and that the cat was mine. On August 14, we drove down to Westchester to retrieve the hot cat from our screened porch where the man had dumped him.

 

I don’t know why that guy believed he could remain anonymous. I took his phone number from caller ID and ran it by my databases, and had his home address, income bracket, mother’s maiden name, SAT scores, and how the traffic flowed on his commute.

 

When I told the cops not to let the cat out, I was afraid that if they did I’d never see Brosie again!

 

I remember the small rectangle, my cell window. The walls were thick, and so it was set deeply into the wall. As I settled down to go to sleep, the sky was pink, tinged with fuchsia, and strands of barbed wire were silhouetted against the sky. I could see in my mind’s eye the sunrise unfolding at home.

 

I imagined the water still as glass, still enough that even Camel’s Hump could be seen in reflection; a dark blue sky, intensely pink clouds, a few yellow spots; the sky growing pinker with a fierce yellow stripe along the horizon, and the pinkness fading until the sun rose over the horizon, making a wide stripe of orange across the lake to our shore. I imagined the buttery yellow light that would have enveloped us in our hiding place had we stayed hidden and not returned to the house. At dawn, the heron would be feeding in the brook, and shorebirds would be flying low, in formation, over still water.

 

As I huddled under the blanket and tried to get some sleep, I considered whether to get a divorce. Henry couldn’t reach me on the telephone and so had called the cops and had given them permission to go into the house to see if I was home. That is what had set this all in motion: Henry’s phone call.

 

I decided that—other than the fact that the cops had just come barging into my house in the middle of the night and hauled me out of bed, yelled at me and refused to leave, hunted me through the woods, roughed me up and arrested me, driven me around in the hot dark of the squad car to God-knows-where for what seemed like hours, and thrown me in jail with the intention of having complete strangers carry off our kids—my life was actually going well. In some respects I was finally getting what I wanted: I was making my escape from Westchester County, from the prison of living in someone else’s utopia.

 

Just before we left Westchester for the summer, Benjamin got stuffed in a locker at school and locked inside; the school’s vice principal, presumably with an eye toward avoiding a lawsuit, had tried to explain to me how the incident might be about three-quarters Ben’s fault.

 

That same week I intercepted our neighbor, the daughter of a notoriously bad-tempered opera diva, chasing my son across our front lawn screaming and trying to ram him with a baby carriage—with her baby daughter in it. Benjamin had gone to her porch two doors down and had asked to play with her son. She didn’t want them to play together.

 

I told her to get off my lawn and never come back. I threw a few more words at it than that.

 

Henry talked me out of calling the police. Who knew what wild counteraccusations she might make? I had the phone in my hand. But he had a point. If she was crazy enough to do what she had already done, facts were obsolete. She acted like laws do not apply. Most of the local cops were Italian, and her mama was a famous opera star. Who would they believe? Put the phone down, Margaret.

 

Suburbia red in tooth and claw.

 

Considering where we’d come from, my home invasion and abduction didn’t seem so bad. I decided that I should not let a bunch of SWAT-team wannabes take my new life away from me.

 

A half hour later, I was awakened by an announcement on the PA system that I needed to make my bed and prepare for cell inspection.

 

After the inspection (to make sure I hadn’t acquired any weapons in the half hour since I’d been shown to my cell) I opted out of breakfast and went back to sleep.

 

The Department of Corrections website says that the prisoners raise their own lettuce there: it’s a pilot project that the DOC compares to “the massive greenhouse that’s a favorite family attraction at Walt Disney’s Epcot Center.” I’m sorry I didn’t get to see that before my release. Maybe next time I go to jail, I’ll bring my family.

III.

But anyway, the photos.

So on the morning of the eighteenth, I was up at quarter after seven photographing the sunrise. It was a hazy, sticky day. The sun had already risen but was just breaking through heavy clouds. The dominant colors in the photo are a brownish gray and a pale apricot.

A little while later I was drinking coffee with a former prison guard. We sat in the morning sunshine on his porch that overlooks the lake. I had come to talk, to try to understand what had happened to me. I showed him the bruises. He told me, “It’s like Russia over there at the sheriff’s department. They have their own rules . . . Back when I worked as a correction officer, after I’d worked a double shift, late in my shift, I was like, well . . .” He made a face and didn’t finish that sentence. Working as a prison guard changes you.

 

A couple of guys who get arrested every once in a while told me how lucky I was to have been arrested after the Public Safety Building was built, because the old county jail was “a hellhole.”

 

Before I lived here, I didn’t used to have friends who worked as prison guards, nor indeed friends who got arrested.

 

Prison guards are different than one would expect. There is a type. They tend to have a certain emotional openness, expressiveness. One day when I was at the animal shelter, a man walked in accompanied by his son. He wore full black body armor, like RoboCop, with the name of the prison printed on the front. He and his son were carrying a big dog cage, and inside was a litter of kittens. He’d rescued them from a snowdrift where the hungry kitties were eating birdseed.

These guys sometimes say things like “If you’re arrested you’re guilty. As a former correction officer, I know that anyone arrested is guilty. That’s just how I think.”

 

In the late afternoon, I took pictures of the roses I’d planted, pink roses, red roses. Then the fragrant white rugosas closer to the steps.

Next come the photos of the stone steps. The camera angles are odd. When I looked at these photos the other day, it was at first hard to understand what I’d had in mind. I thought one of the kids had gotten hold of my camera. When I looked at them in sequence I realized I was looking at the escape route; how three barefoot people escaped from a house full of cops. It was safety.

 

Descending the steps, the viewer is looking down. There is a large, flat granite boulder flecked with garnet. Greenery runs down the left side; lower, the leaves on the trees are upside down. The next step is half-covered with hypnum moss, as are subsequent steps. The moss I had mail ordered from a company in Pennsylvania; it came in irregular sheets peeled off rocks, packed in tissue paper. I had planted it the previous season, using it carefully on the steps to give the illusion that the stones had been there for ages.

 

When we had the yard landscaped, after the backhoes were done, I built the yard ecology from the bottom up. Ecologies are complex things. All the parts work together to make the whole.

I sprinkled genetically engineered fungi I’d ordered from a start-up in Oregon that replaced the soil fungi the backhoe had scraped off, thereby making for healthier soil, and also created a powerful wi-fi zone that covers my whole yard, taking advantage of the networked properties of fungal mats, using nearby trees as antennae. It is more than a fungal wi-fi network, really. It’s also a data storage medium, cloud computing but without fickle corporations—anarchist street tech used for circumventing Internet shutdowns by oppressive governments. It makes my high-end computer hardware run a lot faster, though it’s got an interesting trickle of traffic through my fiber-optic connection.

 

After the high-tech fungi, I sprinkled on the really expensive designer grass seed: It’s a special dwarf grass I almost never have to mow because it just doesn’t grow very high. Also part of the mix are tiny nitrogen-fixing clovers, and these little flowers that look like chamomile and are supposed to give a sort of mellow feeling if you walk barefoot on the grass. There was this night when the grass first came up when I walked out into the yard after a rain, and the baby lawn was intensely alive, making a sound just beyond the range of human hearing.

 

All this stuff washes down to the lake in runoff. I wonder what I’ve contributed to the local ecosystem.

 

Next picture: farther down the steps. These boulders still show the scratches from the backhoe. Yes, I absolutely did tell Officer Friendly that if he didn’t have a warrant, then he and his merry band needed to get the fuck out of my dining room. That is what I was pondering at this point in our descent, that maybe things might have gone better if I hadn’t told them to get the fuck out of my house. There is a little bit of my mail-order moss, but less than on the steps in the previous photo. In preindustrial times, pillows and mattresses were sometimes stuffed with hypnum moss; its Greek name means that it induces sleep.

 

Next picture: the last third of the stone steps. The bottom one has lots of mail-order moss. Then we are on open ground.

 

I should say that I don’t think the cops had any idea that there was a set of stone steps there; and that they had not noticed the spiral staircase in my house; that they thought the apartment had only one entrance and exit. So all eight of them blocked my front door.

 

When they began to talk about waiting for someone to come and take away the kids, we escaped out the side door. Apparently, they didn’t notice we were gone for quite a long time. Officer Friendly was outside my house badmouthing me to my neighbors, claiming I was upstairs passed out an hour and a half after our escape.

 

After construction of the wall was complete, I had bombed the whole hillside with wildflower seeds I bought from an organization in Vermont. The next photo shows purple clover, a yellow black-eyed susan, and an orange blanket flower at the base of our stone wall. A few weeks earlier, there would have been bright red poppies, splattered like blood all over the wall. But by August, they were done.

 

The next photo shows the view from the woods where we were hiding. It is taken from the shadows. There are small trees on the right hand side, bushes on the left side toward the lake; in the foreground is the fence line of the water treatment plant, and behind the fence are cement wastewater storage tanks that contain the reed beds that cleanse the water.

 

The water treatment plant hums, even in winter. And in August, the night is full of the songs of crickets and frogs and American toads, which are especially partial to the reed beds, and the soft sounds of water lapping on the shore. You would think that on a hot August night, it would have been buggy down by the lake, but that night the shoreline was impossibly hospitable. The ground was soft, the air was warm, and the emerald night was singing.

 

I should never have told anyone in case I ever need a place to hide again.

 

IV.

The next photo is a not very interesting shot of the ground, except that I now understand that this is the spot where we hid, sleeping in a pile like gorillas.

 

When I was in the second grade, the Seattle police department had a PR campaign in the schools sponsored by Sears Roebuck: “Officer Friendly” would come to your school and all the kids would get Polaroids taken sitting on his cool motorcycle. My childhood Officer Friendly was a muscular Aryan type, about five foot eight, with a big-toothed smile and a gun. My parents still have my snapshot in a box somewhere. Later, when we were on car trips and saw a cop giving out a speeding ticket, my father would say, “Looks like Officer Friendly just made a new friend.” I do that, too.

 

At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle when Ben was small, Henry looked at the gorillas sleeping in the enclosure and remarked that that was my ideal arrangement of the family bed. Ever since, it has been a joke between us.

 

Our local Officer Friendly is much taller, a skinhead with an elaborately tattooed left arm that he hides behind his back when getting his picture taken for the paper for rescuing dogs or saving babies. The tattoos are detailed in a way that vibrates with significance—a bulging eye that looks terrified, and a mouth that is trying to open but is glued shut—suggesting that they are the consequence of more than a drunken evening in the tattoo parlor. After he’d broken my silence while booking me, I asked him about his tattoos. He was really pleased that I’d noticed them, but changed the subject.

 

The final photo makes me sad; it shows the lawn along the north side of the water treatment plant fence, the route by which we returned to the house. My admission of defeat.

 

Immediately thereafter (and from the same time sequence) there is a photo of me sitting in my office wearing a tie-dyed tank top and the opal necklace that I bought in Brisbane. It shows the bruises on both my arms. I gather from the caption that my daughter took the picture. This means she also went on the walk with me, revisiting our escape.

 

After that, and from the same day, there are a couple of photos of double rainbows, dark pink roses after the rain, and a downed tree in the rainy dark, and someone in a uniform who resembles Officer Friendly’s partner, shining her flashlight into a silver metallic car that has a fallen sumac tree on it.

 

She is the one who actually signed two out of the three charges against me. Officer Friendly was incredibly rude to her while I was in custody. He blamed her for all his mistakes.

 

He mangled the facts so badly that, even though I was trying to remain silent, I interjected a correction, explaining that what he had just said was impossible. He said, “Shut up. This doesn’t pertain to you.” I wondered if he could define “pertain.” He was drafting criminal charges against me. To who else could they possibly pertain? I remember feeling sorry for her for having to work with such a sadistic moron.

 

I have no recollection of taking these photos, yet they exist.

 

Prison gangs clean the area around the water treatment plant each spring. I can watch them from my living room window. I try to find out when they are coming, so I can pick through the debris that washed in with the spring thaw before they cart it off. I find the most interesting objects to use in my garden: pieces of blue-and-white pottery, pieces of rusty metal in interesting shapes, croquet balls run over by lawn mowers. If I don’t get there first, all the good stuff is gone. The prisoners leave the shoreline clean.

 

I spent two summers pulling glass out of the hillside after we built our big stone wall. For decades, glass bottles had been thrown down the hill. At times, it seemed that the whole hillside was made of glass, brown and blue, and green, and white. I kept picking it up until the job was done.

 

Then, when I really needed it, when I needed to flee barefoot with my children in the middle of the night, my efforts were repaid. The grass was soft and safe. I had healed the hillside and the favor was returned.

 

I had to sit handcuffed in the lobby of the jail intake area. The stools you sit on have no backs and are small, even for me. It was after five in the morning and I felt exhausted. I was reminded, while sitting there, of what we were told in Psych 101 about how to sleep deprive a rat: You put the rat on a flowerpot large enough for it to stand on but too small for it to sleep on. You have this flowerpot in a bowl of water. If the rat falls asleep, it falls in the water and wakes up. The stools in the jail waiting room were like that.

 

I think I spent about three hours in handcuffs, for no particular reason except that I was being put in my place. Officer Friendly handcuffed me when he arrested me, and I don’t think the cuffs were taken off again until they made me shower right before the mug shot. It is possible that they were briefly taken off for my fingerprinting, but I don't think they were.

 

My captors were complaining about how tired they were, bragging about how far beyond a double shift they were, claiming to have worked eighteen, nineteen hours. Officer Friendly claimed to have been awake for twenty-four hours.

 

I felt so sorry for him. I apologized for my role in his sleep deprivation. No one answered and there was a long silence as though they hadn’t realized that I could hear.

 

I had another wave of these generous feelings about twelve hours later, seven hours after Henry bailed me out, when—during the late afternoon—I suppressed the urge to send the sheriff's department flowers.

 

Even now, the mental image of the flowers I intended to send them has a supersaturated, hyperreal quality: a dozen moist long-stem deep red roses in a container wrapped in red foil, with a wide red velvet bow.

 

In the 1980s, it used to annoy me that my grandmother would take pictures of her hybrid tea roses and mail them to me. Now I take pictures of my roses and post them on the Internet. What kind of ancestral nonsense made me think of sending roses? I cannot reconstruct why I felt at that moment that they deserved to be sent roses, except that the stripes on my prison uniform were the same color red.

 

V.

Sometime during that day, the lady from Child Protective Services interviewed me. I said some things I shouldn’t have, but in retrospect, I was surprisingly lucid in my dealings with her, under the circumstances. She shook her head at the drama of the previous night and the way the deputies had terrified me. She said, “I hate it when they do that.”

A year later, when I was having lunch in a restaurant, I overheard two CPS workers gossiping about who was getting promoted and why. The subject came around to my CPS lady, the one I’d met with: They agreed that she was too compassionate, put too much time in to getting clients to tell her what they needed. The woman immediately behind me said, “Who cares what they think they need? If they knew what they needed we wouldn’t be visiting in the first place.”

 

Did you know that jail is mostly empty? The county claims they are making money with this new privatization deal, but I saw only one other inmate the whole time I was there, and only from a distance: A tall blonde over six feet with shoulder-length hair, doing laundry. Her skin had a translucence suggesting she hadn’t been exposed to daylight in a while. She was wearing the same kind of red-and-white striped uniform I was, except it looked much better on her. I saw her only for a moment. There was no one else.

 

That jail is brand new. The walls are bright white, and there is a broad band of grape color about eight feet up, I guess to make the jail look more cheerful or maybe because the cell blocks are color coded. Or maybe it’s purple because it’s the women’s section. Each jail cell has a stainless steel sink/toilet combo thing and a bed. Just after they put me in my cell, I lay across my bed with my head toward the door and my legs up the wall in a yoga pose. That’s when I was looking at the pink sky through the barbed wire, relaxing into my predicament, letting the pink noise of the sky talk to the tension in my hamstrings.

 

A while back, when the county officials were saying they needed to privatize more facilities in order to build office space for themselves, I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from suggesting that they rent office space in the Public Safety Building (i.e., the jail) so each of the county officials could have his own sink and toilet in the same finish you see in Westchester kitchens on ten-thousand-dollar Sub-zero refrigerators.

 

Remember the hearings on privatization and the creation of the Prison Enterprise Zone in which civil liberties were suspended to make this a more commercially viable environment for prison privatization? Remember that noisy guy who said, “You like living in your tree-hugging environmentalist utopia, but this doesn’t come for free. Someone’s got to pay for all these trees. There’s no more free lunch. Someone’s got to pay!”

 

I know just the office he deserves. A room with a view. That guy chose “What is your father’s middle name?” as his password security question. He is named after his dad.

 

I used to know what T-shirt and what pajama bottoms I wore that night. The T-shirt had words printed on it, a phrase mildly though not extremely ironic. I can’t remember anymore. The pajama bottoms were, I think, pale blue flannel. I think I was wearing the ones with garden gnomes, not the ones with snowflakes.

It bothers me that I can’t remember what I was wearing. I know I used to know.

 

When Ben had a two-hour school delay because of snow, I drove him to school, but the roads were really bad. Once you get off the state highways over there, instead of sanding and salting the roads, they use mine tailings. I barely made it up the big hill. After dropping him off, I decided I wasn’t driving back down that hill, so I went the long way, past that other prison. It was snowing hard and in the switchbacks I was driving down the middle of the road in low gear so as to keep as far as possible away from the guardrails.

 

I noticed there was a white car behind me, and eventually I realized the car behind me was a sheriff’s deputy. The whole way, I was trying to read his plate number in the rearview mirror. When the roads flattened out and he finally passed me, I saw that the plate number ended in a three and not a seven, so it wasn’t Officer Friendly.

 

Whoever was behind the wheel was trying to do me a favor. The road conditions were horrendous and getting worse, and there’s no cell phone reception in that area.

 

Please, God, don’t let me hit a guardrail. The scene that keeps playing in my mind was this: I fishtail and take out three guardrail posts and spin backward across the middle of the road and bounce—and my car is bleeding transmission fluid into the snowbank and black plastic pieces of my car are all over the road. I look down over the steep embankment where I almost went. And Officer Friendly gets out of the squad car, striding heroically in my direction, a helpful smile on his face. Which fades to a frown. He says to me, “Aren’t you the woman who filed the Freedom of Information request to find out how much overtime I work?”

 

Or maybe he would just pretend he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. Maybe we difficult middle-aged women from suburbia all look alike and he wouldn’t remember me at all.

 

I didn’t used to be like this.

 

My purse was in the front hall. In a wicker chair at the top of the stairs. They could have offered me the opportunity to take my purse along to jail, in which case, I could have gotten out my Amex gold card and paid my own bail, and somehow someone would have had to drive me home.

 

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t part of the plan. It would have underlined the complete superfluousness of arresting me if Officer Friendly had had to turn around and drive me home at four a.m.

 

I don’t remember if the bail hearing was before or after Officer Friendly had his little chat with me about my right to remain silent. He has unorthodox ideas about Miranda rights, if you can call them ideas; Miranda rights don’t apply if a cop is up past his bedtime.

 

I attempted to invoke my right to remain silent by remaining silent.

 

Officer Friendly told me I had the right to remain silent, but if I remained silent, he said, he would find more things to charge me with and I would be very very very sorry.

 

I was scared.

I began to talk.  

 

VI.

About three weeks after the home invasion, someone at his desk at work in the sheriff’s department began sending me harassing messages over the Internet, calling me a “drunken slut” and threatening to “expose” me. By their own account, Officer Friendly’s team had spent three hours “repeatedly searching” my house. They had complete access to its contents including medical records, financial records, computers . . . I took the threat seriously.

The problem with me is that I can find more trouble to get into in my own dining room . . .

I had to marvel at his misfortune. If you were going to harass someone from your computer in a government office in this county, I was about the last person you would want to pick on. It’s that relentlessness, that grinding obsessiveness, for which I get paid.

What kind of an . . . well, never mind. I’ve already met them. I know what kind.

 

At the gala last summer up at the golf course, the woman behind me talking loudly had been seeing a man she met on the Internet who, as it happens, was a freelance computer tech who did work for the county. (Stories that begin “I met him on the Internet” almost never end well.) He persuaded her to let him charge nonrefundable plane tickets for a romantic getaway on her credit card. And then he said he couldn’t go and she was stuck footing the bill. She said, “You know how he got me to trust him? You know how? He told me his password. He said, ‘My password is syzygy28. If I can trust you with that, you can trust me with anything.’” I wrote syzygy28 on a cocktail napkin and tucked it down the front of my evening gown.

When I got home I sat down at my keyboard the way a pianist sits down at a concert piano. The window was open, and I could hear the toads in the reed beds singing in four-part polyphony.

Syzygy28 wasn’t his password on the county admin account; it was the password to his main personal account. He had sixteen user IDs on ten dating sites; what dating sites do if you don’t visit every day is repeatedly email you your user ID and password. So I had a wide selection of passwords to try on the county system. His county password was cassan0va666, using a zero for the O. He has a whole network of accounts with all kinds of interesting stuff in them, enough that I can pour boiling oil on his parade for years and years.

I set up mail forwarding in all his accounts to dummy accounts so as to make it difficult for him to lock me out if he figured out he’d been hacked.

But that was unnecessary; he never did figure it out. I was tempted to warn off the women he was defrauding, but I know from experience that such women do not welcome helpful advice.

 

I need to tell you the story of the shower again, because I didn’t tell it right the first time. I tried hard to make that experience about me, but there is a way in which it is not about me at all, in fact quite the opposite. The shower during booking is a process engineered to remove identity. It is when they take your clothes and your jewelry. The opal necklace: It’s a rough-cut Queensland opal. When I was in Brisbane, I went opal shopping. The Queensland opals have this amazing spatial quality, like you could go inside and go for a long walk. They are almost more like places than gemstones. The ones that seemed to contain whole worlds, I couldn’t afford. The one I bought is like the door of a cave leading to magical blue and green; a portal to a hiding place that’s just up the path.

When instructed, I took off the necklace and handed it to the prison guard who was a blond kid barely out of high school. She was wearing rubber gloves.

She instructed me where I was to soap myself and how I was to wash my hair and never took her eyes off me.

The shower process is engineered as a psychological transition intended to create docility. A lot of the rest of the experience I describe involves a personal interaction between me and someone else or someone being capricious, but other than the possibly malicious timing, the shower was exactly what it is supposed to be. The extent to which I try to make the shower about messing up my mug shot, I am avoiding the impersonal nature of the system behind the shower procedure. The mug shot is not a school picture.

 

The most beautiful thing about the way the computer tech had set up the county system was it allowed for remote installation of software on all county equipment so that he could do his job without having to walk into the office. Installation could be done globally. On what drives would you like to install these keystroke loggers? Select ALL. We were in. My invasion had begun.

What I had achieved was invisible admin access to the county system and access to the State systems that had information about who held the leases on the privatized prisons and copies of the contracts. That was what I needed.

Even better, the system also talked to all the county cell phones for all county agencies. Not only did I give them all keystroke loggers, but I turned on GPS position logging. The phone directory identifies the phones being tracked, last name first. I color coded them by department, and set up an RSS feed to a KML; the KML tracks in real time every county employee’s cell phone on a map. With a slider bar, I can walk the map backward and forward in time.

I trained the network of intelligent agents to receive, process, and archive in the fungal cloud in the yard the incoming data from the keystroke loggers, which was already being displayed on one of my monitors in beautiful green spikes like blades of grass.

I also gave it an audio track hooked up to my speakers, keyed to the phones coded as belonging to the sheriff’s department, so I would be able to hear the approach of deputies and in particular I would be able to hear any sudden convergence of deputies in the area of my house.

Vernichtungswille: the desire to annihilate.

I connected all that to my machine’s security, such that if they kicked in my door—presuming I’d remembered to lock it—and came to take my machine, all trace of this operation would have fled into the yard before they were halfway up the stairs.

I wish I’d thought to track the state troopers, too

 

When I emerged from my trance, there was a devil mask in cut paper glued to the dishwasher. In the hallway, blue-and-green snowflakes decorated the walls. On closer inspection, they were cut from the phone bill that had come in the previous day’s mail. Luckily, the glue that the kids had used to attach them to the walls was rubber cement, so they peeled off easily.

A pizza had been acquired from next door and had been eaten, apparently some hours earlier. My purse was open and all the cash in my wallet had been removed and replaced with candy wrappers.

The kids were each at their own computers. My daughter was watching a DVD of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and was laughing as Harpo climbed into the lemonade. Benjamin was playing a computer game involving monkeys and was happy because he had just leveled up.

I checked the voicemail. Henry had left seven messages. Apparently, the kids had not felt it necessary to answer the phone.

 

The initial ecstasy when you come to own a computer system is followed by a hideous dropping away of the veil once you realize that no matter how radioactive the data, if you flash it around and can’t provide a legal provenance, then you are going to jail. Federal prison. This stuff now comes under the antiterrorism laws because these are government computers. And the trial would be secret, if there were a trial at all.

 

So you’re patient; you file Freedom of Information Act requests that the opposition may not feel they need to respond to. And you think that maybe they know what you’ve done and are just waiting and hoping that you have issues with impulse control.

 

VII.

For most of my life I have allowed myself to think that jail is for other people, people I don’t need to think much about. People getting what they deserve.

How do people come to deserve things? What do I deserve? What do you deserve? I deserve an ice cream. You deserve a spanking. She had it coming to her. And he deserves to disappear into a jail cell for a very long time.

 

If you’re arrested, you’re guilty.

Your moment of decision is at three a.m. when they open your bedroom door. Can you keep your cool?

 

What is most interesting about the prison privatization project is that it is failing. This world has no shortage of venues where you can suspend someone from the ceiling and beat the bottoms of their feet with a rubber hose and hook up a car battery . . . Despite our civil liberties being suspended here in the enterprise zone, our utopia is just not globally competitive in the atrocities market.

There are a few contracts. The purple block of the Public Safety Building is leased to a 501(c)(3) that promotes “Nordic rejuvenation”—sounds like Swedish massage . . . I’ve read the business plan.

 

So I’m in the New York State system, and I start seeing references to something called the bio-monitoring system. It’s being deployed for checking whether people have hunting licenses and it works twenty miles from the nearest road. The idea works like this: If you fire a gun, the system uses some kind of Internet to check whether there is a hunting license in proximity and tries to match the gun to a license. So if you fire the gun and lack a proper license, the Department of Environmental Conservation cops arrive, perhaps by helicopter, and you get a very expensive ticket plus their bill for transportation.

And prisoners are chipped: the chip is injected between the shoulder blades. If they escape, they can be tracked even if they hide in the forest. Ironically, the denser the forest, the better the bio-monitoring system works because of the density of the fungal mats in the ground, and because there are so many trees to act as antennas.

 

My water treatment plant is part of the bio-monitoring system. It’s an AI that functions as a major hub. My mail-order fungi had long since added themselves to its network when the flood waters briefly overflowed into the tanks. That’s where the unexplained traffic through my Internet connection was coming from. The network password is syzygy29.

Same consultant. Same security holes!

Our Cassan0va doesn’t know me, but he and I have had quite the relationship. Almost a partnership. One system administrator and his bad habits can take me a very long way. Further, I guess, than I really wanted to go. I got carried away.

 

Let’s be sensible. Let’s get back in touch with reality. Lock your doors at night. Wash the dishes before you go to bed. Consider your bedroom: How would you look to a cop, sprawled on the bed like that? Consider it from their point of view.

It’s not that I didn’t try other solutions. I talked to my elected representatives. I wrote letters. I filed complaints. I filed Freedom of Information requests. But at a certain point, you lose faith in reality as you knew it, sliding sideways to a place where police come into your bedroom with a gun in the middle of the night if they find a door to your house unlocked. They define an open door as a door it is possible to enter without kicking it down.

Be sensible. Think about it. Would you rather have the cops haul you out of bed, or the robbers? The fundamental difference between police and criminals is that the police have rules they must abide by. If there are criminals in your bedroom you can report them to the police.

Would you rather have the cops haul you out of bed, or the robbers? The answer to this riddle is that the cops are supposed to haul the robbers out of bed and leave me out of it.

 

Hacking the government, any government, just isn’t a very good idea. Just because I can enter a computer system doesn’t mean I should. Surely, there is another solution, something I could have done differently.

If the police come into your house in the middle of the night, you can report them. Don’t argue when they are in your house. Ask for an explanation of what is happening, but in a quiet, calm tone of voice. Phrase it, “I would like to understand what you are doing in my house.” Not, “What the hell are you are doing in my bedroom in the middle of the night?”

In the morning, drive over to the police station and speak to the sergeant. The cop will call you after a few days and explain himself. If you are calm and patient and understanding, he might even apologize, might even admit that he made a mistake, that they came into your house in the middle of the night with their guns drawn, but when they saw your beautiful little daughter asleep in her bed, they realized their error and put their guns away. Which is why they weren’t pointing guns at you when they woke you up.

You may have some legal rights, but you need to understand that when the cops are in your bedroom at three a.m., this isn’t the right time to articulate the fundamental principles of human rights. You may think you should be recording this surreal conversation, but don’t go for the mp3 recorder even if it is right there on your desk, because at three a.m. the police may think it’s a gun.

 

It’s probably a good thing that you don’t have a gun. If you have a gun in your nightstand in case of intruders, it might get you killed. Stop and think. Think of it from the cop’s point of view. The cops have come into your house expecting you will be angry, that you may freak out. They are just doing a job. Their job is to protect themselves while on the job. That’s why they had their guns drawn in the first place.

 

That’s all water under the bridge now. Once I was in, I couldn’t just walk away. I had to do something.

I don’t even own a gun. I have a gun phobia. I am not advocating violent revolution, though I understand that may be the consequence of what I have done. This is not a call to arms.

I did not abduct children and make them fight a war. I did not buy them from the revolutionary forces as so much military surplus. I did not import them to the US on the pretext of rehabilitating them. I did not hide them in a jail in the Adirondacks. I merely set them free. What would you do in my place?

 

Understand that these are children that I have liberated. The oldest of them is fifteen and they’ve been through some very bad stuff. They were bought as a batch by a private military contractor. The prison contract with the State of New York is in the name of a pharmaceutical company, and there is a budget line from somewhere else that appears to be military.

I couldn’t just leave them inside.

 

There are no little boys in your barn. The boys are all still inside. The child soldiers hiding in your barn are all girls, very damaged little girls.

I knew you’d want to help. I knew you’d want to help me.

 

I have been inexact if I’ve called this a police state. It’s not a state at all. The state, disempowered and defunded, has withered away. Withered and wilted, it has dropped its petals all over like blood on the ground. The police remain, but really, there is no longer any state. Only power that has a logic of its own and the apparatus of a state that is reanimated by power.

We can win this thing. We can win.

Are you detaining me? Or am I free to go?

 

“Am I Free to Go?” copyright © 2012 Kathryn Cramer

Art copyright © 2012 Scott Bakal

6 comments
Lenny Bailes
1. lennyb
Good advice, in there, about keeping calm if police knock on your door in the middle of the night.
superkuh
2. superkuh
This story is amazing. It really captures the fearful obsession that devours one's life after a night time raid where cops stick guns in your face for no reason that they will ever explain.
superkuh
3. Reverend Zim_ulator
This story scared the hell out of me. Well done.
superkuh
5. Lupercal
I love it. Well written, and uniquely compiled.
superkuh
6. Mary (Mariev) Finnegan
I get your message and agree. As one who has had such experiences as described in your story and had the same thoughts, I applaud you.

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