“…but…,” Arnold nervously stepped back from the open cell door. “I’m not up for parole until next year.” He shook his head in rapid fashion; for him, it was more of a physical tick than communication. A burly guard glared at the mousey prisoner. “I’m not ready for a hearing today,” Arnold said. He tried to push himself deeper into the corner of the dim cell.
“No hearing, Willis.” The guard softened his eyes for the waifish inmate. Arnold stopped trying to pass through the wall and relaxed slightly. “Your parole is already granted. I’m just here to walk you out.” Arnold braved a step forward, then paused and shook his head again.
“But I don’t have anywhere to go. No one to pick me up.” The guard sighed heavily. He looked up and down the hall but did not see any other guards, then he took a step into Arnold’s cell.
Guards were not supposed to take those kinds of risks. Stepping into an occupied cell was equivalent to following a snake into its burrow. Even though many inmates came across as personable, they’d turn vicious given half a chance. No one believed Arnold had that ferocity in him.
Arnold Willis had been an inmate for five years. He suffered dozens of brutal attacks for the first six months but never complained. He was quiet, did what he was told, and did his best to keep his head down. After his third stab wound, the guards sympathized as much as they could. They were extra vigilant about his protection. The major inmate gang didn’t want that kind of attention and started ignoring the loner. The fact that he never named his attackers helped. They saw him as a non-threat that wasn’t worth fussing about. The guards considered him harmless. The guard lowered his voice and spoke to Arnold with a loud whisper.
“Don’t worry about it. Look, I’m not supposed to say anything, but somehow you picked up some major support. There’s a sexy woman and a nice car waiting outside for you.” Arnold narrowed his eyes.
“Why? Who?” he asked. The guard shrugged.
“All I know is someone from Sharp Development was asking questions about you a couple of days ago.”
“From where?” Arnold asked.
“Sharp Development?” The guard asked with a tone that meant Arnold should have recognized the name. The small man shrugged in response. “The company that owns the prison,” the guard added. “C’mon, I don’t want to keep them waiting.” The guard cuffed Arnold loosely then turned around to lead him out.
He led the passive inmate through a maze of narrow corridors and security doors. No one seemed to care that Arnold was leaving. There were no cheers or jeers or any sort of acknowledgment as he shuffled past. They paused at a window to get Arnold’s belongings.
“I didn’t have anything when I came in,” Arnold said. The guard and the clerk exchanged shrugs. The clerk handed Arnold a clipboard to get a signature, then the guard led him out to the main exit.
Arnold felt glad the sun was setting when they stepped outside. The setting sun meant cooler temperatures. He spotted a short, plump, beautiful woman in a black suit standing next to a long black limousine. She was pale with short dark hair and acknowledged Arnold with a wave.
“Good luck, man.” The burly guard patted Arnold on the back and pushed him through the open gate. The former inmate approached the woman.
“Mr. Arnold Willis?” she asked. He nodded, then she opened a door at the rear of the limo. “Please step in,” she said. Arnold did not have to crouch very much to climb into the limo. Once he was comfortable in his seat he was surprised to see another woman in the car. She resembled the woman that invited him into the car but she was leaner with sharper features. She wore a suit that matched the other woman’s but this one was entirely white. She smiled at Arnold.
“Hello, Mr. Willis. My name is Dana Sharp,” she said.
“Arnold Willis,” he nodded and introduced himself nervously. Then, he felt like an idiot because obviously she already knew that. “What can I… uh…,” Arnold stammered for a moment, then he found the question he was looking for. “What do you want with me?” he asked. Dana Sharp exhaled a light sigh.
“To apologize, Mr. Willis.”
“Apologize?.. to me? What? Why me?” he asked with a shake of his head.
“Do you remember the day you arrived?” she asked and tilted her head at the prison. Arnold shook his head intentionally.
“Not really. I was pretty depressed at the time so I fell asleep in the transport on the way. The guards had fun waking me up.” Dana nodded.
“You did not fall asleep out of depression; your nap was scheduled.”
“Oh. Well, thanks I guess? It was a pleasant nap.”
“It’s not over,” Dana said.
“How so?” Arnold shook his head, then he looked down at his hands. They looked real to him. “I don’t get it.”
“Unknown to you, and to me at the time,” she said. “You were chosen to participate in a project my company has been working on.”
“What kind of-” Arnold started to ask but Ms. Sharp kept talking over him. He quickly shut up.
“During transport, you were put to sleep and you were taken to one of my R & D labs. We were testing the use of Alternate Reality prisons and you were our first inmate.” Arnold instinctively glanced at the prison through the window, then shook his head. Dana kept talking. “You were our only inmate,” she said. She tapped the window and it disintegrated into a fine white powder. Once the window disappeared the rest of the car continued to fall apart around them. Arnold whipped his head around to look out the other window at the prison.
The image of the stern building disappeared with the window as if it was displayed on the car’s glass. The windows, the car, the prison, the deep purple sky, and the cool breeze were all gone within moments. Dana sharp stood from the car’s seat and it disintegrated under her too. Arnold remained on his side and the leather seat stayed under him; he looked around.
They were inside a wide-open, dark warehouse. The only things in the empty building were Arnold, Dana Sharp, her driver, and a young pine tree. The tree was unlike any Arnold had seen before. It wasn’t very tall yet but its needle leaves were a rich, dark, blood-red color. It was beautiful and unsettling at the same time.
“It wasn’t real?” he asked. “I got stabbed three times.. and it wasn’t real?”
“You were our Beta tester. You helped us fine-tune the guard’s A.I.,” Dana said. It wasn’t an apology.
“You don’t seem too broken up over it. What are you apologizing for?”
“We both know why you were sentenced to begin with,” she said. “So no, I’m not broken up about that in the least. However, I do run a business. And when things go wrong with that business I take responsibility.” She began walking toward the red tree and Arnold followed her.
“I am apologizing because, despite your guilt, you were sentenced for 15 years.” They reached the tree and she stopped walking. “You were not sentenced to death,” she said. Arnold shook his head almost violently.
“What do you mean? I’m standing here breathing, same as you,” he said. Her stern, flat lips curled into a smile and her dark eyes sparkled.
“Same as me?” she asked. “Maybe,” she cast her eyes down at the base of the tree. “Maybe not.” Arnold looked down. The narrow trunk was growing out of a long glass box. It was vaguely shaped like a casket and on the other side of the glass, he could see why. A small, emaciated corpse rested in the glass casket; the tree was growing out of its chest.
“I’m sorry,” Dana Sharp said. “Your body is dead, Mr. Willis. But as long as this tree stands, your soul is safe. You may continue to exist as a digital ghost of sorts.”
“Digital gho-” Arnold started to ask but he felt his hands tingle. He looked down at them. His hands disintegrated into white powder for a second, then solidified again.