The Ghost of Alma Matterson
Chapter 11: A Binary Tree

Peter had very little to offer in the way of real stories. He put on the Kwality Time goggles, and was pleased to find that Alma had disabled the shopping awards program. The conversation was still in the red. It had the dismal rating of 13.1%.

The unit was now in parental direct mode. He would speak in the microphone. The system would enhance the grammar, and issue warnings if conversation strayed out of bounds. The prompt directed Peter to simply recount a tale from his youth.

"I grew up at the George Washington Home for Wayward Youth. For the most part, we were just there. We went through classes, and spent hours playing on the paved courts. Occasionally, a boy would leave to join a foster home, and return a few months later, meaner for the ordeal."

"I can't remember much of school. The students who passed their tests the fastest were sent to the A block. I was in D block. I guess we were the incurables. We did a lot of playing, and saw the A block students as stuck-up prudes."

"In the main court, there were basketball hoops, a jungle gym, a tennis ball wall. We also had  a square lot filled with sand. I wasn't very good at the hoops, and too cool for the sandbox. So we really did more hanging around than playing."

"I don't know how or why it happened, but just outside the east end of the court, there was small crack in the pavement. From this small crack, an maple tree found a way to grow."

"When I was your age, the tree had grown so high that it was twice the height of the fence. The bark had grown entwined into the chain links. The branches were thick enough that, perhaps, it would even be possible to climb. 

"Stan and Glenn, my best friends, studied the tree in detail, and we planned an escape. We waited until after lights out at nine. We picked the locks on the windows, climbed the tree and were free."

"There was a large undeveloped hill behind the school called Cutler's Nob. We spent the whole night exploring and climbing over and around the hill. We had no plans beyond breaking out. We climbed the tree again in the morning and made the way back to our bunks."

"I don't know how many times we broke free from the school that summer, but when I think of myself. I think of the time spent on that hill, just exploring through bushes and rocks."

"I am sure we had stupid plans of someday running away forever. There was even one night we did like your friends Tad and Milton. We just ran around naked in the cold night air."

"The end of the story is not worth much. The first freeze of winter came. All the leaves had fallen. I am not really sure how or why it happened, but when we went to climb the tree that night, I reached up to grab the highest branch, and the limb gave way. I fell to the ground breaking my wrist."

"It was a great scandal. We were grounded and the locks changed. Worst of all, when the headmaster learned of the tree, he called a pruning company to come and remove it."

"It was the only tree near the courtyard. When the disposal crew came to cut down the tree, they found that the entire student body gathered around in a semicircle at the base of the tree. Even the stuck up kids from A-block were willing to risk their future parole to save this small token of nature."

"The headmaster was smart enough not to call the guards. Instead he forced the students into a promise. If even a single child ever touched a branch of the tree; the headmaster would have the guards cut the tree down."

"In my next seven years at the house, not a single student stepped within five feet of the tree. Each year it grew, and became a greater force in our lives. The headmaster watched it daily, but no hands ever reached for a branch, and the tree stands to this day."

"The headmaster put cameras and motion detectors on the tree. Each new student he dares to touch it, but the tree still stands."

Peter could feel his story falling flat. How could he recount anything of value when he spent his life locked behind bars staring at the path to freedom that grew before him, yet always out of his reach.

He could still feel the round branches of the tree as he climbed the sturdy maple tree for his midnight excursions to Cutler's Nob. He longed to climb the tree again, but the very act would destroy itself. 

"Don't you understand Alma? If you climb the tree, they will tear it down."

The story ended with a morale. The conversation meter clicked from red to blue. The final point score was the ever so beautiful 50.4%.

Peter was exhausted. He removed the goggles. Alma had picked the broken friendship bracelet from the floor. He had torn a few threads from his blanket, and breaded them back into the broken string.

"I fixed this for you." 

The conversation had drained every last reserve of his energy. His son needed him more than ever. He saw Alma standing at the foot of the tree reaching toward the lower branch, totally unaware of the consequences. Peter clung to the Kwality Time visors tighter than ever. He would do everything in his power to master the Kwality Time program.

In his loose hand, Peter held the friendship bracelet...but for tonight, his mind wandered. He would simply fall in to fantasy of Esperante, himself and Alma living in a different, freer world. 

As for Alma, he simply sat in his bed, holding an internal smile. The man behind the mirrors was real.

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