Published August 22. 2009 4:00AM Updated August 24. 2009 9:19AM
I squatted next to the rowboat at the edge of the marsh, my heart fluttering like a nervous bird. The moon was a huge ball rolling up to the top of the sky. I looked at my watch. Twenty-five minutes to midnight. It was time.
I took a deep breath and looked across the river. In a few minutes, Minerva would be waiting with the truck on the other side.
My hands trembled as I struck the match to light the propane torch. I held the mouth of the balloon over the hissing blue flame, and the brown paper began to stretch and crackle as it filled with hot air. I hung the wick ball under the mouth of the balloon, then lighted the candles inside the lanterns. Then I lighted the wick ball and let the balloon go.
It rose slowly into the sky, trailing a flickering tail of red and blue and green colored lights. It drifted slowly up the river, like a lazy UFO.
I climbed into the rowboat, pulled the nylon stocking over my head and rowed across the river. When the boat bumped the bank on the other side, I sat there and stared at the moon. The night was so peaceful. The only sound was the sawing of cicadas. It was hard for me to believe what I was about to do.
I tied up the boat, picked up my bucket of iced mackerel, and crept through someone's back yard to the street. I hid behind a hedge and peered out. Where was she?
Then I heard a squeal of tires and the cough of gears grinding: the sounds of a car in pain. The headlights of an enormous white Cadillac swept over me as it shrieked around the corner and skidded to a stop. The window went down and a growly voice said, "Hey! Frimhaus! You there?"
I ran to the car on wobbly legs and pulled open the door. There sat Minerva in a frilly blue dress with a stocking pulled over her head. The car smelled brand new.
"What's THIS? Where's the truck?"
"Couldn't get a truck, so I got the biggest car I could find. Get in!"
I climbed in and before I could close the door she stomped on the gas. The car lurched, dumping the frozen fish all over the seat, screamed down the street and careened around the corner. My door swung wide, and the pavement spun by, until I - heart in my throat - grabbed it and slammed it shut.
"Where'd you get this thing?" I said, gasping for breath.
"It's the first selectman's. He lives just down the road from me."
I thought I was going to be sick.
"Are you crazy? You stole the first selectman's car?"
"BORROWED it. I'll take it back when we're done."
We shot into the aquarium parking lot, Minerva mashed the brake, and we spun to a stop.
"Let's go!" she cried, and she jumped out. But I sat staring through the windshield, thoughts roaring through my head: Here is Walter Frimhaus paralyzed. Here is Walter Frimhaus on his last night on Earth. Here is ... Somewhere a voice was shouting, "C'mon!" Then Minerva was shaking me: "What's the MATTER with you?"
I felt like I was stuck in a horrible dream. In slow motion, my body stepped out of the car, and my trembling hands fumbled the fish from the car seat back into the bucket. Minerva was yanking the ramps from the back seat. Then something snapped. Everything speeded up. I heard sirens heading upriver.
"The balloon!" Minerva shouted. "It worked!"
We scrambled over the split rail fence around the goldfish pond. The Doberman, locked inside, snarled and bashed his teeth against the glass. No sign of Mr. Perkins.
I jumped into the goldfish pond. Cripes! It was cold and up to my waist. Carrying a ramp and the bucket of fish, I started to wade across. But Minerva held back, staring at the water.
I couldn't see her eyes through the stocking, but I could feel her fear. I felt my nerve starting to go. I screamed: "C'mon! What are you waiting for?"
"It's not deep, is it?" she asked.
"No! Look at me. C'mon already!"
But Minerva stood there - it seemed like forever - making a whooshing noise as she took deeper and deeper breaths: UH-HUH! UH-HUH!
"C'mon!" I screamed.
UH-HUH! UH-HUH! She held her nose and jumped. Splash! "It's freezing!" she cried. She chugged across the pond behind me, and we climbed up on the walkway.
We leaned over the fence surrounding the harbor seal pool. The seals, who'd been sleeping on the rocks, raised their heads and blinked.
"Hi, seals!" Minerva cried. "We're here to bust you out of this joint!"