It’s hard to hold your nose and steer your bike at the same time. Especially when you’re riding down a dark, bumpy road on a moonless night with a heavy load of very old, very dead fish you’re about to dump in somebody’s swimming pool.
It wasn’t hard getting the fish. Just a quick visit to the Dumpster out back of Sharkey’s Market with a cardboard box, and I had all I could carry. It wasn’t hard sneaking out of my house either to do the deed. Mom and Dad both sleep like a pair of chipmunks in winter. So you could say things might’ve been a whole lot worse.
On the other hand, you could say things might be a whole lot better if I had my buddy Tag along to help out. Or Mike and Corey or the rest of my gang. But if they were here, I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place, now would I?
You can’t see my destination from the road, which is good because nobody there can see me either. It’s a big old house, and a fancy one, too, set back among the trees and bushes, with gates and columns and a long, sweeping driveway. Just a few weeks ago the gates were rusty, the columns cracked, and the driveway was covered with weeds up to my knees. Now everything’s been plastered and painted and the driveway’s covered with gravel. White gravel that gleams in my little headlight. It’s very inviting, that gravel-covered driveway. It makes you want to follow it right up to the house the way old Dorothy trotted on up her yellow brick road to Oz.
But I know better than to do that. Instead I zip past the driveway to the big beech tree carved with everybody’s initials. My headlight picks out a brand-new pair of them. “B.O. and P.U. Forever.” Somebody ought to get himself a new name, a new girlfriend, or both, I snicker to myself–but softly, because sound travels funny out here, and I don’t want anybody to hear me laughing.
Just beyond the tree is a little turnoff that leads through a gap in a fence to a shortcut straight to the pool. That’s where I ditch my bike. I’m praying nobody’s fixed that gap yet or I’m sunk. I hoist the box off the bike and start walking. If I thought the fish were heavy and smelly before, there’s no way to describe just how much they weigh and stink now that I’m carrying them on my shoulder. But, hey, there’s no use complaining, and nobody to complain to.
When I reach the fence, I find that I’m in luck. The gap’s still there, and it’s maybe even a little wider. I squeeze through with the carton and start down the shortcut. it’s even darker here than on the road, and now I don’t even have my headlight. A branch pokes me in the ear. Mosquitoes buzz around my face and hands, biting me anywhere they feel like it. A briar whips across my ankles and sticks to my sock. I hear a faint rip as I walk on, pulling it free.
It’s not a real steamy night, but I’m sweating pretty good anyway. I can hear myself breathing kind of hard, too, along with a lot of other sounds. You’d think it would be quiet out here now, but it’s noisy as a school cafeteria at lunchtime, what with the crickets and the katydids and who knows what else carrying on. To my right, a bullfrog burps in a bubbling little stream. To my left, something fast and probably furry skitters into the bushes. I hope its name isn’t Little Flower and that, if it is, it’s got better things to do than squirt me with its perfume.
And I keep on walking.
At the end of the path, I know there’s a low stone wall. I also know I won’t be able to see it or feel it with my hands, which are occupied. When I figure I’ve nearly reached it, I go slow as a baby taking its first steps, to make sure I don’t bump into it and mess up my knees. When my big toe stubs rock, I know I’m there.
Carefully, I set down the box on the wall and hop over. I take a few seconds to wipe the sweat off my face and scratch all my bug bites, which are starting to itch something fierce. Then I lift up the carton once more. Only half a football field to go and I’m there, I tell myself, squeezing through a row of hedges onto neatly trimmed grass.
Soon, I see it. The pool. Black as a tar pit under the stars. Way off is the house, and it’s dark, too, just the way I hoped it would be. I stare toward the windows. I can’t see them, but I take a guess at which one’s his. “Good night. Sleep nice and tight. Don’t wake up till the morning light, turkey,” I rasp. I stride forward and my leg sinks into a hole up to my calf. The box goes flying, and I fall flat on my face.
For one minute, all I can do is lie there, stunned. For the next minute, I’m still lying there, staring at the house to see if any lights go on, if anyone heard the noise. But they don’t, and they didn’t.
Finally, I manage to sit up and check all my body parts. Nothing’s busted, but my left knee’s burning with what feels like a nasty scrape. I flex it. Yeah, it’s a big bruise all right. My leg’s gonna be good and stiff soon, so I’ve go to finish up–and fast.
I grope around, expecting to find fish all over the lawn. But amazingly, the box is intact, still taped shut. I take it over to the pool, tear off the tape, and slide the fish into the water, so nice and easy they barely make a splash.
When I’m done, I stand up and look at the still, dark house once more. “Sunrise. Open your eyes. You’re gonna get a big surprise,” I rhyme. Too bad I won’t be around to see it, I add silently. Then, picking up the empty carton, which I’ll dump in a trash can somewhere along the road, I roll on out of there as quickly as I can, limping and scratching and grinning like a gorilla that’s stolen his archenemy’s bunch of bananas.