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We tore down the road in the white Cadillac, a dozen cruisers howling on our tail.
"We're doomed!" I cried. "They're catching up!"
"Ark! Ark! Ark!" said the seals from the back seat. "Ark! Ark! Ark!"
I woke with a start. My face was pressed against rough bark. Where was I? Oh ... yeah. I had fallen asleep hugging the tree. I looked down and saw the blurry blue shapes of a crowd of cops on the ground below. Standing on her hind legs barking up at me was Mrs. Zippy.
"Arf! Arf! Arf!"
"Good girl," said a voice. "You found him."
It was morning. And it was over.
And - cripes! - I, who was terrified of heights, was sitting in the top of the tallest tree in the forest. I clutched the trunk to my chest. Yow! Little shooting pains popped up all over my body. I was a mass of crusted mud, cuts and mosquito bites.
"All right, kid," said a voice. "You might as well come down."
Slowly, painfully, and most of all, dizzily, I worked my way down the tree, taking the time to get a death-grip on every branch.
The minute my feet touched the ground, two cops grabbed my arms and dragged me through the woods. Dumb, numb and helpless, I hung limply from their fists.
Three cruisers were parked and humming on the road. One cop wrapped me in a scratchy wool blanket. Another handed me my bandaged glasses.
They opened the back door to a cruiser. "Get in."
I sagged against the seat, looking out at the sun rising through the mist on the river. Goodbye, sun. Goodbye, river. Will I ever see you again?
When we got to the police station, they led me down a narrow hall and shut me in a cell. There was nothing there but a hard cot and a toilet in the middle of a cold concrete floor. It smelled like someone had just thrown up.
"What's your name, kid?" one cop asked.
"Walter Frimhaus," I croaked.
"Where you from?"
"1165 River Road."
"All right," said another. "I'll call his parents."
My parents! Oh no. Couldn't we leave them out of this?
The first cop left, and the second, a man with a face like a big corned beef, grinned at me. He plopped down on a chair outside my cell and belched.
"Well, kid, you're in for it now. Do you have any idea what you've done?"
I huddled on the cot and stared at the floor.
"Let's see. I'll bet I can figure out just how many years they'll send you up." He smiled an evil smile. "First, you created a public panic with that balloon thing of yours; that's a couple of years right there. Then you stole the first selectman's car and wrecked it; that's grand theft auto. You have any idea how much a brand new Cadillac costs? I figure 10 maybe 15 years for that."
The cop sat back and smiled.
"Then there's breakin' and entry, grand larceny for stealin' seals, and that's not the worst of it. Did you know them seals is protected by federal law? Yep, it's a federal crime to steal seals. I'd be surprised if the judge gave you less than 20 years for that. Then them seals trashed Miss Stiletto's house, ate up a few thousand dollars worth of tropical fish. You'll be gettin' a few years for that. So lessee now ... "
He leaned back and looked at the ceiling.
"All total, I'd say you're gonna be locked up for 35 maybe 40 years!"
"But ... " My throat was parched. I could barely whisper. "But I'm just a kid."
"That's no trouble. They got prisons for kids like you. How old are ya?"
"Well, kid, you'll be at least 50 before you see the free sunshine again."
I hugged my knees to my chest, pulling the blanket tight around my shoulders. Now I felt like throwing up.
"Them prisons for kids are the worst ones, too," he said. "Not clean and pretty like the cell you're in now. I visited one a couple years ago. Like to made me sick. There was rats, herds of 'em, runnin' wild, and most of the kids was missin' fingers and toes from where the rats gnawed 'em off durin' the night."
I hunched over and shuddered.
This, truly, was the end.