Grant’s eyes blinked open in the darkness. Turning toward his nightstand, his alarm clock was dark. He reached for his phone and discovered the battery was dead. Panic surged through him as he tossed aside the covers and shot out of bed. He flipped the light switch, confirming his fear that his apartment had, again, lost power.
“Third time this month,” he growled.
He lifted the blinds. It was still dark, though a thin blue band of light was seeping into the horizon. He exhaled a sigh of relief and dressed quickly. The hot-air balloon festival launch was at dawn, which was about a half hour away. It would only take him 15 minutes to reach the field. Still, he had to hurry, or Dan was bound to replace him with a more punctual balloon pilot.
He pulled out of his parking space, sped down his block. The familiar sadness took him as he passed Watoga high school, with all its Homecoming decorations. It was a year ago, during their senior year, that Amanda broke his heart. He was an hour late to pick her up for the dance and she dumped him for Jimmy Pine, captain of the football team. For an entire year he watched them hold hands in the hall. Jimmy would wink at him and call him “chief”, while everyone but Amanda knew he was sleeping his way through the cheer squad. To this day, he kept her picture in his wallet and was still triggered by anything with the word “pine” in it, including an irrational hatred of pineapples.
He turned onto Front Street and was stopped abruptly by a peculiar traffic phenomenon. A dozen cars blocked the road from either direction. Between them, a flash mob of women in identical “Sexy Pirate” costumes, danced a choreographed jig to a sea shanty blasting from a boom box, while their friends filmed with their cell phones.
“What the hell?”
Shaking off the absurdity, Grant backed up and turned down an alley, detouring onto Center Street. Again, he was faced with an unusual obstacle. The entire intersection was blocked with cones, road closed signs, and a small fleet of city trucks, though the road itself remained passable.
A worker in bright orange safety gear emerged from a manhole in front of him.
“Hey, I’m really late, do you think I can sneak through?” Grant asked.
“No can do,” said the man. “Alligators.”
“Chewed through the underground lines in the sewer, took out power to the cell towers and half the town.”
“Alligators in the sewer? That’s a myth!”
“Nope. Just takes a couple careless kids to flush their pet gators. Next thing you know their breeding like rats.”
“You can’t be serious?”
“Did you know that at any given time you are less than 10 feet from an alligator? It’s true.”
“Shit!” Grant slammed his palms on the wheel.
The blue line was broadening on the horizon, joined by a hint of gold. Like a vampire locked out of his coffin, Grant was in a desperate race with the sun. He was running out of time. There was one final detour left to explore. If he cut across the football field, he could get to Broad Street and follow that to the highway. Grant made a u-turn.
Arriving at Watoga High School, home of “The Fighting Capybaras,” he drove over the curb, past the bleachers and onto the field.
“He’s at the 50… 40… 30! He could go all the way! The 20… 10… touchdown, Capybaras!” he shouted as he drove past the goal post, down the embankment, and onto Broad.
Once on the highway, he relaxed. He might be a minute or two late, but Dan could overlook that.
“God damn it!” Grant slammed on the brakes.
The dip in the road at Dairy Junction was flooded. Water poured from the culvert and backed up onto the highway. If he were going to pass, it would be through three feet of swiftly moving water. Grant backed up, revved his motor, then slammed his foot on the gas.
As the car surged forward, a new horror emerged. There, swimming in the middle of Highway 10, was a 14-foot Alligator, gnashing its teeth in defiance of the charging Toyota.
“Move, you son-of-a-bitch!”
It was too late, Grant hit the gator like a speed bump, bouncing over it onto the dry road beyond. Through his rearview mirror, he saw the beast slither back into the culvert.
He pulled into the parking lot just as the first balloons were lifting off. Dan was leaning on the basket of their balloon as he jogged up, half winded.
“You’re late,” he frowned.
“You wouldn’t believe…”
“Whatever, you’re lucky, flight’s off.”
Dan pointed to a young woman sitting in the grass, crying over her cell phone.
“Grant, what are you doing here?”
“Apparently, I’m your pilot. Are you ok?”
“Jimmy didn’t show up!”
“Maybe, he’s just running late, traffic is…strange today.”
“No, I called him, he blew me off again! This time it was something about sexy pirates, then his phone cut out, now it goes straight to voicemail!”
“I heard Alligators took out the cell towers.”
“Nothing,” he said. “Balloon was paid in advance, come ride with me.”
“I don’t know.”
“Unlike Jimmy, I would never give you up for sexy pirates,”
“And this balloon won’t let you down.”
“Not selling it…”
“Or fly around and desert you.”
“Did you just Rick Roll me?” She laughed.
“I’m sorry I was late for Homecoming, I know what it meant to you.”
“I’m sorry too,” she said. “You were right, Jimmy’s a jerk.”
“Well, how about that ride?” he offered his hand.
Amanda took his hand and he helped her into the balloon. Grant released the tether and Dan passed them their complementary picnic basket. As they gently ascended with the colorful flotilla of balloons, they toasted mimosas, following the rising sun into the sky.