Balloon Man

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Chapter 13

Papite lay sweating, cramped on top of a cot too small for a growing adolescent body. The night was pitch black. Sweat trickled off his head onto the pillow. Whenever he moved his arm or leg, more wetness dripped beneath his body onto the saturated sheet.

There were six cots on the fourth floor. A tiny room situated next to a long hallway. What came to mind were army barracks stacked four floors high. All six cots held a sleeping boy. The room was full of their rhythmical breathing and thick, hot air that smelled like sweat and dirty laundry. Papite studied outlines of the sleeping boys.

On occasion, one of them would move an arm or a leg trying to get more comfortable, but there was no relief from the heat. All just lay sleeping, waiting for morning to come. Papite stared at the ceiling, listening to faint noises in the thick night air.

He rose without making a sound and walked over to the window. The bright moon cast strange shadows across the big t-shirt, frayed jean shorts, and filthy sneakers covering his spindly body. The dim reflection of his face in the glass made him grimace at all the grime on his cheeks and forehead.

Sighing, Papite knew he looked like an orphan, which is exactly who he was—a child of nobody. He was nothing more than an uncared for resident of the Swarthmore Home for Boys. The metal bars covering the windows made him sad. He focused past them, out into the blackest, deepest recesses of the Atchafalaya swamp, which wasn’t far away from the house. Being so close to the warm water made the conditions extremely humid. Papite remembered overhearing others mention Swarthmore Home for Boys was close to the town of Leesville, Louisiana and near Anacoco Lake.

One of the staff—Papite couldn’t really remember who—told him once the property was built during the civil war as a hospital. Over the years, the dilapidated structure became a home to boys with no family or whose families didn’t want them. Every now and then a new couple would show up, hand a balloon to the boy they wanted, and then take him away forever.

Papite recalled once watching from his room as a man handed a bright, blue balloon to a boy no older than five, who’d only been at Swarthmore for less than a week. Remembering the sound of the ugly man’s sick, dark laughter still made his skin crawl.

“I’ll make sure the kid earns his way,” the scary man said to Jo Bob while watching the blond-haired boy play with the balloon.

Jo Bob slapped the man on the back and replied, “I’m sure you will, sir. He’s a fine one. Just your type!”

Both men had laughed and just thinking about the cruel, callous voices whispering from downstairs gave Papite the willies.

Papite’s gaze returned to the window. His focus transfixed on the mist near the driveway. He noticed a flicker of color like a blue butterfly or a fluorescent little twinkle of some sort, only for it to disappear. He almost missed a figure out in the dark, but then he caught a glimpse of movement. The body he assumed was male moved toward the orphanage. The twinkle was the reflection of moonbeams from eyeglasses as the man moved out into the open, away from the tangle of trees. A shiver went down Papite’s spine.

A stranger in the darkness coming to Swarthmore was never good. Many times, the strangers took one of his friends away with them and they never came back. Papite had no desire to go to another place to live. He heard the whispered stories of hard labor and harsh lives. He did not want to go with anyone. He wanted to stay with the overseer, Jo Bob, and the others, do his chores and go hunting and fishing.

Jo Bob wasn’t friendly or kind, and sometimes very gruff, but as long the boys did their chores and stayed out of his way, all were rewarded with food and a bed.

Papite heard the door open downstairs. A flash of irritation at Jo Bob for leaving the door unlatched again made a spark of anger hit his stomach. Curious as to who entered, he crept out of his room and to the edge of the stairs. He stopped when he heard a man’s voice.

“So, are you surprised to see me?”

The voice was low enough Papite didn’t recognize it at first.

“We’ll, yeah, I am, but I was hoping I’d hear from you soon. It’s been kind of hard for me to get around, and I could use some items from town,” Jo Bob answered from somewhere in the shadow of the staircase.

“Looks to me like you’re doin’ just fine. You’re lookin’ like you’re real comfortable. You big faker! Sittin’ in that chair with your cane next to you and gettin’ your disability while I get nuthin!”

Papite recognized the voice now. It was Uncle Cooter. Jo Bob stepped out of the shadows, stroking his gray, stringy beard. He looked angry.

“Hey, I’m just doin’ my part like we agreed. A thousand for each kid, and as long as I keep gettin’ new ones, more customers are happy. If I get extra, we make more and we split it.”

Cooter stood close to Jo Bob, towering over him, leaning in, his face close enough for Jo Bob to smell the liquor on his breath. “Ha, split? Split what? I ain’t seen any money from you in a long time. Where’s the money you told me I’d get for bringin’ in the last ones?”

Jo Bob answered, “My word is good. I don’t have your money yet but I’m workin’ on somethin’. In fact, I had a visitor yesterday, a man talkin’ about this property and natural gas. He said I could make a killin’ if I sold the place to his company. Said there’s lots of gas under the ground.”

“Are you crazy, old man? Nobody wants dirty swamps. We had us a deal!” Cooter said after spitting on the floor. “I’ve done my part. I’m gettin’ sick of you and your lies. You keep me on a string to get what you want! Ain’t that easy findin’ new ones all the time. It’s gettin’ harder!”

“I just need more time, Cooter. I’ll get your money,” Jo Bob said as he inhaled from a cigarette. “Let me try to get this natural gas thing goin’.”

“Forget it. I got a surprise for you, worse than when you got bit by the gator. Nothin’ for me means nothin’ for you.”

Papite watched in horror as Cooter pulled out a metal pipe from his back pocket and brought it down on Jo Bob’s head. Papite heard a loud thump when Jo Bob’s body crashed into a wooden chair.

“What do you want? What are you doing? Oh no! Ugh! Why? Why?” groaned Jo Bob.

Another thump then nothing.

Papite did not understand all of the conversation, but was scared and his hands shook from fear. He crouched down, trying to become as small as possible. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally peeked out from the stairwell.

He saw Jo Bob lying on the floor with his head split open, blood slowly leaking out of the wound from his head. Papite could see directly inside the wound at what looked like the skull. Jo Bob’s head was dented in the shape of a pipe. The cigarette he’d been smoking rested near his hand, tendrils of thin smoke rose above it.

Papite closed his eyes tight, frozen in place and trembling, his teeth chattering.

Papite stayed hidden by the steps for a long time fearing Uncle Cooter would see him. He kept trying to shrink smaller, wishing he could disappear. The urge to slip back into his room and hide under the covers stopped when he heard footsteps on the stairs. The old wooden floors creaked with every step as Cooter climbed.

Papite worried what Uncle Cooter would do when he made it to the bedroom and noticed Papite’s cot was empty, but there was no time to sneak back inside.

Cooter stopped at the entrance to the boy’s room and peered inside. Scowling at the peaceful faces, he raised the metal pipe and burst inside.

Papite clamped his hand over his mouth to stifle a scream when he heard the first thump.

Nobody woke up. Cooter walked over to the next three beds and bashed their stupid skulls wide open.

As he approached the next to the last bed, the boy woke up and cried out. Cooter seemed to remember the kid’s name was Remy. The frightened brat looked at Cooter with wild eyes, crying and begging for his life. Cooter laughed then raised the pipe and brought it down with a sickening thud.

Cooter grinned wide when the kid stopped yelling.

Papite almost screamed when he heard Remy yell. Tears burst from his eyes the second Remy’s pleas to live ended. His heart broke for his friends, wishing he could have done something to stop Cooter. It was too late to help anyone other than himself.

His instincts to survive kicked into overdrive. It was cowardly to run away, yet Papite didn’t waste time thinking about the choice. With lightning speed, Papite darted down the stairs and ran out the door into the night.

He did not look back.

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