Balloon Man

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Chapter 34

The late afternoon sun beat down on the pails, turning the dank air so hot it hurt to breathe. Remy felt dizzy and weak. .He knew he was supposed to be quiet, but if he didn’t do something to stay awake, he’d pass out. Remy needed to focus on something. “Papite, can you hear me?”

“Uh-huh. Shhh, be quiet,” Papite whispered. “Cooter might be near.”

“I don’t care,” Remy whined. “I’ll go crazy if I don’t talk.”

A faint voice from one of the pails asked, “Is someone else here? I want to go home. Please let me go.”

Remy could tell the boy was younger than he was, and just as scared. “We’re stuck, just like you, but together, maybe we can figure out a way to get free. I’m Remy. What’s your name?”

“Jacob,” the boy said in between sobs. “That man lied! Said he’d show me the biggest alligator in the world then took me away!”

“Jacob, my name’s Papite. I think I’m right next to you. Shh, don’t cry. It won’t help. Can you see anything?”

Jacob sniffled back his tears. “I saw three before the bad man stuffed me in here. Hey! Can anyone hear me? Hello?”

All three boys held their breaths, waiting to hear an answer. None came.

“Oh, no! They’re all dead! I don’t want to die. I want my momma!” Jacob wept.

“Shhh,” Remy responded. “We’ll get out of this somehow, but you’ve got to stop crying!”

Papite lost control as fear overtook his mind. He yelled, “If we don’t make any noise, nobody will know we’re here! I don’t care Cooter hears me, I want out of here!”

“Stop it! You’ll use up all your energy!” Remy pleaded.

Papite ignored Remy and wriggled his body with all he had left. He felt the rope slip around his wrists a little as dirt intermixed with his sweat. The sensation gave him renewed strength so he twisted and rolled his wrists, using his damp fingers to pull and yank at the rope, tears streaming down his face. Finally, one wrist slipped free.

“I got my hands loose!” Papite squealed with delight.

Remy’s heart burst with hope. “Yes! Hurry, dig out and help us!”

Papite clawed and squirmed until his arms burst through the dirt. With one big push, he shoved his hands into the bucket, freeing his head. The bright light hurt his eyes but he didn’t care.

Placing his palms on the ground, Papite kicked his legs while using his arm muscles to hoist his body out of the hole. “I’m out!”

“Thank God! Hurry, Papite, before Cooter comes back!”

Papite looked around for a shovel but didn’t see one. He’d have no choice but to get the others out by hand.

The heat was unbearable so Papite ran and pulled the buckets off the heads of the others. The first two he yanked up had covered two young boys, maybe six or seven. He didn’t recognize them and they were too sickly to even speak or move. Papite knew he needed help getting them free.

The last two pails were Remy and Jacob. He pawed at the dirt, flinging it all around, until both boys were out of their holes. After helping untie the ropes binding their hands, Papite said, “Need help with the others. They’re in a bad way.”

Remy grabbed Papite around the shoulder and hugged him. “Thank you!”

Papite brushed Remy’s hug away. “No time for that. Hurry!”

Jacob sat on the ground next to the hole, shaking, his dirty face buried in his hands. Papite and Remy moved over and dug out the other boys. They were lethargic, barely breathing, and didn’t even attempt to help.

Papite moved them over to some soft grass while Remy filled up an old bottle with water from the rain barrel near the back door.

“C’mon you guys, drink. Gotta get your strength back so we can get outta here!” Remy begged to the boys, yet they didn’t respond.

“I’m ready, what can I do to help?” Jacob asked.

Papite looked over at the small boy, surprised to see him standing only feet away. “I think we may have to carry these guys. I don’t think they can walk.”

“They’re too heavy to carry through the swamp!” Remy said. “Maybe there’s a phone inside? Oh, and food!”

“What if Cooter’s inside?” Papite whispered.

Remy looked back toward the trailer. “We’ve made a lot of noise and he ain’t come out. Betcha he’s gone.”

“You volunteering to go look?” Papite countered.

“No, let me. I’m the smallest—I’ll make less noise,” Jacob offered, surprised by his own words. He couldn’t believe he’d said them.

“Okay, but hurry,” Papite urged. “These boys need help right away or they ain’t gonna make it.”

Jacob nodded and headed to the back door. For the first time in his life, he felt brave. He’d always been afraid of his own shadow, but suddenly he felt like part of a team and he wanted to do his part.

The door wasn’t locked so Jacob pushed it open. He took two steps inside and scanned the trailer. No one was in the small kitchen or living room, so Jacob took a few more quiet steps toward the back.

The bedroom and bathroom were empty, too, so he ran to the door. “He’s gone!”

Remy and Papite smiled while carrying the two young boys inside, happy to get out of the hot sun. They laid the boys on the couch while Jacob sat between them, giving them sips of water.

Remy searched for a telephone yet didn’t find one. “Ain’t one here! Dang!”

“Then we’ll need to bring as much food and water as we can carry to make it through the swamps,” Papite said, pointing to the small fridge. “I’ll get food and you find something to put it in.”

Remy rummaged through the drawers and trash on the floor, finding four plastic bags. Papite stuffed all the food and water he could in each one.

“Where am I?”

Remy and Papite spun around at the sound of a squeaky voice. Jacob smiled from between the two boys, feeling happy he’d helped them.

Papite stopped and really looked at the boys for the first time. They were twins with blonde, dirty hair and cornflower-colored eyes. It was impossible to tell them apart.

Jacob handed the one on his right some water. “I’m Jacob, and this here’s Papite and Remy. What’s your names’?”

“Pumpkin and Catfish,” said the one on the right.

“Which one’s which?” Remy asked.

The one on the left of Jacob said, “I’m Pumpkin. He’s Catfish. Can we go home now?”

“We’re far out in the swamps and getting back won’t be easy. We all need to eat and drink first, Here,” Papite said, handing both boys some dried alligator he’d found in a drawer.

Pumpkin and Catfish hesitated until Remy, Jacob, and Papite each stuffed a wadful in their mouths first. After a few bites and more water, a bit of color appeared on all their faces.

While they ate, Papite kept checking out the window for any signs of Cooter. The longer they waited, the more he worried. “Come on, we’ll eat while we walk. Pumpkin? Catfish? You two can walk, right?”

“We ain’t going back in that hole again. We’ll crawl on all fours if we have to,” Pumpkin answered.

Papite and Remy each picked up two bags while Jacob opened the back door and peeked outside. He smiled after giving the yard a good once-over. “All clear!”

Pumpkin and Catfish went next, followed by Remy and Papite. Together, they walked as fast as their tired, sore bodies allowed into the swamp.

“You know where we’re going?” Pumpkin asked Papite.

“Yep. We left a pirogue not far from here. Once we get to it, it’s smooth sailing!”

The answer gave the twins a burst of energy so they picked up their pace. Twenty minutes later, Papite and Remy stopped at the edge of the water.

“See?” Remy pointed. “Almost home!”

“Do you think we can all fit in the boat?” Jacob asked. “I don’t want to fall in. I can’t swim.”

“We’ve got no choice if we want to live,” Papite urged. “We’ll just to sit real close.”

Looking back once from where they’d been, knowing the horrors awaiting them if they got caught, gave each boy the push to climb inside the boat. With careful steps so they wouldn’t flip it, each took turns and sat. Once all five were situated, Papite pushed against a tree and launched them into the still water.

Exhaustion overtook the boys one at a time as the sun began its slow descent from the sky. Within an hour, all were fast asleep as the pirogue floated through the murky waters in silence.

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