Balloon Man

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Chapter 35

Alma stopped at a small gas station at the edge of town. She needed to use the bathroom and get some fuel. Cye’s vehicle guzzled gas like crazy. After filling up, she went inside, used the restroom, and paid the cashier for the gas and a bottle of water. Stepping out into the hot air, she walked across the quiet parking lot.

Once inside the vehicle, Alma crinkled her nose. It still smelled awful from Cooter’s body odor. “What a filthy animal!”

Alma put the keys in the ignition then looked in the rearview mirror before backing out. Her heart leapt into her throat when she saw long, stringy hair plastered across a lumpy forehead and a set of mean eyes staring at her. On instinct, she gasped while fumbling for the door handle.

“Hey, Alma. Miss me?” Cooter said from the back seat, grinning. In a flash, Cooter’s arm was around Alma’s neck. He pressed the sharp, cold steel against her throat. “Drive or die.”

Alma’s mind raced with a thousand questions as fear made chill bumps appear all over her body. “Please let me go. You can take the car, I don’t care. Just please let me—”

“Nope. We’ve got things to do and I need a driver. Ain’t never been good at it. Now, you be quiet and let me think.”

“No, please,” Alma sobbed.

“Shut up!” Cooter yelled. He followed the threat by pushing the blade harder against her neck. A trickle of warm blood dripped onto his fingers. “I said drive!”

Crying softly, Alma didn’t say a word as she started the engine.

Cooter relaxed his grip so Alma could turn her head enough to drive, yet kept the knife in the same spot. “Stop that cryin’! Sheesh! You’re lots noisier than your sister!”

Alma felt the whoosh of blood as it drained from her face. What Cooter said made her tears dry up as anger bubbled and churned inside her chest.

Cye’s instincts about Cooter had been right on target. Alma forced herself to concentrate on the road, searching for any signs of a cop or even a civilian to help. The man holding her hostage was unstable, drunk, and obviously deranged. She had to figure out a way to escape before he killed her—just like she feared he’d done to Elaine and the others.

Cooter knew he was dancing on the edge of madness but he didn’t care. All he could think about was getting rid of the sickly boys and finding fresher meat. Buyers didn’t want sickly boys. They wanted sweet, fresh, easy to control young things.

“That ain’t always true. Those Wisconsin twins were perfect little babies, then the fools who bought them sold them back to pay off Ruehle’s gambling debts!” Cooter muttered under his breath.

Cooter stared at the roof, angry at himself for killing Jo Bob. It wasn’t from remorse—he didn’t have any—but because dealing with the brats was easier when Jo Bob was alive.

“Where do you want me to go?” Alma whispered.

Cooter pulled his gaze from the roof to the back of Alma’s head. “Oh, ha! Guess I forgot to tell you. Swarthmore House. Gotta get somethin’ from there before we head to back to my place.”

Alma’s stomached fluttered with a sense of hope. Was Cooter so drunk and stupid he didn’t realize the place was swarming with cops? Alma did her best to continue showing fear even though she wanted to pump her fist in the air and smile.

Turning left at the edge of town, Alma headed out to Swarthmore, praying the cops hadn’t given up for the night and left.

Alma’s excitement disappeared as the car neared the turnoff to Swarthmore. Bright red and blue lights blinked in the dark like beacons.

“Stop, turn around, and go right. Now!” Cooter yelled into her ear.

Tears of despair poured from Alma’s eyes as she considered honking the horn. Cooter must have sensed her thoughts because he pressed the blade into her neck. Alma let out a yelp of pain.

“I said turn around or I’ll slit your throat right here!”

Shaking, Alma stepped on the brakes, put the car in reverse, and followed Cooter’s instructions. As she drove deeper into the woods, she remembered her car was about a mile or so down the road. If she could just get out of Cye’s car and run, she’d be safe.

Then, she recalled she didn’t have the keys. A heavy sense of dread pushed down on her chest making it hard to breath.

“Pull over, right there behind those big trees,” Cooter instructed.

Alma knew her only shot at surviving was outside the vehicle. She pulled over and parked where Cooter requested.

“Get out. Try any tricks and you’ll die slow. Be a good girl and I’ll kill you quick and painlessly.”

Alma’s eyes scanned the terrain. She had no choice and only seconds to make her move. She nodded once, so Cooter removed the arm holding the knife from around her neck. Taking a deep breath, Alma steadied her nerves, shoved the keys deep into her pocket then opened the car door. She ran toward the swamp with all the strength she could muster.

“You bitch! I’ll get you!” Cooter yelled.

Alma’s arms and legs ached but she continued pumping them at full speed, putting distance between her and Cooter. She heard him cuss and grumble and then a weird thump. Looking back once, she almost laughed while the drunken fool tried to scramble to his feet.

Running like a twenty-year-old, Alma darted through the vines and tree limbs, thankful the full moon above provided enough light to guide her. Cooter yelled again but this time it was not as loud. Alma had put quite a bit of distance between the two of them.

“You bitch! Where you at? I’m gonna get you, then I’m gonna chop the hell out of you, just like I did your sister!”

Alma stopped at the edge of the water. She had two choices: climb a tree or slip under the water. The old cypress was tall, damp with moisture, and Alma feared she didn’t have enough upper body strength to climb up it in a hurry.

She was left with no choice. It would be the water.

Without a sound, Alma slid into the dark water. Holding her breath, she closed her eyes and went under, barely making a ripple. She couldn’t see a thing but kept swimming.

When her hand touched something hard, Alma prayed it was a tree trunk and not an alligator. She let her head break the surface enough to open her eyes. Sure enough, it was a big tree, so Alma moved behind it and hid behind the thick, gnarled roots.

Cooter appeared at the water’s edge less than thirty feet away. Alma shook while watching him scan the area for any signs of her. With a frustrated groan, he took off in the opposite direction, muttering to himself. “Nobody’s stupid enough to go into the water with all these gators. She musta went this way.”

Though she feared being in the water, Alma didn’t move for another ten minutes. She strained her ears for any sounds of Cooter, yet was greeted with only the nocturnal noises of swamp life.

Alma felt enough time had passed to escape safely. She swam back to the bank and threw her body onto the ground, grateful to be out of the water.

Exhausted and sore, Alma took several deep breaths to calm her mind. So much had happened in such a short time. She wasn’t used to this much physical activity and her legs started to shake.

Forcing herself to stand, Alma looked around. The swamp and the foliage all looked the same. Her stomach clenched when she realized she didn’t know which way to go.

A weird noise made Alma jump and turn around, thinking it was Cooter sneaking up behind her. She clamped wet fingers around her mouth to keep the scream in when she saw it.

It was Parrian. She knew it was the beast because it was missing an eye in the same spot where Cye stabbed it before. Backing away slowly, Alma didn’t take her gaze off him until she made it several yards away. Then, she turned and ran.

Panicked now, Alma picked her way through the foliage, praying she was headed in the right direction. After about twenty minutes, her heart sank when she stopped and looked around, realizing she’d been going in circles the entire time.

Instead of trying to find the road in the dark, Alma decided to climb a tree. She’d be safe from the gator and Cooter, and since neither one were around at the moment, she had time to ease up the tree, pacing herself if she tired too quick.

Looking up, she studied her options. A tall, leafy swamp hickory tree was about fifteen yards away. Alma jogged over to it and began the slow climb, ignoring the tough bark scrapping her hands and knees.

Once high enough and well-hidden behind the thick, green foliage, Alma took a deep breath and sighed while clinging to the thick branch.

The moon had moved, thrusting the swamp into blackness. Alma felt enveloped inside the ebony velvet. She thought about all the events in her life leading her to running for her life in the swamps.

Remembering them made her stomach revolt. She vomited while thinking about what Cooter had done to Elaine. Quiet tears cascaded down her cheeks, knowing the twin bond was permanently severed.

As the night wore on, Alma thought back to when she gave up her child for adoption. The images, smells, the weird doctor with a thin mustache, it all roared back.

The memories were too much for Alma’s frazzled mind. Sleep finally closed her eyes, escorting her to nightmares just as painful and sad as reality.

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