Balloon Man

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Chapter 41

Alma and Alouette stopped to rest, bodies and minds exhausted from lack of food and water. They sat in the dark huddled next to each other, listening to the eerie noises of the swamp.

Their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, aided by the light from a high moon. Alma noticed little flickers of iridescent light to the east and knew Leesville was in that general direction, she just had no clue how to get there from their current spot.

Alma was scared yet she did her best to keep the fear locked inside her heart, forcing herself to remain strong for young Alouette. They had to keep going—keep searching for a way out—then never come to the swamp again.

Nudging Alouette’s arm, Alma stood and pointed the direction she hoped was east. They stepped softly and didn’t speak while navigating the dense brush, both fully aware there could be alligators or even Cooter hiding under the mud, ready to pluck them from the trail, never to be seen or heard from again.

While they trudged through the dank swamp, Alma prayed Cye was worried, wondering where she’d gone, and perhaps called the police. She knew it was a foolish hope. If people were out searching, they’d bring dogs. Make noise. Call out her name.

Instead, Alma was greeted by only the noise of the natural inhabitants of the swamp.

Alouette froze and Alma didn’t notice until she nearly knocked her over.

“Do you hear something?” Alouette whispered.

“Hear what—” Alma clamped her mouth shut when the sound of faint voices tickled her ears. For a split second, she was paralyzed by fear, thinking it might be Cooter, but then it registered inside her frazzled mind there were multiple voices and they were from children. “The boys!”

Alma took off, running toward the sound, her protective instincts overriding fear for her own safety.

“Boys? What boys?” Alouette asked, limping to keep up with Alma’s long strides.

“The missing boys from Swarthmore!”

Stopping near the edge of the water, Alma’s heart leapt from joy. The bright moonlight illuminated five small bodies sitting inside a pirogue, adrift about twenty yards from the shoreline.

Afraid to call out in case Cooter was creeping around somewhere in the shadows, Alma waived her hands to get the attention of the boys. Aloutte stopped next to Alma and did the same.

“It’s too dark! They can’t see us,” Alma muttered under her breath.

“I’ve got an idea,” Alouette answered back. She bent down, picked up several sticks and tossed them into the water.

The boys were oblivious to the splashes around them.

Alouette and Alma exchanged glances. Both nodded once, each silently agreeing they were on the same wavelength.

Alma took a deep breath and shouted, “Hey! Hey! Over here! Look! Papite, is that you?”

Five bodies jumped and heads turned toward the direction of Alma’s voice.

Papite heard the familiar voice from across the water, thrilled someone had found them. “Miss Elaine?”

“Papite, we saw Elaine’s body in the water, remember? Parrain got her! Shhh, be quiet! It might be a trick!” Remy whispered.

“No! Look, over there, by the bank,” Papite pointed, noticing for the first time two women with red hair stood side-by-side, the one on the right looked and sounded just like Elaine.

Remy squinted. “How can she be here? Are we seeing a ghost?”

“I bet it’s Alma!” said Papite.

“Miss Alma?” Remy called out.

“Yes, oh, Remy—is that you?”

Remy smiled big and wide. “Yes, oh, please hurry! We need help.”

Alma walked to the edge of the bank. “This way, steer your boat this way!”

“We’ll try. We’re really tired and sore. Can’t you swim out and get us?” Papite cried out.

Alouette and Alma paced the bank. Alma noticed some of the lumps in the water moved and she caught flashes of glowing yellow eyes as beams of moonlight landed on the head of several alligators. “No, we can’t get into the water. There’s gators between us. Steer clear of them and keep coming this way.”

The boys rowed as fast as their tired arm would allow and finally made it to the bank. Pumpkin and Catfish climbed out first, followed by Jacob and Remy. Papite was the last to exit the boat. When he looked down, he saw the eyes of hungry alligators shining in the water. Papite’s stomach flip flopped. Closing his eyes, Papite jumped out and sprinted out of the water.

“Hurry up! Hurry up!” said Remy, “there’s one behind you!”

Papite felt someone grab his arm, helping him get out of the water and on to dry ground. Glancing around, he realized it was Alma. Without another word spoken, they all ran into the brush, not stopping until they felt far enough away from the dangers lurking in the water.

“Whew,” breathed Alma. “That was close! I’m sure you boys must have a scary story to share, huh? How in the world did you all get out here in that pirogue? And I don’t recognize you three. What are your names and where did you come from?”

All the boys started talking at once. Alouette had never heard so much noise at one time.

Alma did her best to quiet them down. “Shhh, not so loud. One at a time. We still have to be careful. Cooter tried to kill me yesterday and might still be out here looking for me.”

The boys stopped talking at the mention of Cooter’s name. Their eyes widened in shock and fear.

Papite finally said, “Miss Alma, Cooter killed Jo Bob and the other boys at Swarthmore. I hid and escaped, thinking everyone was dead. Remy here survived and found me in the swamp. We found a shack and hid there, hoping we were safe. It turned out to be Cooter’s place. He found us and buried us up to our necks in the dirt! That’s when we met Pumpkin, Catfish and Jacob. Cooter left and we escaped.”

Alouette moved closer to Remy, looking at the ugly wound on his head. “You need a doctor right away. It’s infected.”

Remy nodded. “I know. It really hurts.”

Papite continued, his voice lower. “I think Cooter killed Miss Elaine, too. We saw her floating in the water—dead.”

“And we saw—”

Papite shushed Remy before he said anything else. Miss Alma didn’t need to hear the rest of what they saw happen to her sister.

Alma went to her knees as the words crushed her spirit. She’d held on to some hope Cooter’s words weren’t true, said only with the intention of scaring her to comply with his instructions. “No! Oh, Elaine! I’m so sorry. It should have been me, not you!”

The rest of the small group remained silent as they stared at each other, at a loss as to what to say to Alma. Papite startled everyone when he jumped to his feet. “I know where we are, and how to get out of here!”

“Are you sure?” Alouette asked.

“Yes, positive. The road is less than a mile from here. Come on, follow me!”

Papite lead the way, the rest trailing behind. As they walked, Papite asked Alouette why she hadn’t been to visit them for so long, and how she ended up with Alma. Alouette recounted her life story as the others listened.

Once she finished, Papite told his story of the murders and how he didn’t know Cooter was the killer until later. When he got to the part about fleeing into the swamp, falling into the hole, reuniting with Remy, his voice cracked with emotion.

When Papite finished, it was Remy’s turn. He told of being hit in the head and waking up later, panicking after realizing the other boys were dead. He choked up when recounting the scary noise from the flies.

Alma shuddered at the memory of the disgusting sound, and finding Jo Bob’s corpse covered in flies.

“I seen him too,” Remy added. “Thought my heart was gonna jump right outta my chest!”

Jacob, Pumpkin and Catfish listened the whole time quietly. When Alma asked Jacob how he came to be in the swamp, Jacob had everyone horrified by his tale.

Jacob described how in Baton Rouge, Cooter tricked him into coming to see a big alligator, the balloons he used to trick him, and the fake call to his mother. “He seemed nice at first. Then he started hitchhiking and I got scared. I tried to get away, but he was too strong. Momma always said not to talk to strangers. I should’ve listened. I hope she isn’t mad at me.”

Alma put a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Honey, she won’t be. She’ll be so happy to see you.”

Jacob nodded as a few tears filled his eyes.

“We were just lucky he was so drunk, he didn’t tie us too tight,” Papite remarked.

Alma felt sick to her stomach. The horrors the boys endured were too much to wrap her mind around. She looked at Pumpkin and Catfish and asked, “Now, where do you little fellas come from?”

“We don’t really know how we ended up with the mean man. All we know for sure is we miss our mama. One minute we were home playing in the yard. The next, a stranger appeared, handed Papa some money, and the man you all call Cooter took us away. We woke up stuck in the ground.”

Alma and Alouette both gasped in shock.

Catfish added, “Cooter kept telling us he was looking to sell us to another family, but we was getting so weak, he wouldn’t be able to sell us.”

“Yeah,” added Pumpkin, “he told us we got in the way and we were only good for fertilizer.”

Alma’s head spun from all the horror stories. “The man’s a murderer and a kidnapper. We have to find my car and get to the police.”

“Look! There’s the road!” Papite yelled.

The words gave all the weary travelers a burst of energy.

Trudging down the edge of the road, single file, Alma broke the silence. “You boys are so courageous! I don’t know what I would have done, maybe gone crazy.”

“Aw, thanks Miss Alma,” Papite said. “We were really scared though. I thought we would be gator bits for Parrain for sure. I just can’t believe my uncle did all this. Makes me sick knowing he’s my kin. Why would he do all this? Kidnap kids and kill people? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Papite, nobody really knows what drives a man to do things. In Cooter’s case, I’d say it was demons inside his mind.”

A loud thump from behind them made everyone turn around. Alma gasped when she saw Remy on the ground.

“Remy! Oh, the infection must have caused a fever. I’ll carry him.” Alma rushed to the boy’s side and lifted him up. He was so light it was like carrying a young deer.

“Look!” Jacob yelled.

“The car!” Alma squealed. “Come on, little ones. Freedom awaits only yards away!”

The group broke into a run, infused with excitement the nightmare was almost over. Remy’s arms and legs bobbed about as Alma ran. Once at Cye’s car, Alma handed Remy to Papite then dug into her pocket searching for the keys.

“Got them!” Alma yelled. She was so overwhelmed with emotion her fingers shook. It took three attempts to unlock the door. “Be careful with Remy, Papite. Hurry, everyone, get in! We’re heading straight to the hospital so hang on.”

Once all the kids were safely inside, Alma floored it. The car shot forward, tires barking on the blacktop. Alma gripped the wheel with so much force her knuckles turned white.

When the lights of Lewisville appeared as the town loomed closer, Papite said, “Thank you. God, thank you!”

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