Balloon Man

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Chapter 54

“Look Mommy! Is that Parrain?”

A little girl with freckles and a mop of mahogany hair pointed to a colossal alligator sunning on a big rock on the other side of the fence. The beast stared back at the excited child with one eye.

“I love the zoo, Mommy! It’s like being on an adventure in our own back yard. He’s the biggest gator ever, right?”

“I don’t think Parrian holds the world’s record—if that’s even him—but he certainly is the largest gator ever captured in Louisiana! The zoo’s full of all sorts of interesting animals, huh Kimberly?”

“Mommy,” Kimberly chided, “Parrian’s a reptile, not an animal. Ms. Kerney taught me that last year in class.”

“You two enjoying our latest attraction?”

Mother and daughter turned around at the sound of the voice behind them. A zoo employee with a nametag reading S. Mitchell stood about ten feet away, smiling as he stared at the gator.

“Yes sir!” Kimberly gushed. “Mommy says he ain’t Parrian, but I say he is. Which of us is right, Mr. Mitchell?”

“Today’s your lucky day because you’re correct—that’s Parrian. He’s been with us for several months now and is finally all healthy. It was touch-and-go for a while. Gators don’t like to be bothered and put up a good fight, even though we just tried to help him after he got shot.”

Kimberly’s eyes widened then she grinned. “See Mommy? Told you! Is it true, Mr. Mitchell?”

“Is what true young lady?”

Kimberly lowered her voice. “That Parrian ate a man’s arm.”

“Kimberly Ann Thornton! What a question to ask,” Mrs. Thornton admonished.

“Aww, don’t chide the girl for having a curious nature,” Mr. Mitchell answered. He smiled and nodded. “Yes, it’s true. The man had been feeding Parrian for years out in the swamps. Some people think Parrian found him and chomped his arm clean off for not bringing him any more food.”

Mrs. Thornton gave the zoo employee a disgusted look after grabbing Kimberly by the arm. “That’s enough! Come, Kimberly. Let’s go see the lions.”

Kimberly didn’t argue. She could tell her mom was angry. As they walked away from the reptile display, a strange, haunting tune blared through the loudspeakers of the zoo. For some reason, the music made goosebumps appear on Kimberly’s arms. “What song is that, Mommy? It’s creepy!”

“I believe that’s the “Prairie Creek” song,” Mrs. Thornton answered. With a slight grin she sang along.

“Atchafalaya in the night, listen closely and you might hear the song the gators sing. Listen closely, it has a ring! Ol, Atchafalaya, crawfish, that be gettin you, like you be gittin dem, de Atchafalaya crawfish bring de gators to you so you be for dem gator bits! Ha, ha, ha, watch your back; ha, ha, ha, watch your back! Lookee out, lookee out, here de come!”

“What a weird song!” Kimberly said, crinkling her nose.

“Life in Atchafalaya is weird, too. You always remember that—steer clear of folks from there.”

Glancing back behind her, Kimberly took one last look at Parrian. The beast had moved closer to the edge of the enclosure as Mr. Mitchell tossed in what looked like raw chicken through the fence. Parrian opened his big mouth and snatched up the food.

“I feel sorry for the poor man who lost his arm. Bet those big teeth hurt!”

Mrs. Thornton knew her daughter had no clue Cooter Lafuente deserved to have more than his arm chewed off. The man had been a monster and she was thrilled when the news broke about his death resulting from the infection-riddled bite.

Knowing what horrors happened to young children over the years after being lured by a stranger, Mrs. Thornton decided to use the moment as a teaching opportunity. “That’s kind of you, sweetie. Compassion is a good quality to have, even when some don’t deserve it. Now, let’s talk about the rules with strangers.”

Kimberly rolled her eyes. “I know, Mommy. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t get into a car with someone I don’t know.”

“Good girl! And never, ever be tempted by someone offering candy, a puppy, or even toys like balloons. Always run away and scream for help. Okay?”

“Okay, Mommy.”

Mrs. Thornton pulled her daughter closer as they left the reptile area, thankful her child was safe, and praying in silence for all the poor victims of the man the press dubbed, “Balloon Man.”


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