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Backpacker Magazine – November 2009

The Lost Boy of the Ozarks

After three decades of silence, a reporter reveals the story he was afraid to write.

by: Neville Franks

Illustration by Tomer Hanuka
Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

The peeling sign said "rooms available" and I asked for one.

"A-yup," said Gus, or Gus's employee, as he pulled a key from a wooden slot behind him. Knotty pine? Walnut? Elm? I would have to check that out.

"Pretty country here," I said.

"Sometimes," said Gus.

"People go hiking around here?"

Gus looked like he had just eaten a piece of bad squirrel meat.

"You plannin' to go into the woods, mister?" Gus asked.

"Maybe," I said.

"Not so smart."

"Why do you say that, Gus?"

"Ain't Gus," he said.

"You're not Gus?"

He spat something behind the counter. "Ain't no Gus," he said. "Ain't been no Gus for a long time. People call me BC." I didn't sleep well that night. It was the noise from the woods. It was the river gurgling, and twigs rustling, and the wind through the trees, and creaking. It was a hiss and crack that made me think of a bullwhip snapping, and a low, soft moaning. It was a thin, reedy, animal-like whimpering that haunts me to this day, an eerie and primal noise that I wish I would have listened to more closely. If I had, if I had been able to comprehend what the thing in the woods was saying, would things have turned out differently?

"Huh huh huh," the thing from the woods cried. "Huh huh huh huh."

It sounded like a person, urgently alive, and yet there was something inhuman about it, too, something older than the sky, sadder than the wind. Or maybe this was what the Ozarks sounded like?

I called the newsroom the next morning.

"What have you got?" Sissy asked.

I didn't mention the sounds.

"Great stuff," I lied. "Lots of local color, and some fascinating characters. Plus, some local mysteries. There's a place called Gus's, without a Gus, and a restaurant where the waitress and the dishwasher–or maybe he's the owner–look at the woods every time a car goes by and..."

"Have you been drinking?"

"No, I told you I was done with..."

"Have you even left the hotel and the place you've been eating?"

"You said you wanted a mood piece, right? I'm gathering mood."

"Where was the last place the kid was seen?"

"He was walking out of the diner, toward the river."

"And what's next to the river?"

I didn't like where this conversation was going. I didn't like it at all.

"The woods?" I said. It came out as a question.

"You planning to go there?"

"Well, of course I'm planning to..."

"Call me by the end of the week," she said. "You better have a story about camping out where the kid disappeared."

I walked to the diner.

When the blue-eyed waitress brought me my pancakes, I asked if I could ask her a question.

"You're a reporter," she said. "Isn't that what you do?"

"How'd you know I was a reporter?"

"Everyone around here knows you're a reporter. Since that poor child went missing, that's the only people been coming round here. Ain't no tourists anymore. Certainly not any families."

"Yeah, I'm a reporter. Have you heard anything about what might have happened to the ki... to the little boy?"

"Probably got lost in the woods. It happens."

"It does?"

"You're funny, Mr. Reporter," she said. "You think you're going to find that little boy, do you?"

"No, I'm just here to do a moo... I mean, to write something about the area. You know any place within a few miles that might sell trail maps?"

I heard a sharp hacking noise and looked into the back of the restaurant. There was the dishwasher/owner/bald/hairy-armed guy, bent over and coughing. Or laughing.

"No trail maps around here," Blue Eyes told me. "You want to know about trails, or anything to do with those woods, you need to talk to Mrs. Loomis, the retired librarian who lives down in Goodnight Hollow, not far from Walnut Shade."

I pictured a gray-haired, muffin-faced crone. I saw piles of knitting needles and gangs of house cats.

"How do I get in touch with her?"

"You don't have to," the waitress said. "I already did."

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Jul 19, 2012

I feel sorry for those who need to know up front that the article is fiction. If you didn't pick it up after the first paragraph or 2, or even at least enjoy it that bit more because you weren't sure, then you are really missing out.

Mar 02, 2012

Still can't throw out my nov 2009 issue because I want to re read this story, came to website for more by this author.

Jan 14, 2011

I couldn't read the article as it was written in a horrible manner.

So I came straight to the comments to get the gist.

It's fiction? ok, nothing to see here, move along... I'm a realist.

Greg Hall
Dec 09, 2010

I couldn't stop reading it, very compelling, I loved it!!

Dec 09, 2010

Nice story, what there was of it. But it kind of makes you wonder, if BP is doing fiction now, how many other articles are fiction also? If I want to read fiction, I'll go to Barnes and Noble.

Donald E. Park
Nov 08, 2010

Don't send anymore reprints of stories that end part way through the story. I'm not about to spend several hours trying to find my copy of a magzine published well over a year ago.

Oct 29, 2010

Great story, great writing!

Oct 29, 2010

Great story, great writing!

Oct 29, 2010

I loved this story when I read it in print... all you cry babies complaining about Backpacker not labeling this as fiction up front are lame. It's obviously fiction, but it's fun to imagine it is real for those of us that actually retained their imagination when they passed into adulthood.

Oct 29, 2010

I loved this story when I read it in print... all you cry babies complaining about Backpacker not labeling this as fiction up front are lame. It's obviously fiction, but it's fun to imagine it is real for those of us that actually retained their imagination when they passed into adulthood.

Oct 28, 2010

that sucked

Sam Mudd
Oct 21, 2010

This is really fun

BJ Hopkins
Oct 21, 2010

This is real.

Dale Garrison
Aug 20, 2010

Great read. Thank you Backpacker and Steve Friedman.

Aug 14, 2010

Journalistic integrity took it on the chin in Backpacker after this article.

Aug 13, 2010

Should have been labeled as fictional from the start.

Feb 04, 2010

Really fun read! Where is the rest of it?! I read the article in the magazine, but have lost it (don't ask me how!) ofcourse this is the one I can't find. I want to share this story with some friends... have them read it and enjoy the suspense! Where can I find the rest of it?

Joan Littlefield
Jan 16, 2010

I would love to read more from this author. Where can I find it?

Nick Davidson
Dec 01, 2009

Having said that, no blame to the writer. I was entranced by the story. Just wish Backpacker would have been honest about this fictional anomaly.

Nick Davidson
Dec 01, 2009

Great story. If it were real. Too bad we readers had to be tricked into reading it, and only found out in a vague contributors note at the end of the article. This is sloppy and irresponsible journalism. A note should have appeared at the beginning of the article that what we were reading was not real. I'm pretty disappointed about that.

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