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November 2009

The Lost Boy of the Ozarks

After three decades of silence, a reporter reveals the story he was afraid to write.
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A large man with the sad, liquid eyes of an otter slapped me.

“What?” I tried to say, but what came out was “Wulb!”

“He’s alive,” the man said, then wrote on a clipboard.

“Wuh-wuh-wuh-wulb?” I said.

I was at the Cox Medical Center, the doctor told me, in Springfield. Fishermen headed to the James River had found me at dawn, passed out at the edge of Highway 176. They had brought me here. Doctors suspected alcohol poisoning, which turned out to be true, but when they ran tests, they also found large amounts of Ibogaine, a powerful hallucinogen used by certain tribes in South America. They also found LSD, horse tranquilizers, Ecstasy, and methamphetamines.

I thought of BC and the drink he had given me.

“You’re lucky you’re alive,” the otter-eyed doctor told me. “Having fun with happy pills at home’s one thing, but in the woods? That’s plain dumb.”

“But,” I tried to say, but what came out was “Blib.”

After he left, a nurse came in and whispered to me.

“Your girlfriend’s been calling,” she said. “She sounds angry.”

“My girlfriend?”

“Sissy.”

“Why haven’t you been returning my calls?” Sissy said, when I got her on the phone. “I’ve been calling you for two days! We found him.”

“What? Who? No, I found him. He…”

“Little Boy Blue, you boozing, animal-loving, mood-piece-happy idiot! He never disappeared into the woods. His mom’s ex snatched him. Kevin’s source in the highway patrol fed him the inside dope, told him everything. And Deadline got the cops in Eureka Springs to fill in the gaps. The ex’s cocktail-waitress girlfriend wanted a kid, but she wasn’t so keen on being pregnant. She convinced the ex that kidnapping was a great solution. So they invited Little Boy Blue and his sister and their folks to St. Louis, then hired one hillbilly from Branson to trail the car and to call another hillbilly to grab the kid when he saw a chance. He saw the chance when the kids were playing by the stream outside Gus’s Diner. It was the second hillbilly’s idea to smear raccoon blood on the little girl and tell her if she said anything, he’d come back and snatch her, too. He took her shoes, too, so she wouldn’t get back to the restaurant as fast.”

My head hurt. My eyes hurt. My feet hurt. I wanted to stop hurting. I wondered what time it was. I wondered if there was a bar nearby.

“And the coonskin hat?”

“Weird thing about that. No one knows where that came from. After the boy was found, the little girl kept babbling about a stuttering child in the woods, how he was hungry but didn’t want to hurt anyone. She said he gave her the hat. She kept crying and yelling to the cops that they had to go back and save the kid. Finally, a paramedic gave her a sedative to shut her up. She’ll probably sleep for a week.”

I would find the bar, and I would treat myself to a beer, and I would drink until I didn’t hurt anymore. I would remind myself that scared little girls make up stories every day and that hallucinogenic drugs make even flinty-eyed reporters imagine things, and I would drink some more and I would go back to school and I would become an accountant. I would drink lots and lots of beer.

“So Little Boy Blue’s okay?”

“Yep. Home sweet home. A pizza delivery guy saw his picture on the news and spotted him at the ex’s house. The ex and his shifty galpal are going away for a long, long time. Deadline Ed says the cops are still looking for the first hillbilly. But Kev’s working on a piece about how they arrested the second one yesterday, the snatcher. They caught him in the woods near Goodnight Hollow. A nasty piece of work, that one. Top suspect in five or six murders down there in Deliveranceland, but they never had enough evidence to convict him. He liked knives, though, everyone knows that. It’s funny, huh?”

“Funny? What’s funny?”

“A psycho like that, with all those knives, running a hotel.”

I thought I was going to throw up.

“What did you say his name was?”

“Clemons.”

“His first name?”

“Balthazar, though everyone down there called him BC.”

I shut my eyes, saw the man by the rock, backlit by fire. I saw the man in the woods, hunched over a rock, sharpening his knife. The bad man.

“Hey!” Sissy snapped. “Are you still there? Or are you tripping your juicehead wonderdog skull off?”

“No, I mean yeah. I’m still here.”

I could hear her sigh.

“Right. Sure you are. The nurse told me all about your pharmaceutical celebration in the trees. I wish I could say I was surprised. Get your ass back to town. We got a kids’ turtle race that needs to be written up. And then it’s time for the state fair and the Biggest Pumpkin in Boone County contest. Guess who’s covering it?”

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