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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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Kev and Deadline won state reporting awards for their Little Boy Blue coverage and got raises. Sissy spiked my mood piece. She told me no one cared about local legends, or spooky dishwashers, or librarians with emotional problems. (It turns out that Mrs. Loomis was bipolar, that after she miscarried, which led to her divorce, she started seeing forest children and was institutionalized briefly, and that shortly before the kid from Eureka Springs was grabbed, the librarian had gone off her meds and joined a coven of Wiccans. That explained the dead flowers and the haircut.)

Back on the beat where I had always belonged, I wrote a story about a singing guinea pig named Tess and its owner, a stockbroker I referred to as “jolly and portly, if a slight bit socially retarded.” How was I supposed to know that Tess’s owner was country-club buddies with the Tribune publisher? The publisher had a talk with Sissy, who, when it came to the subject of me, didn’t need much talking to. Sissy called me into her office on a bright, spring Friday afternoon, a full year after my trip to the Ozarks.

“As the great poet wrote,” she said, “April is the cruelest month.”

“Huh,” I said, and then she told me that even though I’d always struggled with facts, she liked my way with words and admired my imagination and wished me nothing but the best. Then she told me to clean out my desk.

I took a road trip, because I didn’t know what else to do. I pointed my car toward Northern California, where I had always imagined quiet, friendly little streams and springy meadows and people with good skin and strong handshakes, but somehow I ended up behind a plate of flapjacks and a steaming cup of coffee, next to a twisting stream, hard on Missouri State Highway 176. A little voice had been whispering to me ever since the otter-eyed doctor had wakened me, telling me to slow down, telling me that if I wanted happiness, happiness was waiting for me, that peace was slinging hash, that serenity had blue eyes and that her name was Beatrice. As usual, the little voice was feeding me a line.

Bea and I dated for a few months, until she told me she was sick to death of the country, and of the Ozarks, and she wanted to move to the big city, and what was wrong with me, and would I ever grow up and stop looking for things that never were?

I don’t know if I ever did. I don’t know if I ever have.

Little Boy Blue was lost, and then he was found, and now he’s an adult, older than I was when I walked into the woods and the woods claimed me. You don’t know about him because he stopped doing interviews a long time ago. He wants people to forget about him. I don’t blame him.

Sometimes I wish I could forget about him. I’m different now. The world is different. Things have changed, even in the hidden hollows of southern Missouri. Millionaires still haul their fancy speedboats to the Lake of the Ozarks, and they tie up together and drink too much and the girls take off their shirts but now you can see it all on the Internet.

Missing kids–especially cute white ones–are gone for an hour now and you can see them on the Internet, too. The only people who walk into the Ozarks’ hidden hollows these days wear Gore-Tex. Many carry mesh baskets and hunt for morel mushrooms and ginseng, which they sell to the fancy restaurants where the millionaires like to eat and where possum meat’s not on the menu. Gus’s Hotel is gone, and there’s a Wal-Mart where it used to be. The diner’s a parking lot. If a 5-year-old skinned a squirrel, he’d probably get his own reality TV show. No one writes mood pieces anymore.

I think about my failed mood piece sometimes. I think about BC, too, and once or twice a month I call the Missouri State Penitentiary, in Jefferson City, to make sure he’s still locked up, and to see when his next parole hearing is, so that I can drive to The Big House, which is what folks here call the institution, and suggest it not be granted. I think about Bea, too. More often than I’d like to admit, if you want the truth. I think about her late at night, when I’m lying in bed. But I don’t ever talk about her. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do, not to Rachael. That’s Mrs. Loomis’s first name. Rachael and I have been living together for 30 years now, in the house at the end of the gravel road, just a few miles from Walnut Shade, next to the James River, deep in the shadows of Goodnight Hollow.

I’m a middle-aged man now, recently retired from 29 years of teaching fifth grade. I haven’t had a drink since that last pull of drug-laced moonshine in the clearing, next to the fire. Rachael takes her meds and I go to AA meetings and we read local history books together and we sit on lawn chairs on the banks of the James River and we fish and our sun-freckled shoulders touch. Sometimes on a warm spring afternoon we drive up to St. Louis, to take in a Cardinals game and to sit on the hood of our cherry-red Buick Skylark afterward and breathe in the city smells while we slurp our vanilla milkshakes at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard Stand on Grand Avenue. And when we get home, while I’m inside measuring coffee for the morning and tidying up, Rachael makes a trip to the little ash mound down the path behind the house. She calls it her “constitutional.” I followed her once, many years ago, to see what she was doing and I saw her gently place a raw chicken, still bloody and freshly butchered, on the little pile of ashes. That was the last time I followed her. I think of Bea and BC and baseball games and frozen custard late at night, when Rachael is sleeping and I’m trying not to think of other things. I try not to think about the thing I saw in the woods, the thing I couldn’t possibly have seen. I try not to think about the baby’s fist with the missing fingers. I try not to think about the terrible fate of that little boy from another time.

Trying not to think about things keeps a man awake at night. It keeps me awake. So do the sounds, the sounds from the woods next to the river. They’re still there, the rustling and the creaking, the sighing of the wind. Sometimes, in the stillness of the predawn darkness, I tell myself that I’ve grown used to them. But then the silence will be broken–by soft weeping, by the fierce whisper of the whip, by a low, soft moaning.

“Huh-huh-huh,” the reedy, haunted voice says, and then louder, “HUH-HUH-HUH” and I don’t even bother to put a pillow over my ears, because I know it won’t help.

“HUH-HUH-HUH-HUNGRY!” the lost little boy screams. And then comes the rattling in the woods, the urgent scuttling. There is a tearing and chewing as the ghostly, damned thing in the woods falls upon its bloody sustenance, and then there is a horrible, savage slurping and then an ecstatic lip-smacking.

Silence comes next, and I always wish it would go on forever, but it never does. After the silence comes a sigh, night after night, week after week, decade after endless decade, a sigh lonelier than the wind, sadder than the ageless river. And then, after the sigh, comes the last thing I hear every night, before I finally fall into an uneasy sleep. It is the sound of death, and the horror that follows.

“Fuh-fuh-fuh friends,” the lost little boy says. “Muh-muh-muh my friends.”

Writer-at-large Steve Friedman actually did, many years ago, write a story about Jim the Wonder Dog for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Unlike Neville Franks, he never dated a waitress named Beatrice.

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