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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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Fifteen minutes into the woods, the boy cried out. He shouted that something had grabbed his hand and tried to pull him into the bushes. Dad chuckled and told the child that it was probably a branch–it was mid-April, and the woods were lush–and that even if it wasn’t, if the boy stayed on the trail, none of the monsters in the woods could get to him, because wood monsters didn’t like trails, and that outraged the boy, who said it wasn’t just a branch, it was a skinny kid in a furry hat, and why did no one ever believe him, it wasn’t fair! He said the skinny kid had been following them ever since they walked into the woods.

“He’s right, I saw him, too,” the little girl said, and the mother decided the children were hungry and it might be a good idea to stop and have some fruit and nuts. But the father thought that children should not be catered to–and that their fears should certainly not be indulged–so he insisted they walk another mile into the woods. The mother bit her lip and went along–starting an argument wouldn’t help things–but she made sure she kept the kids in sight, because now she was sure her son and daughter were fatigued, too, and when they were hungry and tired, they tended to hit each other, and then, for no reason at all, she remembered hitting her little sister when she was barely old enough to talk, and she thought about the last argument they’d had, and before she knew it, she felt a sob lodged in her throat and she squeezed her eyes shut to get hold of herself. When she opened them, she caught a glimpse of movement in the bushes next to her son and she yelped, which made both kids scream.

Mom broke out the fruit and nuts, and the family sat in a tight little circle on the trail and no matter how much they ate, and no matter how many times the father told the kids about the great marshmallows they would roast that night, and how they would be able to look up and see stars, the kids wouldn’t stop crying. Then the wind picked up, and the air got colder. Mom took her husband’s hand and she squeezed it and she raised her eyebrows, and he knew what that meant. They walked back to the car and all of them felt something chilly and damp on the back of their necks, like something was watching them. Maybe next year they would sleep under the stars.

They drove a few minutes, around a bend, and stopped at Gus’s Diner for lunch, and after mom and dad drank iced tea and discussed mom’s no-good shiftless ex-husband and argued about how much time they had to spend with him and his sleazy, chain-smoking cocktail waitress girlfriend in St. Louis, the little boy said he was bored. “Take your sister and go look at the fish in the stream just outside the back door,” the father said, because he wanted the kids to forget about the fright they’d had in the woods. Fifteen minutes later, after mom and dad had reached an uneasy peace about her no-good ex and his shiftless girlfriend–who had invited the whole family up to St. Louis for a let’s-get-to-know-each-other-better visit, after all–a woman at another table screamed. The visitors from Eureka Springs looked up and there was their little girl, staring into the jukebox. She was barefoot, rocking back and forth, humming. Her parents thought an animal had climbed onto her head, but then they looked closer and saw it was just a ratty coonskin cap. But what had happened to her sandals? Why was she humming? Was that mud on her legs, and why was it red? And where was her big brother?

This time, the cops were called. Times had changed, even in the Ozarks, so of course sex offenders were interviewed. Television crews drove from Kansas City and Springfield and St. Louis, and the hoteliers and restaurateurs of nearby Branson refused to appear on camera, because a missing kid was terrible, but business was business. Then a newspaper editor in Columbia, in central Missouri, saw one of the spots about “Little Boy Blue,” as the missing child had been dubbed, on the 5 p.m. KSDK news show from St. Louis, and it made her think of something. She had taken a class in “Rural Anthropology and Folklore” at the University of Missouri before she became a newspaperwoman, and the news reminded her of a lecture she had heard–an obscure tall tale about a mysterious little boy in a coonskin cap. That excited her, in the way that missing children and creepy coincidences excited newspaper editors, especially back then, in 1980, when newspapering was an exciting thing to do.

She pulled her ace cops reporter, a gregarious and chain-smoking Irishman named Kevin Gerrity who typed with two fingers, off his beat and told him to work the search angle hard. She took the statehouse reporter, a bookish second-generation Armenian named Edward Alouisious Dorian who wore heavily starched white shirts and spoke with a formality the other reporters snickered about, and whom they all called Deadline Ed behind his back, and she told him she wanted to know everything there was to know about the missing kid’s family, that Deadline should pack a toothbrush and be in Eureka Springs by dinnertime. The editor wanted something on the creepy historical angle, too, and some local color on the woods and the rednecks who lived there, but the only person she had left to send anywhere was a cub reporter with an overactive imagination and a nasty drinking habit, a dreamy mope she had been thinking of firing almost since the day she had hired him.

That’s where I come in.

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