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.”
“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.”