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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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“Lead me to him? Sure, lead me to him. Right. Let’s go.”

She took my hand and pulled me out the back door. Black clouds had piled upon each other and they sat, bullying and sullen, on the western horizon. We walked around the farmhouse, to a small path in the woods that abutted the backyard. My shirt stuck to my back. Streaks of lightning cut through the clouds, but I heard no thunder.

She walked ahead of me.

“My ex said I was hallucinating,” she said. “He told me no one lived in the woods, that it was just coyotes. He told me I was hearing what I wanted to hear.”

She said this in the same tone of voice she’d used to tell me that she was waiting on her prints. I looked at the back of her haircut. What was the deal with that? That’s when I heard the huh-huh-huh sound again.

We had walked 50 yards down the path. What had seemed like a cute little trail had turned into an overgrown, weed-choked passage into a dark, dank jungle. I knew there couldn’t be a jungle in mid-Missouri. I knew that the huh-huh-huh couldn’t be a monster’s growl, that it was more likely the mating grunt of some smallish Ozarks rodent. In a minute, Mrs. Loomis would show me the animal and I would note its fuzzy ears and its cute wet nose and its funny little paws. It would help my mood piece.

Sweat dripped into my eyes. The jungle was getting darker, and more dank. The huh-huh-huh was getting louder. This was more mood than I needed.

After a quarter-mile, the trail ended at a small pile of ash, what looked like a rudimentary barbecue pit, at the northern tip of an oblong clearing 20 feet by 15 feet.

I saw blood. I smelled meat.

The wind had picked up. I thought I heard animals chattering and shrieking. I tried to get a fix on the clouds, but the horizon had disappeared. We were deep in the forest. Fat, cold drops of water fell on us. I had never felt such heavy rain.

“Huh-huh-huh-huh,” the woods cried. I heard movement in the bushes.

She grasped my hand again. When I turned toward her, she was peering into the woods. I followed her eyes and thought I saw a flash of fur, a shy, greenish quivering.

“What’s that?” I croaked.

“What’s what?” she said.

“In the woods.”

She turned to me. What was the expression on her face? Amusement? Regret? Despair?

“It’s okay,” she said.

“What is?”

“Everything will be okay. Don’t worry.”

She took my face in her hands. They were like ice. I couldn’t remember why I was here. Why had we come this way? Why was she looking at me so strangely? The rain continued, heavy as sin, loud as a guilty conscience. Cutting through the sound of rain, something worse. Something remorseless: “Huh-huh-huh-HUH.”

There was rattling behind the tree, then primal, urgent moaning.

“We’d better go,” she said. “Leave him be.”

A wave of dizziness overwhelmed me. I clung to her hand. I followed her down the path, out of the woods.

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