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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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I woke in a puddle of vomit. I could see the glowing embers of the dying fire, but BC wasn’t on his bedroll. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. I saw a shape at the edge of the fire circle. It was BC and he was doing something on a rock. It looked like he was sharpening a knife.

DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE! The noise was behind me and I turned, startled. It was a strangled cry. Now I saw a light, too. The light was dancing, in the same location as the cry. I looked back at BC, but he kept doing what he was doing. I wasn’t drunk anymore, and I wasn’t stupider than usual. Asking for BC’s help might have been my most reasonable next move. Staying put would have made sense, too. I wish I could tell you why I followed the light into the woods, but I can’t. All I can tell you is that I did follow it.

I crawled on my belly for 50 yards.

When my head bumped into a log, I stood up. I didn’t feel hungover. I didn’t feel quite sober either. I felt like I was floating, like I had spent my life in these woods. I followed the light over hills and through ravines. My feet must have hit the ground, but I couldn’t feel them. It was more like I was leaping, or dancing. As I moved, I breathed, and as I breathed, I could feel the woods breathe. I was one with the woods, and with the thing I was following. As I was floating through the woods, I heard eating sounds–I don’t know how else to describe them. Lip-smacking, chewing, tearing exclamations, and wet grunts, and soft sobbing. I don’t know how long I followed the sounds and the light, only that the embers from the campfire were long out of sight before I came to another clearing, one we had not passed before. Now the sound was everywhere. The eating, and the sobbing, and the screaming. Then slobbering and then the scream again and then it was deafening, a shrill, witless bawling.

I knew that the sounds were impossible. Maybe hitting my head on the log had affected my hearing. I shook my head, but the sounds grew louder. At the clearing, I realized the sounds weren’t all around me–they were coming from the edge of the woods on the other side of the treeless circle. I walked into the clearing, and the light on the other side didn’t move. I saw a shape in front of the light. The noise was coming from the shape.

I moved closer. It wasn’t tall enough to be a bear, but it was upright. It had to be a wolf, or some kind of feral dog, on its hind legs, with its forelegs resting on some slim branch I couldn’t see. But it was so skinny… so bony, like an undersized, malnourished chimpanzee, or ground sloth. Its head was shaking from side to side, chewing. Was it looking at me?

I moved closer. Its head was large and angular, and covered with fur, and its eyes were moist and ravenous.

I moved closer still and saw that the fur covered only the head, and that the face was pink, and that the forelegs weren’t leaning on anything. They were holding something. And they weren’t forelegs. They were arms, covered in ragged, torn scraps of cloth.

I moved closer, until I was only 10 feet away. Closer.

It couldn’t be. It couldn’t possibly be.

“DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE,” the little boy said.

I stopped breathing.

It could not be a little boy. It could not be a little boy holding a kerosene lamp. I told myself I would never ever ever drink again.

“DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE,” the little boy said. He put down the kerosene lamp. He was wearing a coonskin hat. There was something wrong with his mouth, something messy. I should have run. I should have screamed. But I did nothing. I was one with the woods. I couldn’t feel my feet. The boy walked closer. I realized what was wrong with his mouth; his lips were smeared with blood. He was holding something wet and dripping.

“DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DOE,” the boy screamed.

“What?” I said, and he moved toward me and I saw what he was holding. It was a hand, a tiny little fist, a baby’s fist. Two fingers had already been chewed off.

“DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH DON’T TRUST HIM,” the little boy cried. “Duh-Duh-duh DON’T TRUST THE BAD MAN WITH THE KNIFE.” And then the little boy reached out his hand and he took mine and his hand was colder than death, slick with blood. “I-I-I-I’m your fuh-fuh-fuh-fuh-friend!” he bawled.

I heard a high, keening wail, an awful shriek of pain, and terror. The little boy in the coonskin cap stared at me with dead eyes, and the shrieking wouldn’t stop, and then I realized the shrieking was coming from me.

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