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The beast

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"It was some kind of an animal" was what my father would say about it. "Noise like nothing I'd ever heard before."

It was a story he told many times. The scout troop that he was scoutmaster for had gone on a camping trip. On Saturday evening the scouts hiked to a nearby river for some fishing. Fairly soon most of the boys grew bored and headed back to camp. But one scout wanted to stay and so my father stayed with him. They fished quietly for a while and then they heard heavy footfalls in the brush on the cliff above them--and slow, deliberate, heavy breathing. And then a sound that both man and boy would later describe as "like a baby crying." An eerie, unearthly sound.

The footfalls came closer and my father considered his options. He was afraid that if they tried to make a run for camp that the boy's short legs might not be able to outpace whatever might be chasing them. He didn't know what was out there, but he decided to take a chance that whatever it was might not be a swimmer. He took the boy's arm and they waded to the middle of the waist-deep river. They could hear the animal circling in the brush, moving closer then edging away, trying to figure a way to get at them. My father figured it would go for the boy, the smaller prey, and he was planning to use his fishing pole as a whip to try to fight it off. After a quarter hour, whatever it was gave up and moved off.

Over the last year or so I've thought of that story often, been haunted by it really. The boy in the story grew to manhood. He married and had two children. One was a girl. Her name was Stephanie. She grew up and moved to Raleigh after college. She brimmed with promise and had a megawatt smile. She was engaged to be married. But she never made it to her wedding day.

You probably remember what happened to Stephanie. It was front page news for quite a while--the search for her killer, his capture and eventual suicide. It's not in the news anymore, nothing new to tell. But the story won't leave me alone. I keep wondering if Stephanie's father thought of it in his wracking grief. Did he ask the powers of the universe where her river had been when the beast came? It's a weeping father's question. It's the question I keep asking myself as I try to remember Stephanie, all the Stephanies that fall prey not to an animal but to the terribly, terribly human.

(Read this week's LitLocal profile of Chitwood at http://www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A34766.)

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