THE BEAST ON THE BEACH
by Jean Airey
Eddie Barker ran down the beach, his feet making soft plopping noises in the smooth hard area between the waves and the shell-littered sand. It was a middle area, like him, he thought and ran faster. There was a full moon and it cast a light that showed him the empty stretch of Manasota Key ahead of him. Nobody was there, nobody fishing, nobody swimming. Just the quiet night, the waves and him on a hot summer night in 1963.
Being alone made him happy. He was away from his older brother, the jock who won all the sports awards. Away from his younger brother, the geek who won all the academic. Him in the middle, good for nothing, good at nothing. He was better alone. He ran faster, closer to the waves, his feet kicking salt water up on his legs.
He ran up the beach until he drifted into that wonderful world that running hard brought him to. Where he didn’t feel any pain, where he didn’t have to think, where the whole outside world faded. He was content now, in a world of muted peace.
Until he heard the breathing. It was deep and rasping and came from something running alongside him. Lower than his head, at his chest. There was a strange rhythm of other feet hitting the wet sand. Reluctantly, he turned his head to look.
The animal almost blended with the sand, except for the dark ruff of mane around its neck. It was a lion, running with him, its body as tall as his waist, its head reaching his shoulder. It ran looking straight ahead, not looking at him.
He was hallucinating, he thought. Maybe his dumb jock brother had slipped some of that new LSD stuff into his food. He stopped, standing in the small waves, and watched to see what his hallucination would do.
It ran a little ahead of him, then turned and sat down. Golden eyes surveyed him calmly. The dark brown tip of its tail switched back and forth making scuff marks on the sand. He wondered if that meant it was angry. He wondered if it was a bad thing to have a hallucination be mad at you.
He cleared his throat. “Hello,” he said.
The lion didn’t say anything, and the tail continued its metronomic swish, swish, swish. Emboldened, he put his hands on his hips and said, “Look, I’d like to finish my run, if you don’t mind.”
The lion yawned, exposing giant yellow teeth and blasting Eddie with a powerfully bad breath. He staggered back. “Hey, you oughta brush your teeth.” The lion started toward him and he moved back further, putting his hands out in front of him, “I didn’t mean it, really.” But the lion only walked over, stood alongside him and looked at him.
OK, Eddie thought, he could see and hear and smell the hallucination; could he touch it? Not waiting to lose his nerve, he reached out with one hand and put it firmly on the lion’s head.
There was a head there, there was a hairy head there. He could feel the coarse hair bristling under his fingers. The wide skull was firm under his palm, He could feel the warmth of a living animal. Holding his breath, he patted the beast. The lion purred.
With a yelp, he started running again. It wasn’t a hallucination, it was a real lion. He ran as fast and as far as he could, but the lion kept pace with him, running alongside, making no move to jump on him, its easy stride finally driving him to exhaustion. Unable to take one step further, he collapsed on the sand, buried his head in his arms and waited for the jaws to close on him. He felt the hot breath on his neck and then the rasp of a tongue that felt like it was pulling half his skin off.
The lion lay down next to him. He raised his head and looked at it. Its tongue was partway out and he thought it was laughing at him.
“You’re not going to eat me, are you?” he asked. When the lion didn’t respond, he rolled over and sat up. “Where did you come from?” He put his hand on the lion’s side and the lion rolled over. Just like Gramma’s cat, he thought, and rubbed its belly. Where could such a beast have come from? He’d heard that years ago there had been circus people living on the Key, but could one of them have brought a lion along? And how could a lion have managed on its own for – what – ten, twenty years? The lion was really purring now, and Eddie had to smile.
“Look,” he told it, “I have to go back, now. I’ve run a lot further than I usually do. You coming along?”
The lion did, until they got within a few hundred yards of Eddie’s house and then it stopped. Eddie stopped too, and patted it again. “I’ll be back out tomorrow night, we can run again.”
He wouldn’t tell anyone about this, he thought as he went into his house. This was his lion, and nobody else’s.
As the years went on, Eddie continued to run, and the lion joined him. He talked to the lion as he wouldn’t have talked to any human. The lion never talked back, never told him he was stupid, or clumsy, or foolish, it only looked at him with its golden eyes and purred when he stroked it.
His grades improved, and he even made the track team. His brothers still outshone him – sports for the one and grades for the other, but he knew they didn’t have a lion to run with, and his parents started to brag that he was the one who could handle anything.
And he could, he knew it. He graduated as valedictorian of his class and headed off to college with a scholarship.
But he had to leave the lion.
“It’s only for a while,” he said the night before he left. He held the large head in his hands and looked into the burnished eyes. “I’ll be back at Christmas and I’ll run with you then. It’s only a few months away.”
But when he came home at Christmas, there were parties to go to and friends to catch up with. He thought that Susan Anders even liked him better than just a friend. It was four days before he was even out on the beach again and then it was a beach bonfire with his buddies.
He left the bonfire and ran away from its light and down the beach to where the only light was that from the full moon. The lion did not appear. He called softly for it, but it did not come. He started to run further, but a voice yelled from the bonfire. “Hey, Eddie, come on back here, we’re going to go swimming!” It was Susan Anders.
He waited a minute, maybe two, then turned and ran back.
He did not see the great beast lying in the seagrass, watching him leave. He did not see the pain fill the golden eyes, or the tear that fell on the sand and disappeared.