By Dani Gallucci
Leo felt his isolation like a chill. Although he thought he’d eventually become numb to it, there were days when the cold grew too much to bear. He buried himself in his art, drawing until his wrist ached. He drew the city around him, the sky above him, the distance, beckoning him. He lost himself in those beautiful spaces. But much like the child himself, these spaces were lonely; painfully lonely.
He began to draw himself a companion. A great beast of a dog – almost resembling a polar bear with its girth and snowy coat, with blue eyes to match his own. The more he drew the creature, the more its personality took shape – he was a gentle giant, a quiet, constant friend. There was a kind understanding in the beast’s eyes that Leo longed to see in others.
After doodling through class one day, a teacher picked up his sketchbook. Upon returning it, she had a slight glean in her eyes. She asked what the dog’s name was.
“His name is Beast,” Leo said without thought, laughing at how ill-fitting a name it was.
Beast grew as Leo grew. Somewhere in the transition between elementary and middle school, Beast became more than the gentle playmate that occupied his thoughts and sketchbooks. As social circles took on a more solid form, and Leo magically transformed from a quiet boy into an outsider, Beast became the barrier protecting him from the scorn of his peers. When their scorn took the form of hurtful words and the occasional action, Beast became his furious guardian. He drew the dog larger, with bolder eyes and a purposeful stance. The next time his sketchbook was taken from him, it was by force, and met with ridicule. His reputation grew as the kid with the imaginary friend. His self-esteem shrank by the day.
A particularly dark night, he sat hunched over his desk, the pages of his sketchbook catching the burning tears as they slid down his cheeks. He wished more than anything for his Beast to come off the page. When he awoke the next morning to a warm wet tongue lapping at his hand, he rejoiced without a second thought.
Beast in reality was an exact replica of the friend he’d drawn to life so long ago. Upon his appearance, the two fell into a rhythm unmatched by any human friendship. Any bewilderment Leo felt on his old friend’s new form was squashed by the joy he felt. Beast accompanied him everywhere, as quiet but powerful as he was on the page. His white fur was thick and soft, and his eyes gleamed with intelligence. He would walk Leo to school in the morning and dutifully return home, only to return later to escort Leo back. He growled at the kids who gawked at him, barked to scare away the birds that plucked at his unattended sketchbooks. He posed obediently when Leo wanted to draw him.
The kids at school harassed him still, but Leo never felt as alone. Not when he was daily accompanied by his long-time best friend. But as is too-often the case with things that are pure, there was a desire to see it destroyed. The scorn of his peers peaked at Leo’s unwavering happiness. They longed to take it from him.
That idea was altogether too easy to accomplish. Leo was a consistent boy, and it was not challenging for them to learn his schedule. Every evening, he would walk by the pond with his Beast. They followed him, confronted him. A group of eight kids encircled the two of them, chanting and shouting abuse, knowing Leo’s panic at loud noises – which translated to Beast as well. Despite his furious looks, Beast was not a violent dog; after his intimidating growl failed him, he was driven back, whimpering. Leo was held down, and forced to watch as the rest of the kids drove his best friend into the pond, forming a barricade around him. Beast paddled furiously in circles for well over an hour before his strong legs began to give out. And then Leo had to watch as his best friend sank below the surface and did not rise back up again.
Weeks passed with Leo visiting that pond, weeping bitterly. He knew, of course, that the magic that had given his companion life once would not happen a second time. Good things rarely do. That did not stop him from wishing, however.
The second time Beast took form surprised him more than the first. Leo went to visit his friend’s gravesite a final time, intending a farewell, and was brought up short by the statue that stood ten feet from the water’s edge. It was a perfect replica of his friend, painted like an amusement park carousel horse. He stood boldly, blue eyes wide and shining. His mouth was fully agape, and as Leo neared it, he saw that there was a hole where his throat would be. On the collar around his neck there was a quarter on a string.
He plucked it, and after some thought, tossed it into his now-static Beast’s maw. He wished he could have a friend once again.
The next day in school, he was bombarded by those who had killed his dog. Many cried as they offered sincere apologies, regret obvious in their eyes as they promised to be better. They became his new barrier after that – including him in their conversations even when he chose to maintain his silence. They accepted his peculiarities wholeheartedly, and slowly drew him from his shell. In time, he grew to love them as well – he saw the complexities in their faces, learned their histories and the histories that shaped their personalities. Time passed, and they grew together.
Whatever happened, he knew he owed much of his growth to his first friend. He visited Beast’s statue now and again, a quarter in his pocket, wishing for strength, for hope, for inspiration. When high school transpired and the future loomed over Leo like a predator, he went and cried into his friend’s shoulder, as always. He wished to maintain the joys of his childhood while moving into adulthood.
Leo got a job as a successful graphic novelist. His first title, Beast, was a best seller. He made many solid friendships with other prominent artists, learning and growing with them. He gained wealth – so much so that he was confused about what to do with it. People began to whisper flattery into his ear, and eventually, he began to listen.
His fortunes began leaving him in larger and larger bursts. He began to confuse those who sought his influence with his friends. Eventually, they drained him of all his value, as well as his emotion. Time took its toll. Influence left Leo, desperation took its place. His next work featured his old friend, but with bloodied teeth and fury. The shock value it brought was short lived, and for many, in fact killed off any affection to the protagonist, Leo’s old friend.
Having dirtied what had been an innocent, safe entity, Leo was left without that, too. Those things he had earned with his wholeheartedness were gone. He returned to his home town, broke, alone, and bitter. The familiar sights did little to ease him. Before leaving to search opportunity elsewhere, however, he knew there was somewhere he still had to go.
Beast’s statue was just as it had been on the first day it had appeared. Unchanged by time, weather, and even his master’s betrayal, he stood proudly, bold eyes staring into the sky. The reminder of the past awakened a violent anger. He stared into his first friend’s eyes and saw himself as a child. As is too often the case with something so pure, there was a desire to see it destroyed. Leo suddenly remembered all the quarters he’d tossed into his friend’s mouth all those years.
Full of resentment, Leo advanced on the statue, plunging his hand down Beast’s throat, aiming to scoop up all the change in his belly. Before his fingers touched a single coin, Beast’s mouth snapped closed, separating Leo’s forearm from his elbow.
A scream erupted from his lips and he fell to the ground. The paint covering the statue peeled away in one motion, leaving an ashen shell. Leo sobbed as he watched, clutching onto the bloodied stump of his arm.
It was his drawing arm.