Eighteen Years Ago
The sun shone high in the sky overhead, and the birds twittered in the trees and on the powerlines, before they swooped down to the rippling stream to sweep up water and ruffle their feathers. For a summer’s day, it wasn’t as hot as they were used to, maybe it was even more like spring with a little chill in the air, but it felt wonderful to be outside anyway. And on that particular day, as she watched the outside world from her window, Wendy knew she had to keep busy.
She had been so preoccupied with work, she had felt almost neglectful.
People often told her that the sign of a good parent was someone that worried about not being one.
“The fact that you even care whether you are or not, Wend, that tells you all you need her know,” her friend had told her with a knowing smile and a wink as they had sipped Long Island Ice Teas and sat in the garden one day, a couple of weeks before.
“I guess,” she had replied, as she had looked across the grass to the little girl playing there as happy as could be.
Wendy felt guilty because she didn’t have a father. She felt guilty that she had to work. She felt guilty that there weren’t enough hours in the day for them to do all the things she would do with her if only she could be there more. And she felt guilty that they didn’t have enough money. There was never enough. They were always struggling to get by.
But she was a good mom.
She knew that without a doubt. And she was going to have to stop beating herself up about it once and for all.
“Hey,” she snapped herself out of her daydream and looked down onto the rug. Her daughter was playing beautifully with a wooden train set, and even though she looked content and happy, it seemed a shame to waste their day together indoors, they should be making the most of it. “Shall we go to the park?” she grinned.
The little girl jumped to her feet and clapped her hands with excitement before she wrapped her arms around Wendy’s neck and squeezed her tight.
“Yes please, Mommy,” she had beamed, and Wendy’s heart had melted all over again.
She had packed up their things and they had taken the bike with training wheels. Her daughter slinked down the road, wobbling ever so slightly still, but Wendy kept her eyes locked firmly on her, and her arm outstretched so if she started to fall, she would be able to grab her by the shoulder. The walk to the park was only ten minutes, but whenever they did it together, it seemed to take a lifetime. Little legs didn’t go very fast, even if they were peddling and gaining a small amount of speed.
The park was in the middle of a forest on the outskirts of town. Since they had moved there, Wendy hadn’t had the chance to go much, she had pretty much been working every hour she could get so they could get out of there and move somewhere better.
Wendy couldn’t settle in one place, maybe it was because she didn’t have a man in her life, or maybe it was because she didn’t want one.
She couldn’t even figure herself out, so she knew no one else stood a chance, and she wasn’t about to let them. She kept on the move and she kept her independence. Her time with her daughter was the most important thing to her; who had time for a man anyway?
She smiled down at her daughter and reached out for the latch on the gate before she opened it wide and stood back to let her cycle through. It was quiet for such a sunny day, but there were a couple of other mother’s sitting on the outskirts on the benches, and a few children, similar in age to her own little one, were playing happily in the sandbox and on the swings and slides.
Wendy watched as her daughter let the bike fall to the ground and she climbed off, before she trundled toward the other kids and started to play alongside them. She shielded her eyes with her hand as she looked for the best place to sit and realized that all three of the benches had been taken by other moms. She walked across to the closest and sat down next to the lady who was flipping through a magazine and watching her son as he darted around between the climbing frame and then over to the swings. He only looked to be around seven years old, but he was fast and agile, and he looked like an athlete.
“Wow,” Wendy remarked. “He’s fast.”
The lady next to her looked up and smiled at her and then she went back to her reading. She clearly wasn’t in the mood to talk that day.
Wendy reached into her bag and found her own book that she had been reading. It was a delightfully over-the-top romance novel about a Victorian girl and her stable boy. She bent it back on the spine and started to read, occasionally casting her glance up toward the climbing frame and the sandbox, to make sure that her little lady wasn’t getting herself into any trouble.
She started to become so engrossed with the hot and steamy affairs of her Victorian heroine that she didn’t notice her daughter and the quick footed boy of the woman sitting next to her begin to play and chatter. They started to clap their hands and do pattycake, before they chased each other around and around the climbing frame and wandered into the borders of the woods.
He was maybe two years older than her, and she couldn’t help but gawk at how strong he was. When they had been running in and out of the climbing frame and darting toward the trees, she had felt him run past her and she had felt a rush of the wind and something else.
She was sure she had heard him growl.
He smiled at her with big, bright teeth, and his eyes glinted an emerald green as he cocked his head to one side and laughed.
“How come I’ve never seen you in this park before?” he asked.
The little girl shrugged. She didn’t even know herself. Her mom was always working, and when she wasn’t, they only seemed to spend time by themselves, thinking up grand plans of where they were going to travel to next.
“I don’t know,” she whispered as she took a step closer to him.
There was something about him that was enchanting, and she couldn’t explain what. He was just a boy, after all, but when she looked into his eyes, she saw something she had never seen in anyone else.
He smiled at her again and he darted back further into the woods. She followed him laughing, playing the game, and wanting to see where he was heading. She had forgotten all about her mom sitting on the bench back in the park, and she had forgotten how she wasn’t supposed to wander away on her own.
The boy stopped and climbed up onto a set of rocks and he looked out over the forest like an explorer. To her, he looked at least a hundred feet high and he grinned down at her with authority and menace.
“What’s your name?” she asked him as she kicked at the ground and hooked her thumbs into the loops on her denim shorts.
“I’m not supposed to say,” he said mischievously. “What’s yours?”
“Nah uh,” she told him. “If you don’t tell me yours then there is no way I am telling you mine.”
He laughed and smiled down at her, and although she could tell he was different, and that he had a danger to him, she wanted to play with it. She wanted to see what he really was.
“Stay down there,” he told her as he looked over his shoulder and then in a quick, high jump, he leapt off the rocks and disappeared behind them.
Her mouth was gaping open, she had never seen anything like it. The way he had moved was like something out of a movie; it was like he wasn’t even a person at all.
She found herself shivering, and she suddenly realized the woods were quite dark. The sun had gone behind the clouds, and the canopy of leaves from the trees were blocking out most of the remaining light. She looked over her shoulder and she could still see the edge of the park and some of the other kids running around, singing and dancing.
Suddenly, she heard the loudest growl she had ever known, and she turned back toward the rocks, expecting to see a dog staring back at her.
Up on top of the rocks, where the boy had been standing only moments before, was an animal…
A great big, snarling wolf.
She held her hand to her heart, and although her natural reaction was to scream, she knew she didn’t have to.
She looked into the animal’s eyes and could see the familiarity there, as she stepped forward and reached out to it. Its fur was jet black and it was baring its teeth. She reached up and stroked it on the cheek, and it nuzzled into her hand, the creature was as placid and happy as a dog as it bounced up and down on the rock, and she found herself laughing.
She was having so much fun with the wolf that she didn’t notice her mother coming up behind her, crunching and snapping over the falling twigs as she searched for her in the forest. It wasn’t until she heard a blood curdling scream from behind her, and the wolf bared its teeth and fled, that she too fell to the floor and started wailing.
“He’s gone,” she cried. “Why did you scream?”
Her mom ran over to her and swept her up in her arms.
“Oh, my darling girl,” she breathed, “Are you all right?”
Her mom was shaking, and she could see the other mother, who had been sitting next to her on the bench watching them through the parting in the trees, stepped in next to her and they both looked on.
She couldn’t shake the feeling that was crawling all over her.
Something magical had happened there in that moment, and she alone had seen it.
“I can’t believe that creature just nearly attacked you,” her mom wailed as she picked her up and started to run with her out of the forest and toward the bike. She ignored all the other parents in the park and shouted something over her shoulder about wild animals and keeping the kids safe.
“We’re going home,” Wendy said sternly as she dragged her daughter out of the park and toward the main road. “And then we’re packing up and leaving town. It’s time for us to try somewhere new. I’m not risking living in a place where there are goddam wolves in the children’s park. I’ve never known anything like it in all my life!”
Her daughter looked back at the boy over her shoulder and she gave him a weak smile. She could still see the emerald green of his eyes shining out at her from hundreds of feet away, and it made her heart beat hard and her bones shake.
Even if her mother couldn’t see it, she knew.
She had made a friend that day.
A friend for life.