Brandon bounced the tennis ball up and down on the dirt ground. The short, dark-haired boy was nine Earth years old, just old enough to resent this boring trip his parents had brought him on. Who wanted to go to a wildlife reserve anyway, even if it was one of the last remaining on Earth? Everyone cool in his class got to go to Mercury, or at least the Moon. Brandon’s brown eyes glared at nothing in particular from underneath heavy brows as he threw the tennis ball hard on the ground one last time. It flew off in another direction. Muttering to himself, Brandon headed off to get it.
The ball rolled into the shadows and off of the carefully groomed dirt path, made to make you feel as though you were traipsing through the wilderness when actually anything you wanted was just a button press away. Brandon slipped off of the path after the ball, making almost no sound. The last thing he needed now was his parents yelling at him for leaving the designated safe area. The wild animals here were dangerous, they said, and they were restrained by an invisible wall of energy that shocked any animals but humans that walked near it. Brandon imagined that he was passing through that wall right now, and shivered.
The boy squinted as he walked along, trying to make out the bright yellow-green of the tennis ball in this dark area of the park, shaded by the many trees around. Brandon looked back the way he’d come and saw the path, his parents making their way slowly along it. It was reassuring, yet Brandon wondered at how far he’d already come. He must have really bounced the tennis ball hard for it to go this far!
Ahead of him, Brandon spotted the round splotch of out-of-place color that was his tennis ball. He hurried now, ignoring the plant tendrils that grasped at his designer clothing. Just as Brandon bent down to pick up the ball, he saw movement in front of him. The dark-haired boy froze.
Everything his parents had told him before this trip ran through his head, despite his trying to look bored and not remember it at the time. You have to stay on the paths. Don’t go wandering off. I know you think it’s boring, but there are wild animals in this park that could kill you as surely as a crash-landing on some other planet. Listen to me, Brandon. I’m telling you to be careful. Brandon wished he had listened, and just let the tennis ball go. It wasn’t as important as his life!
Seconds passed as he crouched, petrified, and nothing lunged out of the bushes. Nothing tore his head off, or even snarled at him. Carefully, slowly, Brandon dropped to his knees, one hand still on the tennis ball, and peered through the undergrowth where he had seen the movement. What he saw next took his breath away.
Brandon didn’t immediately see whatever had made the movement in the clearing before him. It was all shadowed and dappled with light that forced its way through the thick, interlocking branches above. But he watched and waited, and after a while a piece of the shaows seemed to detach itself and move towards him.
It was a wolf. A gray-furred, lithe beast that was no less muscled for its slender form; the kind of animal they spoke of in all the stories, but that was hopelessly endangered now and lived in only a few parks. It came at Brandon in a sort of slow lope, shining yellow eyes fixed on him. A few feet away, it stopped and sat down, swishing its thick furry tail across the ground once. There was no question of its having seen Brandon; its eyes never left his face. Brandon suddenly felt vulnerable and open, despite being behind a bush.
Something urged Brandon to get a better look at this almost mythical creature. Few people these days could claim to have seen one; they lived only on Earth and couldn’t survive on other planets, despite attempts to set them up there. Besides, part of Brandon’s mind told him, he was just as unprotected here behind the bush as he would be with a full view of the wolf. He wished he had brought a camera.
Remembering all he’d ever heard about wolves: their ruthlessness, their strength, but also their beauty and loyalty to their packs, Brandon inched his way out from behind the bush. Once he could see the wolf in full, he stopped, feeling afraid outside the safety of his bush. The wolf was still staring at him.
Yellow eyes met brown and Brandon found himself amazed. Here he was, on his knees in a forest, trading glances with a wild wolf! All this because his tennis ball had rolled away! Brandon continued to stare into the wolf’s eyes like he was mesmerized.
The wolf got to its paws gracefully and Brandon felt another surge of fear. After everything, was it going to kill him now? Those yellow eyes didn’t seem murderous, but then again, wolves didn’t murder. They killed to survive. The wolf padded silently over the leaves, coming closer and closer.
Brandon was on the verge of panicking when the wolf stopped. It was close enough now for Brandon to reach out an arm and feel its gray fur, but he didn’t. He was paralyzed, unable to move. The wolf leaned towards him and their eyes met again.
“Brandon! Brandon?” The wolf jerked away as the call echoed through the forest. The moment was broken. Brandon fell backwards in surprise at hearing his name, pushing himself back up on his elbows just in time to see the wolf fading into the shadows again without a backward glance.
“Brandon! Brandon, where did you go?” The boy being called realized that his parents had noticed his absence, and possibly just saved his life. Brandon didn’t think the wolf had been about to kill him, but you could never be sure. Hurriedly, Brandon scrambled to his feet and picked up the tennis ball. He turned and ran towards the voices, and soon the path was in sight. He picked up the pace, suddenly afraid that the wolf was going to come flying out of the bushes and kill him.
Brandon finally emerged from the forest and stood before his parents on the path, breathing heavily from the unexpected exertion. His mother, the one who had been calling, frowned. “Where have you been? Did you just come from off the path?”
Brandon felt there was no point in denying it, so he nodded. His father, standing silently by his wife’s side, looked shocked. “After everything we’ve told you?” he asked, and started off on his lecture about listening and obeying directions. Surprisingly, Brandon realized that he didn’t mind that much.
He pocketed the tennis ball, realizing that it was too late to explain how it had rolled away. While his father went on and on, Brandon’s thoughts were on the wolf. Imagine that, meeting a wild animal and not being attacked! I bet none of my friends have ever been only a foot away from a wolf, Brandon thought smugly. Not even the ones who went to Mercury.
The dark-haired boy didn’t know it then, but he would never forget the wolf. Its luminous, golden eyes would remain forever in his memories, to be remembered occasionally and wondered at. Those eyes had given Brandon his first taste of something uncontrolled, ancient, un-tailored. They had provided a window into the wild.