Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  For a month, I didn't see or hear any wolves, and I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake.

  The fourth week I was in the wild, a nor'easter hit. I moved away from the riverbank and huddled under evergreen trees, because they absorb moisture with their roots, and the ground beneath them would be that much drier. Unable to hunt and shivering and starving, I got sick. I drifted in and out of a feverish spell as the rain pelted me, wondering why the hell I'd ever thought of coming out here. I hallucinated that the forest had legs, that the roots of the trees were kicking me in the gut and the kidneys. I coughed until I vomited bile. There were points when I wished for a big cat or a bear, for anything that would swiftly put me out of my misery.

  I think, looking back on it, that I had to get sick. I had to scrape away the very last bit of my humanity so that I would start behaving like a wolf, and not like a man. And in those dire straits, a wolf would not wallow in self-despair. Wolves do not give up. They assess the situation and ask, What can I eat? How can I protect myself? Even wounded, they will run until they can no longer stand.

  Although it was only October, the elevation was high enough that it snowed. When my fever broke, I woke to find myself covered with a blanket of white, which I shook off as I sat upright. I glanced around to make sure I was safe, and that was when I saw it, pressed into the snow about three feet away from me: the paw print of a single, male wolf.

  Scrambling to my feet, I searched the area for other prints--proof that a pack had been here--but found nothing. This animal either was scouting for his pack or was a lone wolf.

  The wolf knew where I was. He could easily find his way back to me and, now that I wasn't feverish and unconscious, consider me a threat to be dispatched. The sane thing to do was to move on instead of putting myself in danger. But instead, I did something that jeopardized my safety, that made my position blatantly known, surely as if I was sending up a search flare.

  I threw back my head, and I howled.

  CARA

  When my friend Mariah sees me in the hospital bed, she bursts into tears. It's almost ridiculous, the way I'm the patient but I have to hand her the box of Kleenex and tell her that it's going to be all right. She pushes a stuffed purple bear at me. It's holding a balloon that says CONGRATULATIONS. "iParty ran out of the Get Well Soon bears," she says, sniffling. "God, Cara. I can't believe this happened. I'm so sorry."

  I shrug--or at least I would shrug, if my shoulder weren't immobilized. I realize she feels just as guilty about me being out at the party with her as I feel about my dad coming to get me there. If not for Mariah, I wouldn't have been in Bethlehem; if not for me, my father wouldn't have been on the roads that night. I hadn't even wanted to go out; we'd been planning pizza and a chick flick overnight at Mariah's house. But Mariah invoked the best friend code: I would do it for you. And so, like an idiot, I went.

  "It's not your fault," I tell her, although I don't really believe this when I say it to myself.

  My mother, who has been living at the hospital, is in the family lounge down the hall with the twins and Joe. She hasn't brought them in to see me. She is afraid that all the bandages and bruises will give them nightmares, and she doesn't want Joe to have to deal with that while she's sleeping here with me. It makes me feel like the Frankenstein monster, like something that has to be hidden away.

  Mariah stares into her lap. "Is your dad . . . is he going to--"

  "Tyler," I interrupt.

  She glances at me, her face red and puffy. "What?"

  "Tell me what happened." Tyler is the reason we went to the party; he's the guy who invited Mariah. "Did he drive you home? Did you hook up? Has he texted you?"

  Even to my own ears, my voice sounds like a string that's been pulled too tight. Mariah's face crumples, and she starts crying again. "You're stuck in a hospital and you had to have major surgery and your dad is, like, in some kind of coma and you want to talk about a guy? It's not important. He's not important."

  "No, he's not," I say quietly. "But he's what we'd be talking about if I wasn't in a hospital and if this never had happened. If you and I are talking about Tyler, then for five seconds I get to be normal."

  Mariah wipes her nose on her sleeve and nods. "He's kind of a dick," she says. "He got wasted and started telling me how his ex had gotten a boob job over the summer and how he wanted to tap that."

  "Tap that," I repeat. "He actually used that phrase?"

  "Gross, right?" She shakes her head. "I don't know what I was thinking."

  "That he looked like Jake Gyllenhaal," I remind her. "That's what you said to me, anyway."

  Mariah leans back in her chair. "Next time I decide to drag you somewhere for the sake of my nonexistent love life will you just hit me with a two-by-four?"

  I smile, and it's been so long that my face aches when I do. "Next time," I promise.

  I let her tell me about how she's sure our French teacher has a brain tumor, because what else could be making her assign five poems to be memorized in a single week, and how the latest rumor in school is that Lucille DeMars, a goth kid who only talks to a sock puppet she wears on her right hand and who calls that performance art, was caught having sex with a substitute teacher in the music practice room.

  I don't tell Mariah that when I first saw my father, I felt like all the air around me had gone solid, and that I couldn't for the life of me draw it into my lungs.

  I don't tell her that I feel like I'm going to burst into tears all the time.

  I don't tell her that this afternoon I went into the patient lounge and googled "head injuries" and found more stories about people who never recovered than about people who did.

  I don't tell her that after all those years of wishing my brother would come home, now that he's here, I wish he wasn't. Because then the doctors and the nurses and everyone who's taking care of my dad would come to me, instead of him.

  I don't tell her that it's hard to fall asleep, and if I get lucky and do manage to drift off, I wake up screaming because I remember the crash.

  I especially don't tell her what happened just before. Or after. Instead, for the whole forty minutes Mariah is here, I let myself pretend that I'm the girl I used to be.

  There are many moments I thought I'd get to experience with my brother that never happened because he quit the family. Like having him grill my first boyfriend before a date, or teach me how to drive in empty parking lots, or buy me a six-pack of beer to drink under the bleachers after prom. When he first left and my parents were separated, I used to write to him every night. Somewhere in my closet behind the stuffed animals I can't bear to throw away and the clothes that no longer fit is a shoe box filled with letters I never sent, because I didn't have an address for him.

  I'll be honest, I used to imagine our reconciliation, too. I thought it might be seconds before I got married--Edward showing up just before I walked down the aisle, telling me he couldn't miss seeing his baby sister's wedding. I pictured everything fuzzy at the edges, like in a Lifetime movie, and him telling me I'd grown up even better than he'd ever imagined. Instead, I got a stilted hello over my father's respirator. My mom said Edward came down to check on me a couple of times after I had my surgery when I was still pretty out of it, but for all I know, she's just making that up to make me feel better.

  Which is why it's still surreal to have him standing at the foot of my bed, holding a conversation with me. Behind him, muted, the television shows a contestant spinning the Wheel of Fortune.

  "Are you in a lot of pain?" he asks.

  No, I'm here for the gourmet food, I silently reply. Someone buys a vowel. There are two A's.

  "I've been hurt worse," I tell him.

  My dad used to tell me that a wounded wolf wasn't himself. He might know you as a brother but rip your throat out with his teeth. When pain factors into the equation, the outcome is unpredictable. I've told Edward that I'm not in pain, but that's a lie. My shoulder might not hurt, thanks to the drugs, but morphine's done nothing for
my heart.

  This is the only reason I can give for why I use every word like a weapon to shove him away, when all I really want is to be held right now.

  "I know why you left," I tell him. "Mom told me."

  The fact that he's gay doesn't faze me. But I've always felt like the whole mystery surrounding my brother's exit was on a need-to-know basis. At first my mom said it was because Edward and my dad had a fight. Eventually I learned it was because Edward had come out to my dad, who said something that was apparently so god-awful Edward had to leave. Here's my take on it, though: millions of gay teens come out to their parents, and some have stupid reactions. Just because my father wasn't perfect, Edward bailed. And that led my mom to blame my dad, and eventually they broke up. The story of my life, as framed by my brother's impulsive decision to make a grand exit.

  "You know what?" I say. "I don't even care why you left."

  This isn't a lie, actually. I don't care why Edward left. All I really want to know is why I wasn't enough to make him stay.

  I'm dangerously near tears right now, something I attribute to the fact that you can't get any goddamned sleep in a hospital, since someone's always waking you up to take your blood pressure or your temperature. I won't let myself believe it's because Edward has gotten underneath my skin. I've worked too hard building a brick wall around my feelings to admit that he might have chiseled his way inside so fast. "Did you find Jesus or Buddha or something in Thailand?" I say. "Guess what, Edward. I don't forgive you. So there."

  I sound like a spoiled brat. He's reduced me to that. I hate him even more for making me into someone I'm not than I do for the fact that he's been sitting upstairs with my dad, making himself into someone he's not.

  But Edward doesn't even flinch; it's as if he's reading the text of me with some magic internal Rosetta stone that makes him understand what I say is not what I mean at all. "Right now, this isn't about you and me," he says patiently. Calmly. "We have all the time in the world to figure things out between us again. But Dad doesn't."

  The fact that he's finally asking for my input about my father makes me dizzy. For a moment, I feel ridiculously happy--the way I used to when Edward picked me up from elementary school in his old beater, and all my friends had to go home instead with their moms in decidedly less cool vehicles. He let me name his car, actually. Chase. Viper. Lucifer, he had suggested. Something badass. Instead, I called it Henrietta.

  "Cara, he can't stay hooked up to life support forever."

  Maybe it's the pain medication in my system; maybe it's just plain shock. But it takes me a few seconds to connect the dots. To realize that my brother, who'd left after a fight with my father, had grown that hatred like a spider plant until, years later, its offshoots threaten to fill every inch of him. "You hate him so much that you'd kill him?"

  Edward's eyes grow darker. Mine do that, too, when I'm angry. It's strange to see it mirrored in someone else's face. "You have to be ready to make some hard choices."

  That's when I lose it. Who is my brother to tell me about choices--my brother, who gave up on this family six years ago? He has no idea what it's like to hear your mother crying at night through the walls, to have a strange woman come up during your dad's daily wolf talk at Redmond's and slip you a piece of paper with her phone number on it. He has no idea what it is like to attend your own mother's second wedding, and then come home to find your father drinking himself under the table, asking what the ceremony was like. He has no idea how it feels to be responsible for buying groceries so the family doesn't starve, for forging signatures on report cards and making excuses when your father forgets a teacher conference. He has no idea what it's like to visit his mother and see her with the twins and feel obsolete. He has no idea.

  The reason I've made the choices I have is because I wanted to save my family, just as much as Edward was hell-bent on destroying it. Because when you get down to it, the only person you can trust is the one you'd lay down your own life for. And I'm going to do that for my father now, no matter what Edward thinks.

  I cannot look at him, so I stare over his shoulder. The contestant on Wheel of Fortune loses her turn.

  "I know you're hurting," Edward says after a moment. "This time, you don't have to go through it alone."

  "It?"

  He glances away. "Losing someone you care about."

  He's wrong, though. Even with him standing three feet in front of me, I have never felt so isolated. So I do what any wolf would, if cornered. "You're right. Because I'm going to do whatever it takes to make sure Dad gets better."

  Edward's mouth tightens. "If you want to be taken seriously, then act like an adult," he replies. "You heard the doctors. He's not coming back, Cara."

  I stare at him. "You did."

  He tries to argue, but I pick up the remote control and turn on the sound on the television. There is a ringing as a contestant gets twelve hundred dollars for choosing a W. I push the buttons, so that the applause drowns out Edward's voice.

  I am behaving like a two-year-old. But maybe that's okay, because, by definition, toddlers need their parents.

  I stare at the Wheel of Fortune until Edward gives up and leaves the room. Under my breath, I solve the puzzle: Blood is thicker than water.

  The next contestant guesses a P; the buzzer sounds.

  People can be so stupid sometimes.

  The first time I came face-to-face with a wolf, I was eleven years old. My father had just opened up the first enclosure at Redmond's. He waited until after hours and then took me past the first safety fence, and up to the second one. Inside were Wazoli, Sikwla, and Kladen, the first captive wolves he'd brought to the park. He made me crouch down, with the chain-link safely separating me from the wolves, and hold up my fists so that the knuckles just grazed the wire. This way, the wolves would get used to my scent.

  Wazoli, the alpha female, immediately darted to the far end of the enclosure. "She's more afraid of you than you are of her," my father said quietly.

  Sikwla was the tester, and Kladen the enforcer wolf. Big, with strong black markings down his back and tail, as if someone had taken a Sharpie marker to him, he came right up to the fence and stared at me with his wide eyes. Instinctively, I backed away into my father, who was standing behind me. "They can smell your fear," he told me. "So don't give an inch."

  In a low, calm voice, he told me what was going to happen: he would open the outside gate that led into the enclosure, and then we would step into the little wire double gate and lock it behind us. Then he'd open the inside gate, and I would go in. I had to stay down low, and not move. The wolves might ignore me, or run away, but if I waited, they might also come closer.

  "They can tell if your heart rate goes up," my father whispered. "So don't let them know you're afraid."

  My mother did not want me inside the wolf enclosure, and with good reason--who would willingly put a child right smack in the middle of danger? But I had watched my father insinuate himself into this pack now for months. I might never take my position at a carcass and rip away the meat with my teeth, like he did, while two wolves snapped on either side of him--but he was hoping Wazoli would have pups, and I wanted to help raise them.

  I wasn't afraid of Wazoli. As the alpha, she would never come near me--she had all the knowledge of the pack and she would stay as far away from an unknown entity as possible. Kladen was big, 130 pounds of muscle, but he didn't scare me as much as Sikwla, who just a month ago had sent a park employee to the hospital after biting down on his finger all the way to the bone. The guy was a groundskeeper who had reached through the chain-link to pat Sikwla, thinking he was rubbing up against the fence for a scratch, and before he knew it the wolf had turned and bitten him. Screaming, he tried to pull away, which only made Sikwla bite down harder. Had he just stayed perfectly still, Sikwla would have probably let go.

  Every time I saw the groundskeeper walking around Redmond's with his bandaged hand, I shuddered.

  My father said that wit
h himself in the enclosure, too, Sikwla would most likely leave me alone.

  "Are you ready?" my father asked, and I nodded.

  He opened the second gate, and we both went inside. I crouched down where my father had told me to crouch and waited as Kladen walked past me. I held my breath, but he just continued to lope toward the copse of trees in the back of the enclosure. Then Sikwla approached. "Steady," my father whispered, and all of a sudden Kladen came barreling at him, knocking him onto the ground in greeting.

  Because of that, because my attention flickered, Sikwla seized his moment and went for my throat.

  I could feel the pierce of his incisors, feel the wet heat of his breath. His fur was wiry and coarse and damp. "Don't move," my father grunted, unable to free himself fast enough to rescue me.

  Sikwla was a tester wolf; this was his job in the family. I was a threat until proven otherwise; just because I'd come into the enclosure with my father, whom they accepted, didn't mean they wanted me around. Sikwla set the standards for this pack; this was his way of making sure I measured up.

  At the time, though, I didn't think of any of this. I thought: I am going to die.

  I didn't breathe. I didn't swallow. I tried not to let my pulse show what I felt. Sikwla's teeth pressed into the flesh of my neck. I wanted to shove at him with all my strength. Instead, I closed my eyes.

  Sikwla let go.

  By then my father had wrestled Kladen away and grabbed me into his arms. I didn't start to cry until I saw that he had tears in his eyes.

  This is what I am thinking of when, just after three in the morning, I crawl out of bed. It is not easy, with a single hand, and I am certain I am going to wake up my mother, who is sleeping on a pullout chair beside me. But she only rolls over and starts snoring lightly, and I slip into the hallway.

  The nurses' station is to the right, but the elevators are to the left, which means I don't have to pass by them and be interrogated about why I'm out of bed at this hour of the night. Keeping to the shadows, I shuffle down the corridor, careful to hold my bandaged arm tight against my stomach to keep my shoulder from being jostled.

 
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