Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  I already know my brother won't be in my father's room. My mom told me she gave him the key to our house--something that makes me feel uneasy. Most likely Edward won't be poking around in my room--and it's not like I have anything to hide--but still. I don't like the thought of being here, while he is there.

  The skeleton staff in the ICU doesn't notice the girl in the robe with the bandaged arm and shoulder who gets off the elevator. This is a blessing, since I really didn't know how to explain my migration from the orthopedic ward to this one.

  My father is bathed in a blue light; the glow from the monitors surrounds him. He does not look any different to me than he did yesterday--surely this is a good thing? If he were, as Edward said, not coming back, wouldn't he be getting worse?

  There is just enough space for me to sit on the bed, to lie down on my good side. It makes my bad shoulder ache like hell. I realize I can't hug him, because of the bandage, and he can't hug me, either. So instead I just lie next to him, my face pressed against the scratchy cotton of his hospital gown. I stare at the computer screen that shows that steady, solid beat of his heart.

  The night after I went into the wolf enclosure for the first time I woke up to find my father sitting on the edge of my bed, watching me. His face was outlined with moonlight. "When I was in the wild, I was chased by a bear. I was sure I was going to die. I didn't think there could be anything more terrifying," he said. "I was wrong." He reached out one hand and tucked my hair behind my ear. "The scariest thing in the world is thinking that someone you love is going to die."

  Now, I feel tears coming, a feather at the back of my throat. With a steady breath, I blink them away.

  They can smell your fear, he taught me. Don't give an inch.


  Two weeks went by without any sign or sound of the wolf that had come so close to me when I was sick. And then one morning, when I was drinking from a stream, I suddenly saw an image rise in the reflection beside my own. The wolf was big and gray, with strong stripes of black on the top of his head and his ears. My heart started hammering, but I didn't turn around. Instead, I met his yellow eyes in the mirror of the water and waited to see what he would do next.

  He left.

  Any doubts I'd had about what I was doing vanished. This was what I had hoped for. If the big animal that had approached me at the stream was truly wild, he may have been just as curious about me as I was about him. And if that was the case, I might be able to get close enough to understand their behavior from within, instead of observing from outside.

  I wanted nothing more than to see that wolf again, but I wasn't sure how to make that happen. Leaving food around the area would attract not just the wolf but also bears. If I called to the wolf, he might respond--even if he was a lone wolf, having a partner is safer than being alone--but that calling would also reveal my position to other predators. And honestly, although I hadn't seen proof of any other wolves since I'd come into the wild, I couldn't be sure that this wolf was the only one in the area.

  I realized that if I was going to take the next step, it meant moving out of my comfort zone. Hell, it meant leaping blindfolded off the cliff of my comfort zone.

  I adjusted my schedule so that I was sleeping during the day, and waking at dusk. I would have to travel in the darkness, even though my eyes and my body were not suited to it. This was much more threatening than any night I'd spent at the zoo in the captive pack's enclosure; for one thing, I was walking nearly ten miles in pitch darkness in a single night; for another, I didn't have to worry about other animals when I was in the wolf enclosure at the zoo. Here, if I tripped over an exposed tree root or splashed in a puddle or even stepped loudly on a branch, I was sending up a flare alerting every other creature in the wild to my location. Even when I was trying to be quiet, I was at a disadvantage; other animals were better at seeing and hearing in the dark and were watching every move I made. If I fell down, I was as good as dead.

  What I remember about that first night was that I was sweating like mad, even though it was near freezing. I would take a step, and then hesitate to make sure I didn't hear anything coming toward me. Although there were only a scattered handful of stars that night, and the moon had a veil draped over its face, my vision adjusted enough to register shadows. I didn't need to see clearly. I needed to see movement, or a flash of eyes.

  Because I was effectively blind, I used my other senses to their fullest. I breathed deeply, using the breeze to identify the scents of animals that were watching me pass. I listened for rustling, for footsteps. I stayed upwind. When the long fingers of dawn cupped the horizon, I felt as if I'd run a marathon, as if I'd conquered an army. I had survived a night in the Canadian forest, surrounded by predators. I was still alive. And really, that was all that mattered.


  By the fifth day after the accident, I can tell you what the soup of the day is going to be in the cafeteria and what times the nurses change shifts and where, at the orthopedics floor coffee station, they keep the packets of sugar. I've memorized the extension of Dietary, so that I can get Cara extra cups of pudding. I know the names of the physical therapist's children. I keep my toothbrush in my purse.

  Last night, the one night I'd tried to go home, Cara had spiked a fever--an infection at the incision site. Although the nurses told me it was common, and although my absence wasn't correlative, I still felt responsible. I've told Joe I'm going to stay at the hospital as long as Cara does. A heavy dose of antibiotics has brought down her fever some, but she's out of sorts, uncomfortable. Had she not faced this setback, we might have been wheeling her out of the hospital today. And although I know this isn't possible--that you can't will yourself to have an infection--there is a part of me that thinks Cara's body did this in order to make sure she could stay close to Luke.

  I am pouring myself my fifth cup of coffee of the day in the small supply room that has the coffee machine in it, a godsend provided by a nurse with a kind heart. It's amazing, really, how quickly the extraordinary can start to feel like the commonplace. A week ago I would have started my morning with a shower and a shampoo and would have packed lunch for the twins and walked them to the bus stop. Now, it feels perfectly normal to wear the same clothes for days in a row, to wait not for a bus but for a doctor doing rounds.

  A few days ago the thought of Luke's brain injury felt like a punch in my gut. Now, I am just numb. A few days ago I had to fight to keep Cara in her bed, instead of at her father's bedside. Now, even when the social worker asks her if she'd like to visit him, she shakes her head.

  I think Cara is afraid. Not of what she'll see but of what she won't.

  I reach into the little dorm-size fridge for the container of milk, but it slips through my hands and falls onto the floor. The white puddle spreads beneath my shoes, under the lip of the refrigerator. "Goddammit," I mutter.


  A man tosses me a wad of industrial brown napkins. I do my best to mop up the mess, but I'm near tears. Just once--once--I'd like something to be easy.

  "You know what they say," the man adds, crouching down to help. "It's not worth crying over."

  I see his black shoes first, and his blue uniform pants. Officer Whigby takes the sopping napkins from my hands and tosses them into the trash. "There must be something else you need to do," I say stiffly. "Surely someone's speeding, somewhere? Or an old lady needs help crossing the street?"

  He smiles. "You'd be surprised at how many old ladies are self-sufficient these days. Ms. Ng, honestly, the last thing I want to do is bother you at a time when you're already under a lot of stress, but--"

  "Then don't," I beg. "Let us get through this. Let me get my daughter out of the hospital and let my ex-husband . . ." I find I can't finish the sentence. "Just give us a little space."

  "I'm afraid I can't, ma'am. If your daughter was driving drunk, then she could be looking at a negligent homicide charge."

  If Joe were here, he'd know what to say. But Joe is back in m
y old life, making lunches for the twins and walking them to the bus stop. I straighten my spine and, with a confidence I didn't know I still had, turn my full gaze on the policeman. "First of all, Luke isn't dead. Which means your charge is irrelevant. Second, my ex may be many things, Officer, but he's not a fool, and he wouldn't have let Cara drive home if she was drunk. So unless you have hard facts and evidence that can prove to me my daughter was responsible for that accident, then she's just a minor who made a bad choice and got drunk and needed to be picked up by her dad. If you're going to arrest her for underage drinking, I will assume you've already arrested every other teenager who was at that party. And if you haven't, then it turns out I was right the first time around: you've got something else you need to do."

  I push past him, sailing back to Cara's room with my chin held high. Joe would be proud of me, but then again, he's a defense attorney, and anything that sticks it to The Man is a mark of honor in his book. What I find myself thinking about is Luke, instead. There's a fire in you, he used to say. It was why he wanted to marry me. Underneath my reporter's silk blouse and my graduate degree in journalism, he said, was someone who always came up swinging. I think he believed that someone with a spark like that could understand a man who lived on the edge of death every day. It truly took him by surprise to find out that I wanted the house, the garden, the kids, the dog. I may have had a spark inside me, but I needed sturdy, solid walls to keep it from being snuffed out.

  When I get back to Cara's room, I realize that I've left my coffee with Officer Whigby, and that my daughter is wide awake and sitting up. Her cheeks are flushed, and her hairline is damp, which suggests that the fever's broken. "Mom," she says, her words tumbling, "I know how to save Dad."


  Three weeks later, I was walking northeast when a wolf suddenly stepped out from behind a tree in front of me. To be honest, I couldn't tell you if it was the same gray wolf that had come to the stream before, or a new one. His golden eyes locked on mine for nearly half a minute, which feels like forever when you are facing a wild animal. He didn't bare his teeth or growl or show any fear, which led me to believe that he'd known of my presence much longer than I'd known of his.

  The wolf turned away and walked into the woods.

  After that, I saw the wolf every few days when I least expected it. I'd be springing fresh kill from a trap and would feel myself being watched--only to turn and find him there. I would open my eyes from a catnap and catch him staring, a distance away. I didn't speak to him. I didn't want the wolf to see me as a human. Instead, every time he appeared, I lay on the ground or rolled onto my back, offering up my throat and my belly, the universal sign of trust. By exposing my weakest areas, I was acknowledging that he could kill me--quickly or slowly, whatever he wished--and asking, How balanced an individual are you? What would happen then--what should happen then--was that the dominant wolf would change his energy level, squeezing my throat with his muzzle and then letting go as if to say, I could hurt you . . . but I choose not to. And just like that, our hierarchy of roles would be established.

  One evening, when I was sitting under a tree and wondering if I smelled snow in the air, the wolf stepped into the clearing before me. But then a second wolf stepped out. A third. Three more. They began to dart in and out of the trees, sewing up the space around me. There were four males and two females, and from the looks of it, the wolf that had been visiting me was one of the younger ones. He had probably been sent by the alpha female to learn more about me.

  The next day, I tried to find the pack. But although I looked for weeks, they had made themselves all but invisible. Crushed--was this the extent of the wolf interaction I'd have in the wild? Had I gotten this close only to be disappointed?--I fell into my former habits. During the nights I'd wander, but in the daytime I went back to the spot where I had first met up with the entire pack.

  Several weeks went by, and then they returned. They were down to five members--one of the males was absent--and seemed more skittish than they had been the last time. They settled in about forty yards away. The young male I'd seen first played with his sister, rolling in the snow and chasing each other like puppies. Occasionally one of the older wolves would warn them off with a throaty growl, and eventually they collapsed in a tired heap.

  I wish I could explain to you what it felt like to be near them. To know that, of all the places in the woods where they might have relaxed, they chose to be near me. I had to believe it was intentional; there were plenty of places they would not have had to keep a wary eye on the stranger in the distance.

  The combination of euphoria and hope, of feeling like I'd been chosen in some way, was enough to sustain me during the weeks when they would vanish--weeks of ice storms and snow when it sometimes felt like I was the only living thing left in the universe.

  I would sleep during the day, when it was warmest, but even then, sometimes, the temperatures were brutal. Then, I'd find shelter from the cold: a rock cave, a fallen tree with a hollow inside it, even a little burrow in a pile of snow--a personal igloo. I'd line the space with pine boughs for warmth. I'd pile green branches to keep out falling snow or a wild wind. I'd eat whatever I could trap, and when that failed, I'd split open a rotten log with my hands and pick off the ants.

  One night, the pack howled. It was low, painful, mournful--the type of cry meant to search for someone who was missing. In this case I figured it was for the big gray male that had not returned. They howled every night that week, and on the fourth night, I replied. I called the way a lone wolf would call, if he thought there might be a position in a pack for him.

  At first, there was only silence.

  And then, like a miracle, the whole pack howled back.


  The wolf has chewed through the seat belt of the rental car.

  "Goddammit," I say, tugging the belt away from the latticed grate of the cage. "Didn't he teach you any manners?"

  I wonder if the optional insurance I took on the rental car covers damage by wild animal.

  I wonder how much trouble I'm going to get into.

  Mostly I wonder why I let Cara talk me into doing this.

  I had headed to the hospital this morning with the best intentions--and clutching the piece of paper I'd found with my signature on it. I'd tried to show it to Cara before, but my timing was off: a surgical resident was examining her sutures in the morning and then she was being sponge bathed by a nurse and then my father had been taken down for another CT scan, and then she was running a fever. Today, I had been determined to show it to her. Cara might not believe I had any right to speak for my father, but I had proof otherwise.

  After checking on my father (no change, as if I needed any more reason to talk to my sister), I had gone upstairs to the orthopedics floor. Cara was sitting up in bed, sweaty and disheveled. My mother stood beside her. They both turned when I walked in. "I have something to show you," I'd said, but Cara interrupted me before I could show her the paper.

  "The wolves," she announced. "That's what he needs."


  "Dad's always saying that the wolves communicate on a different level than humans do. And he can't hear us telling him to wake up. So what we have to do is bring him to Redmond's."

  I had blinked at her. "Are you crazy? You can't transport a guy on a ventilator to some crappy theme park--"

  "Oh, right, I forgot I was talking to you," she snapped. "Instead we should just kill him."

  I'd felt the paper burning where it rested against my chest. "Cara," I'd said evenly, "no doctor is going to sign off on a field trip for Dad."

  "Then you have to bring a wolf here instead."

  "Because nothing says 'sterile environment' like 'wolf.'" I turned to my mother. "Don't tell me you agree with her."

  Before she could answer, Cara had interrupted. "You know Dad would move heaven and earth to save one of the animals in his packs. Don't you think they'd do the same for him?" She swung her legs over the bed.
br />   "Where do you think you're going?" my mother asked.

  "To call Walter," Cara said. "If you two won't help me, I'm sure he will."

  I had looked at my mother. "Can you explain to her why this is impossible?"

  My mother touched Cara's good arm. "Honey," she said. "Edward's right."

  Hearing those words on her lips--well, on anyone's lips--I can't tell you how it made me feel. When you are the family fuckup, receiving credit is almost overwhelming.

  This is really the only explanation I can offer as to why I did what I did. "If I do this," I had said to Cara. "If I do this for you, and it doesn't work . . . then will you listen to what I have to say?"

  Her eyes met mine, and she'd nodded, a nonverbal contract. "Tell Walter to give you Zazigoda," she said. "He's the one we take to schools. Once, when he got spooked, Dad kept him from jumping through a window."

  My mother shook her head. "Edward. How are you going to--"

  "And he has to ride in the front seat," Cara interrupted. "He gets carsick."

  I had zipped up my coat. "In case you were even wondering," I told her, "Dad's condition is the same as it was last night."

  Cara smiled at me then. It was the first real smile she'd offered me since I came home. "But not for long," she had said.

  Redmond's Trading Post is a sorry anachronism from a time before 3D and Sony PlayStations--a poor man's Disney World. In the winter, it's even more depressing than it is during its high season. Closed to everyone but a few animal caretakers, it feels like the land that time forgot. This was only reinforced by the sight that greeted me the minute I hopped over the turnstiles and let myself into the park: a faded animatronic dinosaur with icicles dripping off its chin that roared at me and tried to swing a massive tail mired in snowdrifts.

  It felt strange to walk up the hill to the wolf enclosures, as if I were peeling back years with each footstep, until I was a kid again. As I passed by one of the pens, a pair of timber wolves trotted along the fence line with me, watching to see if I might lob a rabbit over the chain-links as a treat. My father's old trailer stood at the crest of the hill, above the enclosures. A curl of smoke pumped from the woodstove vent in the trailer, although when I knocked no one answered.

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