Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  They appeared on the first day that felt like spring--when it was warm enough for me to break through the ice of the stream to drink without having to use a rock or stick, when I had unzipped my coveralls so that the breeze could cool me. Just like before, they came silently, a wall of gray mist. I immediately dropped so that my body was lower than theirs. Even the alpha female inched closer.

  They were energetic and rowdy, more active than the last time they'd come. I felt an overwhelming relief that they were back, that I wasn't alone in this wilderness. The big male came running at me again, as he had weeks before, and pinned me on my back with his full weight. In this vulnerable pose, I was offering my life to him, and frankly I was so happy to see him again that I wasn't even as terrified as I probably should have been.

  Maybe it was because my guard was down, maybe it was because the world felt like it was thawing and I was cocky after surviving the winter--there are a dozen reasons why I did not anticipate what happened next. The big wolf was suddenly gone, and the alpha female had taken his spot. Her front paws held my shoulders down on the ground, her weight was on my lower body. She was an inch from my face, and she was snarling and snapping at me. When the male moved closer, she lunged and bit him, and he slunk away.

  Her breath came in hot gusts; her saliva streaked my forehead, but every time I thought she was going to tear into my flesh, she pulled the punch. I stayed perfectly still for the five minutes it was going on, and then she released me. She loped away, but instead of vanishing into the woods, she lay down on a rock in the sun. The big male settled beside her.

  I was amazed that they had chosen to keep company with me, instead of disappearing like usual. And then, to my shock, the other three wolves left the protection of the trees and came into the clearing. They stretched out on either side of me. The younger female yawned and crossed her front paws.

  We weren't touching, but I could feel the heat of their bodies, and I was warmer than I'd been in months. I did not move for over an hour. Lying between them in the pool of sunlight, I listened to the sound of their breathing.

  Unlike the wolves, I couldn't sleep. Part of me was too excited; part of me kept glancing at the alpha female.

  I realized she hadn't been trying to kill me.

  She'd been teaching me a lesson.

  In those five minutes, I could have died. Instead, I was getting a new lease on life.


  I'm being discharged. Now that my fever's down and it seems I will survive this shoulder surgery, they want the bed for someone more needy. The bad news is that I cannot go back to school yet because I still can't do things like hold a fork or a pencil or unzip my own jeans to pee. The good news is that I will be staying at my mom's, and will have plenty of time to research traumatic brain injury and other cases like my father's. Other cases where the patients, against all odds, have gotten better.

  My mother promises that as soon as she gets the final papers from the nurse, we can go downstairs so I can see my father before I leave the hospital.

  For the past hour I have been ready to go. I'm sitting on the bed, showered and dressed, chomping at the bit. My IV line has already been removed. From what the nurses' station has told my mother, the paperwork is ready; it's just a matter of my orthopedic surgeon coming by to give me discharge instructions, and to officially sign us out.

  My mom is on her iPhone with Joe, telling him that we'll be coming home. Her eyes are dancing in a way that they haven't the whole time we've been cooped up here. She wants to get back to her old life, too. It's just a little easier for her than it is for me.

  When the door opens, she stands up. "Gotta go, honey," she says, hanging up. We both turn, expecting my doctor, but instead Trina the social worker walks in with a woman I've never seen before in a pencil skirt and a kelly-green silk blouse.

  "Cara," Trina says, "this is Abby Lorenzo. She's a lawyer for the hospital." Immediately I panic--thinking of the two cops, and the blood test that showed I'd been drinking that night. My mouth goes dry, my tongue feels as thick as a mattress.

  Does this mean they've figured out what happened?

  "I wanted to ask you about your father," the lawyer says, and in that instant I am sure that I've turned to stone, that I can no longer escape.

  "You seem upset," Trina says, frowning. "Edward said you two had talked."

  "I haven't talked to him since yesterday," I answer.

  My mother puts her hand on mine, squeezes. "My son told me that he and Cara decided that Edward would make the medical decisions for their father from here on."

  "What?" I blink at her. "Are you kidding me?"

  The lawyer looks at Trina. "So you haven't given consent to terminate your father's life support today?"

  I don't even think. I just stumble off the bed, barefoot, and use my good shoulder to shove my way between the two women. And I run. To the stairwell, down to the ICU floor, clutching my bad arm to my chest and fighting off the pain I feel with each jostle and turn.

  Because this time, when I save my father, I'm not going to screw it up.


  My Native American friends call it the dance of death: the moment that two predators size each other up. For a wolf in the natural world, the brain doesn't have a choice. It doesn't get to say, There's a bear coming and I'm going to die. Instead, it thinks, What do I know about this bear? What do I know about my environment? What members of my family do I need to protect myself? Suddenly the bear is no longer a threat. He knows that you're a predator, and you know that he's a predator. You respect each other's ground, turning very slowly, eyeball to eyeball. The space between you is the difference between life and death. Does he see you as a prey animal? Or does he see you as something that can injure him as he comes after you? If you can put that doubt in his mind, chances are, he will leave you be.


  She is a five-foot, three-inch storm: red-faced, tear-streaked, hair flying out wild. And she's coming right for me.

  "Stop!" Cara says. "He's a liar!"

  The doctors have gone, ready to be paged once we get the attorney's permission. Corinne has been anxiously pacing; there is a narrow window of opportunity for organ donation that is slipping away moment by moment. I was just doing what Cara had asked. She wanted this to be over, but she was too close to my father; I understood that. It was like the little kid who holds out his arm for a vaccination and shuts his eyes tight, because he doesn't want to look until it's all over.

  But apparently Cara's changed her mind. Before she can scratch my eyes out, a nurse grabs her around the waist. Corinne steps forward. "Are you saying that you didn't give consent to the organ donation?"

  "It's not enough to kill him?" Cara yells at me. "You have to cut him into pieces, too?"

  Maybe I should have asked my sister if she wanted to be here. Based on what she'd said yesterday, I figured she wouldn't have been emotionally capable of it. This outburst only reinforces that.

  "It's not what Dad wanted. He told me so."

  By now, the hospital lawyer and Trina and my mother have reached the room. "Well, that's not what Dad told me," I say.

  "When?" she scoffs. "You haven't lived with us for six years!"

  "All right, you two," the lawyer says. "Nothing's going to happen today, I'll tell you that much. I'll ask for a temporary guardian to be appointed to review your father's case."

  Cara visibly relaxes. She falls back against my mother, who is staring at me as if she's never seen me before.

  What I do next, I do because I have a letter burning in my breast pocket that's validation.

  Or because I know better than Cara how you have to live with the choices you make.

  Or because, for once, I want to be the son my father wanted.

  I lean over, bracing my hands on my knees, as if I'm disappointed. Then I dive down to the linoleum, pushing aside the nurse who is sitting beside the machine that's breathing for my father, waiting for a cue that isn't going to come.
r />   "I'm sorry," I say out loud--to my father, my sister, myself--and I yank the plug of the ventilator from its socket.

  If you call one wolf, you invite the pack.

  --Bulgarian proverb



  At first, when the alarm goes off, I don't even realize what's happened.

  Then I look up from my mother's shoulder and see Edward on his knees, still gripping the electrical cord that trails from the ventilator. He is holding the plug in his hand as if he cannot believe it is actually there.

  I start to scream, and all hell breaks loose.

  The nurse near Edward stumbles upright as another nurse calls for security. A burly orderly rushes into the room, shoving my mother out of the way as he tackles Edward. He slams Edward's hand against the floor, and the electrical cord flies free; immediately, the nurse plugs the machine in again and hits the Reset button.

  Maybe all of this takes twenty seconds. It's the longest twenty seconds of my life.

  I hold my breath until my father's chest starts to rise and fall again, and then I give myself permission to burst into tears.

  "Edward," my mother gasps. "What were you thinking?"

  Before he can answer, security arrives. Two guards stuffed like sausages into their uniforms grab Edward's arms and haul him upright. Dr. Saint-Clare runs into the room, short of breath. He bends over my father, immediately assessing the damage Edward's done, as a nurse brings him up to speed.

  I can feel my mother tensing behind me. "Where are you taking him?" she demands, trailing the officers as they start to drag Edward off. Abby Lorenzo, the hospital lawyer, follows them.

  "Stop! Please. He's been here round the clock, hardly sleeping," my mother begs. "He wasn't thinking clearly."

  "I can't believe you're defending him!" I say.

  I can see the storm in her eyes, the one that's tearing her in two. I take a step back, putting distance between us. After all, she did it first.

  My mother looks at me, apologetic. "He's still my son," she murmurs, and she leaves the room.

  Immediately, Trina approaches. "Cara, why don't we sit down somewhere quiet while your mother sorts all this out?"

  I ignore her. "Is my dad okay?" I ask Dr. Saint-Clare.

  The neurosurgeon looks at me. I know what he's thinking: Your father wasn't okay to start with. "It depends on how long he spent without oxygen," Dr. Saint-Clare says. "If it was longer than a minute, it might be clinically significant."

  "Cara," Trina says again. "Please."

  She touches my good arm, and I let myself be led away. But the whole time, my mind is racing. What kind of person pulls the plug, literally, on his own father? How much hate did Edward have to be nursing to deliberately go behind my back, to tell all these doctors and nurses that I had agreed to terminate life support, and then, when it didn't go according to plan, to take matters into his own hands?

  Trina leads me down the hall to a lounge. There are a few on the ICU floor, for families who are in for a long wait. This one is empty, with uncomfortable orange couches and magazines from 2003 on the coffee tables. I curl into a ball in the corner of one of the couches. I feel impossibly small, overlooked.

  "I know you're upset," she says.

  "Upset? My brother lied to everyone so that he could kill my father. Yeah, I'm a little upset." I swipe a hand across my eyes. "My dad stopped breathing. What's that going to do to his recovery?"

  She hesitates. "Dr. Saint-Clare will let us know as soon as he can if there was any damage. I know that you have to be without oxygen for about ten minutes for it to lead to brain death, if that's any comfort."

  "What if my brother tries this again?"

  "First of all, he won't have the opportunity," Trina says. "The hospital will press charges for assault; Abby's having him brought down to the police station right now. And second of all, even though Edward's the one legally capable of making a decision about your father, we never would have scheduled a DCD if we didn't believe you'd given your consent. I'm sorry, Cara. The donor coordinator told me that Edward had your permission, but someone should have asked you directly. I can assure you that won't happen again."

  I don't believe a word she's saying. If Edward found a way to snow them once, he can find a way to snow them again.

  "I want to see my father," I insist.

  "I'm sure you do," Trina says. "But let's give the doctors some time to make sure he's all right."

  My father taught me that wolves can read emotion and illness the way humans read headlines. They know when a woman is pregnant before she does and will treat her more gently; they single out the visitor who suffers from depression and try to engage him. Already the medical community has learned that canines can actually sniff out an invisible illness, like heart disease or cancer. In other words, you cannot fool a wolf.

  But you sure as hell can fool a human.

  I stare down at my lap, widening my eyes until they tear up, and then I look up at Trina. "I want my mom," I say, making my voice small and wounded.

  "She's probably downstairs talking to the hospital attorneys," Trina says. "I'll get her. Why don't you just wait here?"

  So I do, counting to three hundred, until I'm sure Trina is gone from the ICU hallway. Then I peek my head out the lounge door and start walking calmly to the staircase. I know, from my father's prior visit to the hospital for stitches in his arm, that the ER doors are on a completely different side of the hospital, and that's where I'm headed. To an exit where I won't run into my mother, my brother, or anyone else who might stop me.

  I'm not thinking about what I'm going to do, once I'm outside in my street clothes without a winter coat or a phone or transportation.

  I'm not thinking about the fact that I haven't technically been discharged yet, either.

  I'm just thinking that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that someone's got to keep my brother from doing this again.

  Really, I ought to become a professional liar. Apparently, I have a gift: I have now managed to fool the cops, my mother, a social worker, and a woman at the Starbucks right down the street from the hospital. I told her that my boyfriend and I had a fight and he drove off in his car, leaving me without my coat and my purse and my phone--and did she have a phone I could borrow so I could call my mom to come get me? Having my arm wrapped like the broken wing of a bird helps with the sympathy votes. Not only did the lady give me her cell but she also bought me a hot chocolate and a poppy-seed muffin.

  I don't call my mother. Instead, I call Mariah. The way I see it, she owes me big-time. If she hadn't been stalking some loser, I never would have been at that party in Bethlehem. If I hadn't been at the party in Bethlehem, I wouldn't have been drinking. And my father wouldn't have had to come get me. And, well, you know the rest.

  Mariah is in French class when I call her. I hear her whisper, "Hang on," and then, over the drone of Madame Gallenaut conjugating the verb essayer, Mariah says, "May I go to the bathroom?"


  Tu essaies.

  I try. You try.

  "En francais," Madame says.

  "Puis-je aller aux toilettes?"

  There is a flurry of static, and then Mariah's voice. "Cara?" she says. "Is everything okay?"

  "No," I tell her. "Things are totally messed up. I need you to come pick me up at the Starbucks that's on the corner before the turnoff to the hospital."

  "What are you doing there?"

  "Long story. I need you to come now."

  "But I'm in the middle of French. I have a free period fifth--"

  I hesitate, deploying the big guns: "I would do it for you," I say, the same words Mariah used to convince me to go to that party in Bethlehem in the first place.

  There is a beat of silence. "I'll be there in ten minutes," she answers.

  "Mariah," I say. "Fill up the gas tank."

  The county attorney's office looks nothing like the way law offices look on TV. It's got crappy furniture a
nd a secretary punching away at a computer so old it probably still runs BASIC. There's a framed poster of Machu Picchu on the wall, and also two photographs--one of a serene Obama, and one with Danny Boyle shaking Governor Lynch's hand. A rubbery plant is dying in the corner.

  Mariah's waiting in the parking lot in her car. She wasn't thrilled about a road trip to North Haverhill, but she drove me all the same, and she even helped me figure out a ruse to get me into the county attorney's office. "Danny Boyle," she'd said. "Sounds like he ought to be dancing on a Lucky Charms box."

  That had gotten me thinking--someone whose name sounded like he had relatives in Killarney, and who built his political platform on saving unborn babies was most likely a devout Catholic. I couldn't be sure, but it was a decent guess. And every Catholic kid I knew in my school seemed to have a thousand cousins.

  So I approach the secretary's desk and wait for her to finish her phone call. "Thanks, Margot," she says. "Yes, it's the Fox News segment about his recent conviction. DVD format would be great."

  When she hangs up, I try to give my most pathetic smile. After all, I'm standing there in a freaking arm sling. "Can I help you?" the secretary asks.

  "Is Uncle Danny in?" I say. "It's kind of an emergency."

  "Dear, did he know you were coming? Because he's quite busy right now--"

  I tighten my voice to the knife edge of hysteria. "Didn't my uncle tell you I had a really bad car accident? And I just got into this huge fight with my mom and she told me I can't drive again until I'm forty and I have to pay off the insurance premium and I might as well find someone else to fund my college education and oh, God, can't I just please talk to Uncle Danny right now?" I start crying.

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