Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  Seriously, I am becoming an Oscar contender.

  The secretary blinks at the onslaught of words, then recovers and gets up to comfort me, gently patting me on my good shoulder. "You just go right on back to his office, honey," she says. "I'll buzz him and tell him his niece is here."

  When I knock on the door that says DANIEL BOYLE, COUNTY ATTORNEY in gold lettering on glass, he tells me to come in. He's sitting behind a big desk stacked with files. His hair gleams, black like the wing of a crow, and his eyes look like he hasn't gotten a lot of sleep lately. He stands up, assessing me as I walk through the door.

  "You're not as tall as you look on TV," I blurt out.

  "And you don't look like any of my nieces," he replies. "Look, kid, I don't have time to help you do your extra-credit project in Civitas. Paula can give you a packet about local government on your way out--"

  "My brother just tried to kill my father and I need your help," I say.

  Danny Boyle frowns. "What?"

  "My father and I, we were in a car accident," I explain. "He hasn't regained consciousness. My brother left six years ago after a fight with my dad. He's been living in Thailand but he came home after the accident. It's only been seven days since the crash--my dad just needs time to get better--but my brother doesn't see it that way. He wants to turn off the ventilator and donate my father's organs and then go back to living his life. He managed to convince the hospital to do it, and when I freaked out and tried to stop them, Edward shoved a nurse out of the way and pulled the plug out himself."

  "What happened?"

  "The nurse reset the ventilator. But the doctors still don't know if being without oxygen hurt my dad even more." I take a breath. "I've seen you on the news. You're good at what you do. Can't you prosecute Edward?"

  He sits down on the edge of his desk. "Listen, honey--"

  "Cara," I say. "Cara Warren."

  "Cara. I'm really sorry--about your father, and about your brother's behavior. But this is a family issue. I prosecute criminal cases."

  "It's attempted murder!" I say. "I may just be a high school student, but I know that when you shove a nurse out of the way, and unplug someone who's unconscious from a ventilator, you intend to kill him! What's more murderous than that?"

  "Intent to kill isn't the only piece in the puzzle," Boyle says. "You have to prove malice, too."

  "My brother hates my father. It's why he walked out six years ago."

  "That may be," Boyle says, "but pulling out a plug is significantly different than coming after someone with a knife or a gun. I'll pray for your father, but I'm afraid I can't help you."

  I stiffen my spine. "If you don't, then my brother's going to try again. He'll go to court and say that my opinion doesn't matter, because I'm younger than him. He'll get the procedure rescheduled. But with a criminal charge against him, he can't be named a legal guardian for my father." When Boyle looks at me, surprised, I shrug. "Google," I explain. I'd used Mariah's iPhone on the drive over.

  Boyle sighs. "All right. I'll look into it," he says. He reaches onto his desk and hands me a legal pad and a pen. "Give me your name and phone number."

  So I write these down for him. I hand back the pad. "My dad may not be doing so well right now," I tell him. "But that doesn't give my brother the right to play God. A life," I say, parroting Boyle's own words, "is still a life."

  As I walk down the hallway to the reception area again, I can feel Danny Boyle's stare, like an arrow in my back.


  I have been asked repeatedly why a pack of wild wolves would accept a human into their ranks. Why bother with a creature that follows too slowly, stumbles in the dark, can't speak their language fluently, and inadvertently disrespects their leaders? It was not as if the pack didn't know I wasn't a wolf, or didn't realize that I couldn't help bring down a kill for food, or protect them with teeth and claws. The only answer I can come up with is that they realized they needed to study a human as much as I needed to study them. The human world is encroaching closer and closer to the wolf world. Instead of just denying that fact, they wanted to find out as much as they could about people. From time to time you will find a feral dog adopted by a wolf pack for the same reason; accepting me into their ranks just brought them one step closer.

  My goal, once they seemed to relax with me in their company, was to be allowed to follow them when they slipped between the trees and vanished. Now, this wasn't the brightest idea I'd ever had--I could easily get lost; and if they'd started hunting, I wouldn't have been able to keep up. But I couldn't let myself get this close and give up now, so when the wolves got up and left, I went with them.

  At first I was able to follow. But it was night, pitch-black, and as soon as we reached a thickly wooded area I lost them; my eyes were no match for theirs. On the way back to the clearing, I smacked my head on a lowlying branch and was knocked out cold.

  When I woke up, the sun was already high in the sky and the young female wolf was licking the cut on my head. (Of all the injuries I had in those years, not a single one became infected. If I'd been able to bottle the medicinal properties of wolf saliva, I'd be a rich man.) I sat up gingerly, temples throbbing, and watched the wolf pick up a haunch from a deer, hoof still attached. She rolled it around in the dirt a bit, batting it with her paws, and then dropped it on my leg.

  I would come to learn that an alpha female can read every single bit of food you put into your body. Make a choice that's going to keep you strong and fit for the pack and you will pass muster; make a choice that's the equivalent of chocolate cake in the human world and you'll wind up urinating in streams to disguise your scent, or else suffer the consequences. There are nutritional foods, eaten daily to foster strength and health. Social foods help reinforce pack roles--when six wolves are feeding on a single carcass, the alpha will go to the internal organs, the beta will get the muscle-packed rump and thigh meat, and the omega gets the intestinal contents and nonmovement meat, like the neck, spine, and rib cage. The tester wolf will get about 75 percent nonmovement meat and 25 percent vegetable matter; the numbers wolf will get 50 percent nonmovement meat and 50 percent stomach contents; the lookout will have 75 percent stomach contents and 25 percent nonmovement meat. If you go for a portion that's not yours, even by accident, you'll find yourself flat on your back. Emotional foods like milk or stomach contents take a wolf back to a time in its life when it was placid and accepting of anything given by its mother; feed the same foods to older wolves and they'll mellow out. At first I didn't know if the young female wolf was testing me, if she wanted to see whether I'd try to take her food away. But she picked it up and dropped it again. So I lifted the deer leg to my mouth and started to eat.

  How did the raw meat taste?

  Like the finest filet.

  It had been months since I'd eaten anything more substantial than rabbit and squirrel. I had been brought this food by a wild wolf, which may not have wanted me to go hunting but still wanted me well fed, like any other member of the pack.

  As I tore at the meat with my teeth, the wolf watched me calmly.

  From then on, every time the pack went hunting, they brought me back food. Sometimes it was rolled in droppings or urinated upon. After a hunt, they'd stay in my company or let me follow them; then suddenly they would leave me. Sometimes I would howl, and if they were within hearing range, they'd answer. On their way back, they would howl to me. Without fail, that sound would bring me to my knees. It felt like the phone call you receive when someone you love has been out driving on a sheet of ice: I'm back, I'm safe, I'm yours again.

  It made me realize that I had a new family.


  I knew that my son was gay before he did. There was a gentleness to him, an ability to see the world for its pieces instead of its whole, that made him different from the other boys in his nursery school class. When they picked up a stick, it was a gun or a whip. When Edward picked up a stick, it was a spoon to bake mud cookies, a magic wand. At playd
ates when he and a friend dressed up, Edward was never the knight but rather the princess. When I wanted to know if an outfit made me look fat, I never turned to Cara for frank advice but instead, to Edward.

  You'd think that someone like Luke--someone virile enough to literally tear a carcass to shreds with his teeth when wolves were on either side of him--might have a problem with a gay son, but that's not something I ever anticipated. He was a firm believer that nothing trumped family. Just like wolves could maintain individuality within the pack and not have to prove themselves on a daily basis, to Luke, if you were family, you were respected for your differences, and your role was secure. He'd even told me once of same-sex wolves mounting each other during mating season, something that had more to do with dominance and subordinance than with sexuality. Which is why I was so shocked when Edward came out to Luke, and Luke said . . .

  Well. The truth is, I have no idea what Luke said.

  All I know is that Edward went up to Redmond's to talk to his father, and when he came home, he wouldn't speak to me or Cara or anyone else. When I asked Luke what had happened, his face turned red. "A mistake," he said.

  Two days later, Edward was gone.

  No matter how often I asked him over the next six years, he would never tell me what his father had said that was so offensive. And in the way that imagination sometimes works, what I didn't know turned out to be more devastating than what I did. I would lie in bed imagining the foulest remarks Luke might have made, the demeaning expressions, the reactionary response. There was Edward offering his heart on a silver platter. But what was the reply? Did Luke tell Edward he could change, if he really wanted to? Did he say that he'd always known there was something wrong with his son? Because I didn't know the truth, and neither party would tell me what had happened, I pictured the worst.

  You do not know what failure feels like until your eighteen-year-old son quits your family. That's the way I've always thought of it, because Edward was too smart to hop on a bus to Boston or even California. Instead, he took his passport from the filing cabinet in Luke's office, and with the money he'd reaped from tutoring over the summers (money he was going to put toward college), he bought a plane ticket to a place he knew we couldn't easily follow. Edward had always been impulsive--right back to when he was in nursery school and threw a jar of paint at a boy who'd been making fun of his artwork; or later, yelling at an unfair teacher without thinking through the consequences. But this was behavior I just couldn't understand. The farthest Edward had ever traveled alone was to a mock trial conference in Washington, DC; what could he possibly know about foreign countries and finding housing and making his own way in the world? I tried involving the police, but at eighteen, he was legally an adult. I tried calling Edward's cell phone, but the number had been disconnected. At home, I would wake up in the middle of the night and for two glorious seconds forget that my son was gone. And then, when the truth crept under the covers, clinging to me like a jealous lover, I would start sobbing.

  One night I drove to Redmond's, leaving Cara alone and asleep in an empty house--more evidence of my bad parenting. Luke wasn't in the trailer, but his research assistant was. A college girl named Wren who had a giant wolf tattoo on her right shoulder blade, she split the time with Walter to make sure someone could be present overnight with the animals when Luke wasn't living with one of his packs--which was most of the time, these days. Wren was wrapped in a blanket and half asleep when I knocked. She looked terrified to see me--not surprising, since I was wild and furious--and pointed me toward the enclosures. This being nighttime, Luke was wide awake in the company of his wolf family, wrestling with a big gray wolf when I came to stand like an apparition against the fence. It was enough to make him do something he never did: break character, and be human. "Georgie?" he said, guarded. "What's wrong?"

  I almost laughed at that; what wasn't wrong? Luke's way of dealing with his son's absence had been to gather his family closer--not Cara and me but his brotherhood of wolves. He hadn't been home long enough to see me set a place at the table for Edward and burst into tears; he didn't sit on his son's bed and hold the pillow, which still smelled like Edward. "I need to know what you said to him, Luke," I replied. "I need to know why he left."

  Luke came through the double gates of the pen until he was standing, like me, on the outside.

  "I didn't say anything."

  I just stared at him in disbelief. "Do you actually think less of your son because he's gay? Because he doesn't care about wild animals or like being outside all the time? Because he didn't turn out like you?"

  Anger flashed across Luke's face, quickly held in check. "You really think that's what I'm like?"

  "I think Luke Warren is all about Luke Warren. I don't know, maybe you're afraid that Edward doesn't fit your TV persona." By now I was screaming at him.

  "How dare you. I love my son. I love him."

  "Then why is he gone?"

  Luke hesitated. I can't even remember what he said after that brief caesura, but it didn't matter nearly as much as the hiccup of space, that infinitesimal delay. Because that one faltering moment was a canvas, and I could paint upon it all of my greatest fears.

  Three weeks after Edward left he sent me a postcard from Thailand. He included a new mobile phone number. He said that he had gotten a job teaching English, and an apartment, and that he loved me and Cara. He did not mention his father.

  I told Luke I wanted to see him. Even though there was no return address on the postcard, even though Thailand was a big country--how hard could it be to find an eighteen-year-old Caucasian teacher? I called the travel agent to book a flight, planning to use money we kept in an emergency fund.

  Then one of Luke's precious wolves got sick and needed surgery. And suddenly that money no longer existed.

  The next week, I filed for divorce.

  These were my irreconcilable differences: My son was gone. My husband was to blame. And I couldn't forgive him for that, ever.

  But here's the dirty little secret I still hide: I was the one who told Edward to go to Redmond's that day, who urged him to come out to his own father the way he had to me. If I hadn't made that suggestion--if I'd been with Edward when he told his father--would Luke have still reacted as badly? Would Edward never have left?

  If you look at it from this angle, it's my fault I lost my son for six years.

  Which is why, now, I won't make the same mistake twice.

  I would be the first to tell you I'm not perfect. I only floss before dentist appointments. I sometimes eat food that I've dropped on the floor. Once, I even spanked one of the twins when she ran into the middle of the road.

  And I know how it must look when I do not stay with my daughter, who is wrapped and bandaged and wounded more than bone-deep, but instead choose to follow the son who has tried to pull the plug from his father's ventilator. I know that people are talking as I walk behind the security guards and the hospital lawyer, calling out to Edward, so he understands he isn't alone.

  I look like a bad mother.

  But if I didn't run after Edward--if I didn't try to explain to the hospital and the police that he didn't mean it--well, wouldn't that make me a worse mother?

  I don't deal well with stress. I never have--it's why you never saw me on any of Luke's TV episodes; it's why, when he went to Quebec to live in the wild, I started taking Prozac. Over the past week I have done my best to hold myself together for Cara, even though being in this hospital at night feels like wandering through a ghost town, even though walking into Luke's room and seeing him with his head shaved and the stitches bisecting his scalp makes me want to turn tail and run. I stayed calm when the police came asking questions to which I did not want to know the answers. But now, I willingly throw myself into the fray. "I'm sure that Edward can explain," I tell the hospital lawyer.

  "He'll have a chance to do that," she says. "Down at the police station."

  On cue, the sliding doors of the hospital entrance open and two
officers walk in. "We'll need the nurse's statement, too," one of the cops says, while the other one handcuffs my son. "Edward Warren, you're being arrested for simple assault. You have the right to remain silent--"

  "Assault?" I gasp. "He didn't hurt anyone!"

  The hospital lawyer looks at me. "He shoved a nurse. And you and I both know that's not all he did."

  "Mom," Edward says, "it's okay."

  Sometimes I think I have spent my entire life being torn in two directions: I wanted a career, but I also wanted a family. I loved the way Luke's wildness could barely be contained inside his skin, but that didn't necessarily make him the best husband, the best father. I want to be a good parent to Cara, but I have two little children now who demand my complete attention.

  I love my daughter. But I also love my son.

  I stand rooted to the floor as the security guards and the hospital lawyer leave, as the police lead Edward into a day so bright I have to squint, and even then I lose sight of him too fast.

  The automatic doors whisper like gossip as they close. I rummage in my purse and find my phone, so that I can call my husband. "Joe," I say when he answers. "I need your help."


  An alpha female can choose a specific prey animal from a herd of hundreds by the smell it leaves behind. A moose with a scratch on its foreleg will leave behind the scent of pus with every footstep. The alpha reads this as vulnerability, and she can track it as if each footfall were a visible bread crumb. She can sniff at the tufts of grass the moose has fed upon and know, from the scent of its teeth, how old the animal is. Long before she ever comes into contact with this moose, she already knows volumes about it.

  Eventually she stops focusing on the ground and instead breathes deeply into the air. The dust coming off the moose's coat leaves particles in the wind, so even from miles away, she will know this is still the same animal. She will start to run, her hunters keeping stride, and when she reaches the herd, she will hold herself back--she's far too valuable to put herself in danger--and signal a plan of attack to the others. There is a gland on a wolf's spinal area near the tail. To get a hunter to move right, the alpha will lift her tail up to the left, letting out a directional scent that her hunter can read. If she wants the hunter to speed up, she'll circle her tail. If she wants her hunter to slow down, she'll drop her tail. Through these tail postures, and her scent, she communicates with her team, directing them. Even if another moose is closer, the hunters will not strike until their leader gives them the signal, and even then, they will only take the animal she's pointed out.

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