Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  Or in other words: There are no fairy tales in the wild, no Cinderella stories. The lowly wolf that seems to rise to the top of the pack was really an alpha all along.


  When I come into the kitchen, where Joe is standing at the counter eating a bowl of cereal and flipping through the high school sports section of the newspaper, he glances up at me. "Is that what you were planning on wearing?" he says, in the tone of someone who had something completely different in mind.

  I've never really paid much attention to clothes; I'm not the stereotypical gay man in that respect. I'm perfectly happy wearing the jeans I've had since high school and a sweatshirt so old that it's threadbare in the elbows. Of course, I had starched shirts and ties for my teaching assignments, but they are somewhere between here and Chiang Mai in a box, I imagine. Given that I flew to New Hampshire on a moment's notice, with only a small carry-on bag, my sartorial choices are pretty limited. "Sorry," I say. "When I was packing, I didn't realize I'd need a good courtroom look."

  "Do you at least have a collared shirt?"

  I nod. "But it's denim."

  Joe sighs. "Come with me."

  He puts down his bowl and walks out of the kitchen, heading upstairs to my father's bedroom. I realize too late what his intention is. "Don't bother," I say, as Joe begins to rustle through my father's closet. "He didn't even own a tie when I was growing up."

  But Joe reaches into the bowels of the closet and pulls out a white dress shirt, pressed and still hanging in its plastic dry cleaning bag. "Put this on," he orders. "You can borrow one of my ties. I keep an extra in the trunk of my car."

  "It's going to be huge on me. My dad's built like the Hulk."

  Joe flinches almost imperceptibly. "Yeah, I'd noticed."

  He leaves me so that he can go get the tie. I sit down on the bed, trying to keep myself from giving this moment more symbolism than it is due. As a boy I never felt like I measured up to my father--who was larger than life, literally and figuratively. Putting on his shirt will be like a little kid playing dress-up, pretending to fill shoes that are too big for me.

  I rip open the plastic and begin to unbutton the shirt. When did my father start wearing stuff like this, anyway? I cannot remember a moment in my life when he wasn't wearing flannel, thermals, coveralls, battered boots. You don't dress for success when you're spending 24/7 in a wolf pen; you wear whatever will give you protection against nips and scratches and mud and rain. Had he changed in the time I'd been away, enough to be able to acclimate himself to the world of people as seamlessly as he blended into the company of wolves? Did he go to wine bars, to poetry slams, to theater?

  Is the father I kept imagining in my mind, on an endless home-video loop, now someone different?

  And if he is, can I really be sure that what he said to me over a shot of whisky when I was fifteen was still what he believed?

  Yes, I tell myself. It has to be, because I can't let myself face the alternative.

  I pull my sweatshirt over my head and shrug into my father's shirt. The cotton is cool on my skin, wings settling over my back. I button the placket and then slip my hand into the starched breast pocket, peeling open the starched skin of the fabric.

  When I was really tiny, my father had a red and black buffalo check wool jacket that he used to wear to work. It had two breast pockets, and whenever he came home, he'd tell me to choose a pocket. If I picked the right one and reached inside, I'd find a piece of penny candy. It took me years to realize there were no right and wrong pockets. They both had candy; I couldn't help but be a winner.

  I turn around on impulse and look in my father's closet to find that jacket. At first I think it's not there, and then I find it hanging behind a pair of ripped Carhartt coveralls.

  I notice my reflection in the mirror that is glued to the back of the closet door. To my surprise, the shirt isn't big on me at all. I fill out the shoulders, and the arms are exactly the length I'd choose if I were buying this for myself. With a start I realize that, now, I could easily pass for my father, with my features and my height.

  I reach for the buffalo plaid jacket and put it on, too.

  "It's a statement," Joe argues, the same argument he's made since I walked downstairs wearing my father's coat. "And in court, you don't want to do anything to get a judge riled up."

  "It's a coat, not a statement," I say. "It's freaking fifteen degrees out. And this is New Hampshire. You can't tell me every defendant wears Armani."

  Before we can bicker any further, the sheriff walks into the courtroom. "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, all rise!" He faces the gallery. "All those having business before the district court shall now join near, give their attendance, and they shall be heard. The Honorable Nettie McGrue presiding!"

  The judge is a tiny bird of a woman with a cap of frighteningly yellow hair and a sharp, pointed nose. Her judicial robe has a profusion of lace at the collar that makes me think of a rabid, frothing dog. "Counsel," she says, "I will take any formal matters that are scheduled for arraignment."

  Beside me, Joe stands. "Your Honor, I'm ready in the matter of Edward Warren."

  "Mr. Warren, come forward," the judge says, as Joe hauls me upright. "Clerk, arraign the defendant."

  We walk to the front of the courtroom, and I give my name and address--well, I give my father's address, anyway. "Mr. Warren," the judge says, "I see you're represented by counsel . . . Would Counsel identify himself for the record?"

  "Joe Ng, Your Honor."

  "Mr. Warren, you're before the court having been charged by complaint with second-degree assault against Maureen Cullen, a nurse at Beresford Memorial Hospital. What say you to this charge?"

  My fingers curl around the cuff of my father's jacket. "I'm not guilty, Your Honor."

  "I see bail was set at five thousand dollars personal recognizance. The defendant, having appeared here voluntarily, is released on the same recognizance. Mr. Warren, I'm going to set the same bail conditions that were set by the bail commissioner: you are ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation, and there's a no contact order with your father, and a no trespass order with Beresford Memorial Hospital." She fixes her bright, black eyes on me. "You realize that if you fail to have the evaluation performed within the next ten days, or if you go to the hospital to see your father, you could be brought back and held without bail at the county jail pending a hearing? Do you understand the terms and conditions of your release?"

  She asks me to raise my right hand and swear that I'll be back here in ten days for a probable cause hearing, whatever that is.

  "Next matter," the judge says, and then it's over.

  The whole procedure takes about two minutes, tops.

  "That's it?" I say to Joe.

  "Would you prefer it to drag on longer?" He pulls me out of the courtroom.

  I follow him through the parking lot to his car.

  "Now what?" I ask, my words shifting shape in the cold. I stamp my feet while he unlocks the door.

  "Now you do what the judge said. You get your psychiatric evaluation and you sit tight while I try to figure out how to get this case thrown out." He turns on the ignition and backs out of his spot. "I'll drive you back to your father's--"

  He is interrupted by a blast of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Startled, I fiddle with the radio to turn it down, but it isn't even switched on. "Joe Ng," he announces out loud, to nobody.

  Then I hear another voice, broadcast through the hands-free phone system. "Joe? This is Danny Boyle, the county attorney."

  "Danny," Joe says, wary. "What can I do for you?"

  "Actually, it's the other way around. Your stepson was indicted today for the attempted murder of his father--"

  "What the hell?" I burst out.

  Joe punches me in the arm. "Sorry. Let me turn down the radio here," he says, and he shoots me a deathly look and puts his finger to his lips: silence. "I think you might have that charge wrong," Joe continues. "He was arraigned for second-degree assault."

/>   "Well, Joe"--the other voice is smooth, oily--"I have the indictment sitting right here in my hand. This was a professional courtesy call, to be frank. Instead of having him picked up, I thought you might prefer to surrender him to the police department."

  "Yes," Joe replies. "I'll bring him in. Thanks for the call." He pushes a button on his steering wheel, disconnecting the call, and looks at me. "You," he says, "are in deep shit."

  "I wasn't trying to kill my father," I insist, as Joe drains his cup of coffee in a single gulp, then holds it out to the diner waitress to refill. "Well, I mean, I was, but not because I wanted him dead. Because it's what he wanted."

  "And you know this how?"

  I fumble in my coat pocket for the letter I signed for my father--but then realize it's in my sweatshirt back home. "I have a note he signed, giving me the power to make medical decisions for him if he wasn't capable of making them," I say. "He told me if he was ever in a condition like this, he wouldn't want to be kept alive."

  At this, Joe raises his brows. "When did he sign this note?"

  "When I was fifteen," I admit, and Joe buries his face in his hands.

  "I'm going to work this out," he promises, "but you have to tell me exactly what happened yesterday."

  "I already have--"

  "Tell me again."

  I draw in my breath. I tell him about the meeting at Cara's bedside, how the neurosurgeon and the ICU doctor both said my father wasn't going to recover, and that we would have to make some choices about his health care. I tell him how Cara went ballistic, how the nurse shooed everyone out. "Cara said she couldn't do this," I explain. "She couldn't keep listening to all these doctors telling her there wasn't any hope. So I told her I'd take care of everything. And I did."

  "So she never actually said that she wanted you to terminate your father's life support . . ."

  "Of course not. Neither of us wanted it. Who would, when it means someone in your family is going to die? But Cara couldn't face the fact that my father isn't ever going to live again, either." I shake my head. "There is no miracle around the corner, if we give it a week or a month or a year. It is what it is. And that sucks, but it means our options are sticking him in a nursing home forever or terminating life support, and either one of those choices is something Cara doesn't want to make. I may not have been around much when she was growing up, but I'm still her big brother, and I'm supposed to be the one who protects her--from bullies, and from crappy boyfriends, and from horrible situations like this. That's why I decided I'd make the call. That way, she didn't have to carry around that little bit of guilt for the rest of her life."

  "But you would," Joe says.

  I look up at him. "Yeah."

  "So what did you do?"

  "I talked to my father's surgeon. I wanted to make sure that what he was really saying was that my dad wasn't coming back. Ever. I told him I wanted to talk to the organ donation people."


  "My dad's license says he wanted to be a donor," I say. "So I met with them, and signed all the forms, and they scheduled everything to happen the next morning."

  "Why didn't you go back and talk to Cara about this?"

  "She was sedated. That's how upset she got after the doctors told her there wasn't a chance in hell for my father." I shrug. "You can ask my mother if you don't believe me."

  "Then what happened?"

  "At nine, I was in my father's hospital room with a couple of nurses and the hospital lawyer and the neurosurgeon, and the ICU doctor asked where Cara was. Next thing I know, she bursts into the room screaming that I'm trying to kill my father." I pick up my fork, toying with it. "The hospital lawyer told everyone to step back, that this couldn't continue as planned. But all I could think was, I can't let this drag on anymore. It wasn't going to get any easier, no matter how long we waited, whether or not Cara wanted to admit it. So I bent down and pulled the plug of the ventilator out of the wall." I glance at Joe. "I bumped into the nurse when I reached for the plug, but I didn't shove her."

  "The nurse is the least of your worries now," Joe says. "Did you say anything when you pulled out the plug?"

  I shake my head. "I don't think so."

  "Did you ever do anything that might have made people think you were angry at your father?"

  I hesitate. "Not yesterday."

  He leans back in the booth. "Here's the deal. The state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you intended to kill your father, that you thought about it in advance, and that you wanted to do it with malice. You clearly wanted to hasten your father's death. Premeditation counts, even if you thought about it only seconds before you acted. So the sticking point here--the one we can use to hang our hat on--is malice."

  "You know what's malicious? Keeping someone alive with machines," I argue. "How come it's okay to prolong life artificially, but not to let someone die by getting rid of all those special measures?"

  "I don't know, Edward, but I don't really have time to argue the philosophy of euthanasia right now," Joe says. "What happened after you pulled the plug?"

  "I got tackled by an orderly, and then security came and brought me to the lobby. The cops picked me up."

  I watch Joe take a pen from his pocket and scribble something on a napkin. "So here's our spin: this isn't murder, it's mercy."


  "I'll need you to get me that letter your father signed," he says.

  "It's at the house."

  "I'll pick it up later."

  "Why not now?" I ask.

  "Because I'm going to talk to everyone else who was in that hospital room." Joe slaps a twenty-dollar bill down on the table. "And you," he says, "are going to the police station."

  The bail commissioner is the same one I met yesterday. "You know, Mr. Warren," he says, "you don't get frequent flyer miles for coming back."

  It is like a massive deja vu, with another criminal complaint being handed to the commissioner, another detective with his arms crossed, and Joe by my side. The commissioner reads over the charge, but this time, I can tell, he's surprised.

  "Attempted murder is a very serious offense," he says. "And it's your second arrest in as many days. This one's out of my comfort zone, Mr. Warren. I'm setting bail at five hundred thousand dollars."

  "What?" Joe explodes out of his seat. "That's astronomical!"

  "Take it up Monday with the judge," the commissioner says.

  Joe turns to the cop in the room. "Can I have a moment with my client?"

  The bail commissioner and the detective finish up and leave us alone in the interrogation room. Joe shakes his head. I'm sure he's wishing he wasn't married to someone whose baggage includes a son like me, who can't seem to stay out of trouble.

  "Don't worry," he says. "When you go to superior court for your arraignment, the judge will never hold you to those bail guidelines."

  "But what do we do in the meantime?"

  "We need fifty thousand dollars to post bail," Joe explains, looking down at the floor. "And, Edward, I just don't have that kind of money available."

  "I don't understand."

  "It means," he says, "that you have to spend the weekend in jail."

  If you had told me a week ago that I'd be in a New Hampshire county correctional facility, I would have told you that you were insane. In fact, I had believed that by now, my father would be on the mend, and I'd be on a plane back to my students in Chiang Mai.

  Life has a way of kicking you in the teeth, though.

  The correctional officer who's processing my information types with one finger. You'd think that since this is his job, he'd be better at it by now. Or he would have taken a keyboarding course. He is so slow that I wonder if I will spend any time in a cell, or if I will still be sitting here when they come to get me for the arraignment.

  "Empty your pockets," he tells me.

  I take out my wallet, which has thirty-three U.S. dollars in it and a smattering of baht, the key to my father's house, and the rental ca
r keys.

  "Will I get this stuff back?" I ask.

  "If you get released," the officer says. "Otherwise, the money will be set up in an account for your pending trial."

  I cannot even let myself think about that. This is a misunderstanding, that's all, and Monday Joe will make the judge see that.

  But there are doubts that keep running across my mind like shadows in an alley. If this weren't serious, why would the bail have been set so high? If this weren't serious, why would the county attorney himself have been the one who called Joe to tell him I'd been indicted? If this weren't serious, why would I have been driven to the county jail in the back of a sheriff's car?

  I am no expert on law, that's for sure. But I know enough of the basics to understand that while the hospital might have filed the complaint that got me charged with assault, the state would have to be the one to file criminal charges for murder.

  How could the county attorney even have heard so quickly about what happened?

  Someone told him.

  It would not have been the doctors, who--let's face it--were crystal clear in explaining my father's bleak prognosis. It would not have been the hospital lawyer, who (if all had gone according to plan) would welcome the turnover of the bed for a patient they could actually help. It wouldn't have been the organ donation coordinator, because that would be counterproductive for her organization.

  Which leaves one of the nurses, possibly. I'd met all sorts coming in and out of my father's room. Some were funny, some were kind, some brought me snacks, and others brought me prayer cards. I guess it's possible that someone conservative who believed in the sanctity of life at all costs might become a nurse to preserve that gift--and that terminating life support would morally upset her, even if it were part of her job description. Add to that Cara's outburst and--

  Suddenly, I trip over my own thoughts. Cara.

  For all I know, she sold me out. After all, who'd pick an alleged murderer to be someone's legal guardian?

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