Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  I find myself shivering, even though the heat has been cranked up to approximately the eighth circle of Hell in here. I fold my arms, hoping I can hide it.

  "You got a hearing problem?" the officer yells, standing over me. I realize I have not been listening to a thing he's been saying.

  "No. I'm sorry."

  "This way."

  He leads me into a tiny, airless room. "Get undressed," he demands.

  I don't have to tell you the stereotypes about gay men and jail. But when he says that, I cannot pretend this isn't real and happening anymore. I, who have never even returned a library book late, now have a criminal record. I am about to be strip-searched. I will be locked in a cage with someone who actually deserves to be here. "You mean, like, in front of you?"

  "Oh!" the officer says, widening his eyes in mock horror. "I'm so sorry! You must have booked the private cabana with the beach view. Unfortunately, that package isn't available right now." He folds his arms. "I can, however, offer you this choice: You can take your clothes off, or I can take them off for you."

  Immediately my hands go to the belt of my pants. I fumble with the zipper and turn my back to the officer. I unzip my father's jacket, unbutton my father's shirt. Then my socks and finally my boxer briefs. He picks up each item of clothing and inspects it. "Face me and raise your arms," the officer says, and I do, closing my eyes. I can feel his eyes on me, like a minesweep. He snaps on a pair of latex gloves and lifts up my testicles. "Turn around and bend over," he instructs, and when I do I can feel him moving my legs apart, probing.

  Once at a bar in Bangkok I met a man who was a prison guard. He'd kept us all in stitches with stories of inmates rubbing themselves with their own feces--which the guards called self-tanning--of one guy who dove from the top bunk into his toilet as if it were a swimming pool, of the booty they found during body cavity searches: shanks, soda cans, screwdrivers, pencils, keys, baggies of heroin, once even a live sparrow. "But the female inmates," he had said. "They're the ones you gotta watch. They could smuggle in a toaster." At the time I'd thought it was hilarious.

  I don't, now.

  The officer snaps off the gloves and tosses them in a trash can. Then he hands me a laundry sack. Inside are blue scrubs, some Tshirts, underwear, shower shoes, a towel. "This is a complimentary gift from the manager on duty," he says. "If you have any questions, you can call the front desk." He starts laughing, as if this is actually funny.

  I am taken to a nurse, who checks my blood pressure and my eyes and ears and sticks a thermometer in my mouth. When she leans down to listen to my lungs with a stethoscope, I whisper in her ear. "There's been a mistake," I murmur.

  "Beg pardon?"

  I look around to make sure that the door is closed and that we are alone. "I don't belong here."

  She pats my arm. "You and me both, sweetheart," she says.

  She turns me over to a different officer, who marches me into the belly of this jail. There are double gates at several steps, manned on both sides by people in control towers, who slide the doors open and closed in sequence. When we step through one of the portals, the officer reaches into a bin and hands me another laundry sack. "Sheets, blankets, and a pillowcase," he says. "Laundry's every two weeks."

  "I'm only here for the weekend," I explain.

  He doesn't even look at me. "Whatever you say."

  We are on a catwalk, with metal that clangs every time I put down my foot. The cells are on one side. Each has a bunk bed, a sink, a toilet, a television with a plastic casing so that you can see its guts. The inmates we pass are mostly asleep. The ones who are awake whistle or call out as I walk by.

  Fresh meat, I hear.

  Ooh, we got us a baby.

  I find myself thinking of my father, instructing me as I approached the wolf enclosure for the first time: They can tell if your heart rate goes up, so don't let them know you're afraid. I keep my eyes straight ahead. My watch has been confiscated, but surely it's already late afternoon; it is only a matter of hours before I can leave.

  And again, I hear my father's voice. It's hard for me to describe what it was like, locking myself inside the enclosure that first time. At the beginning, all that existed was pure panic.

  "Vern," the officer says, and he stops in front of a cell that has one inmate inside. "Got a roommate for you. This is Edward." He unlocks the door and waits for me to move peacefully inside.

  I wonder if anyone has ever just absolutely refused. Hung back, clawed at the iron bars, hurled himself over the catwalk's railing.

  When the door is locked behind me again, I look at the man sitting on the bottom bunk. He has a buzz of red hair and a beard with food caught in it. One of his eyes bounces and veers to the left, as if it's not tethered inside his head. He has tattoos on every inch of skin I can see--including his face--and his fists look like Christmas hams. "Fuck," he says. "They brought me a faggot."

  I freeze, holding the bag with my sheets and towels. Which is all the confirmation he needs.

  "You try to suck my cock in the middle of the night and I swear I'll cut your balls off with a butter knife," he says.

  "That won't be a problem." I move as far away from him as possible (not easy, in a space that is six feet by eight feet) and climb into the upper bunk. I don't bother to make the bed. Instead I lie down and look at the ceiling.

  "What are you in for?" Vern asks after a minute.

  I consider telling him I'm waiting to be arraigned for murder. Maybe it will make me seem tougher, like someone who should be left alone. But instead I say, "The free food."

  Vern snorts. "It's cool. I get it. You don't want anyone knowing your business."

  "I'm not trying to be an enigma--"

  "Yeah, damn straight you're not sticking some hose up my ass--"

  It takes me a minute to figure that one out. "Not an enema," I say. "And I'm not hiding anything. It's that I don't belong here."

  "Shit, Eddie," Vern says, laughing. "None of us do."

  I turn to my side and put the pillow over my head so I don't have to hear him anymore. It's just a few nights, I tell myself again. Anyone can survive a few nights.

  But what if it isn't? What if Joe isn't able to make all this go away, and I have to wait here for six months or a year until we go to trial? What if, God forbid, I wind up convicted of attempted murder? I couldn't live like this, in a cage.

  I'm afraid to close my eyes, even after the lights go out hours later. But eventually I fall asleep, and when I do, I dream of my father. I dream he's in a jail cell, and I am the only one with the key.

  I reach into my pocket to get it, but there's a hole in the lining of my pants, and no matter how hard I search, I can't find it.


  I once saw a wolf commit murder.

  There was a lone wolf that kept crossing the boundaries of the other packs and poaching off the livestock from farms in the area. No matter how many times my pack warned him off through howling, he wouldn't stay away. It wasn't my decision to act upon, however, but rather the alpha female's. Every time this wolf was near our territory, tension rose. The wolves in my pack would fight with each other. At night, other packs would call, telling him to get lost.

  One day, the big black wolf--the beta rank--disappeared on a patrol with the other female. That in and of itself was not unusual; it was his job within the pack. However, this time, he didn't return. Four days passed . . . five . . . six. I started to worry--to believe he was gone for good--and then the female came back alone, confirming my fears. That night, our pack howled, but it wasn't a location call. It was pain, wrapped in the skin of a single note. It was what we did, when we wanted to sing someone home to us.

  I have been on the receiving end of that call. In the forest you have no direction, so when this constant vocal tone comes out of nowhere like the beacon of a lighthouse, it gives you a direction to follow, to tell you where your pack is waiting. But the beta didn't turn up. Three nights of calling, and he never answered.

  I was sure he had been killed.

  Then one night, when we howled, there was an answer. Not from the black wolf but from the lone wolf who'd been such a hassle to our pack.

  The alpha continued to call to him. Far be it from me to question her motives, but I imagined this would be a disaster. Here she was advertising the vacancy in the pack, inviting him to join, and he would be nothing but a nuisance.

  Eventually the calls of this lone wolf came closer, and he approached the pack. Everyone was on guard; after all, this was an unknown quantity for the family, and the first meeting would feel like an awkward dance, the beginning of an arranged marriage. No sooner had he loped into the clearing where we were waiting for him, however, than the big black beta wolf barreled out of the cover of the forest and ambushed him. Immediately the other female and the young male leaped forward to help fight.

  The lone wolf was dead within seconds. Lying still on the ground, he had the look of a cross between a feral dog and a wild animal, which would explain his bad behavior. The beta was surrounded by the rest of our pack, which licked at his muzzle and rubbed against him in solidarity, in welcome.

  I don't think I'm reading human emotion into what happened that day when I say it was a coordinated attack. For the pack to intentionally create a ruse, where the beta was sent off to lie in wait--in silence--in order to lure the lone wolf closer; for the beta to wait for the lone wolf to be drawn out from his cover, so that he could be taken down with the help of the rest of the waiting pack--well, it was premeditated, and malicious, and very, very necessary at the moment to keep the family safe.

  You call it murder.

  A wolf might call it opportunity.


  I used to wonder about prisoners who had been given a life sentence. What if one has a heart attack and is pronounced dead and resuscitated by doctors? Does that mean he's served his time? Or is that why, sometimes, sentences are written for two or three life terms?

  The reason I'm asking is because I'm currently grounded until I'm 198.

  My mother, of course, had returned home from the bus stop to find me missing. I couldn't very well let her know I was en route to the grand jury in Plymouth, so I had left her a very passionate note about how it was killing me to know my dad was alone in the hospital, so Mariah was going to drive me there for a visit, but that I promised not to overtax myself and she shouldn't feel that she had to come down and sit with me since she hadn't seen the twins for a week, thanks to my shoulder surgery, yadda yadda yadda. I figured compassion would trump fury, and I was right: how can you be mad at a kid who sneaks off to visit her hospitalized father?

  If Danny Boyle thinks it's weird that I ask him to drop me off at the end of my block so I can walk the rest of the way without my mother asking about the strange Beemer that dropped me off, he doesn't say anything. My mother, actually, gives me a careful hug when I come in and apologizes for yelling at me the night before and asks, "How's he doing?"

  For a second I think she's talking about the county attorney.

  Then I remember my fake alibi. "No change," I say.

  She follows me into the kitchen, where I start to open and close cabinet doors in search of a glass. "Cara," my mother says, "I want you to know that this is your home, forever, if you want it to be."

  I know she means well, but my home is across town--complete with a ratty couch that has indentations on it in the spots where my father and I tend to sit. My home has natural shampoos and shaving cream so that the wolves aren't assaulted by perfume when my father is working with them. My home has a single bathroom with two toothbrushes: pink for me, blue for my dad. Here, I have to rifle through six different drawers before I find what I'm looking for. Home is the place where you know where the silverware lives, where the cups hide, where the clean plates go.

  I run the water in the faucet so that I can get myself a drink. "Um," I say, embarrassed. "Thanks."

  I try to imagine a life where I have to constantly expect a little pest hiding under my bed to scare the hell out of me, where I have a curfew, where I am given a list of chores instead of made an equal partner in the household. I try to imagine a life without my dad. He may be an unorthodox parent, but he's still the one that fits me best. You remember the controversy when Michael Jackson dangled his kid over a railing? I bet no one asked the kid how he felt about it. Probably he was delighted, because to him the safest place in the world was his dad's arms.

  I hear a door slam, and a moment later Joe comes into the kitchen. He looks rumpled and pretty distracted, but my mother acts like it's Colin Farrell. "You're home early!" she says. "I hope that means you got that ridiculous charge against Edward thrown out--"

  "Georgie," he interrupts, "I think you'd better sit down."

  My mother's features freeze. I turn my back to the sink again, dumping out my water and refilling it, wishing I wasn't caught in the web of this conversation.

  "I got a call from the county attorney," Joe explains. "They've amended the charge against Edward from assault to attempted murder."

  "What?" my mother says, stunned.

  "I'm not sure where the push is coming from. It could be political--he's built a platform on being pro-life and this is an election year and could net him the vote of every conservative in the state. He may be grandstanding, and Edward's just the fall guy." Joe looks up at my mother. "You were in the hospital room when it all happened. Did Edward say or do anything that could have been publicly interpreted as malice?"

  Yes, I think. He tried to kill my father.

  "I . . . I can't remember. It was very fast. One minute the hospital attorney was saying the procedure would be canceled, and the next, there was an alarm and an orderly grabbing Edward . . ." She faces me. "Cara, did he say anything?"

  He said nothing. And that's the whole point they're missing. He didn't ask me first if it was okay to kill off our father; he didn't care at all that I objected completely. "I think I need to go lie down," I reply, dumping my water into the sink for a second time.

  My mother sits down at the kitchen table. "Where is Edward now?"

  Joe hesitates. "He has to spend the weekend in jail. His arraignment's on Monday morning."

  I guess I didn't think about the fact that actions have consequences, that what I did might mean my brother is stuck in a cell. That he might wind up there for years. I'd wanted him somewhere out of the way, so that I could get the doctors to listen exclusively to me, but I hadn't considered where that somewhere would actually be.

  When I said I needed to lie down, I was just making up an excuse, so that I could get out of the kitchen before Joe realized I was the one to blame for my brother's situation. But now, I think I actually may have to lie down.

  Because I'm the one responsible for breaking up this family.

  For making my mother cry.

  For not listening to anyone else's reason but my own.

  Which means that everything I've accused my brother of doing in the past, I've just done myself.


  You can be evicted from a pack.

  I've seen both sides. There are wolves that are highly respected for their knowledge and their experience, who may fall sick or lame and will be nursed back to health by the entire pack. They will have food brought to them, they will be kept warm, the pace will be adapted to accommodate them until they are well again.

  I've also seen wolves who know they are no longer any use to the pack get that sidelong look from the alpha. This may be because of illness; it may be because of age. And maybe on the next patrol, or the next hunt, they will choose to intentionally slip away. Lie down beneath a copse of trees. Let go.


  The thirty-second television ad for my law practice shows me stern and focused in front of my desk, my arms folded. Joe Ng, a voice-over announces, the guttural stop of my last name ringing through the speakers. "The name stands for Not Guilty," I say, and there's the sound of a gavel being struck.

  Yeah, it's
cheesy. And Ng of course doesn't really stand for Not Guilty, but I don't mind it when law clerks high-five me and call me that. I am the first kid in my family to go to college, much less law school. My father was a Cambodian fisherman and my mother a seamstress, and they moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, just before I was born. Me, I was the golden boy, the American dream swaddled in disposable diapers.

  I have been lucky my whole life. I was born at 9:09, on 9/9, and everyone knows that nine is a lucky number in Cambodia. My mother tells a story about how, when I was a toddler, she found me holding a snake in the backyard, and never mind that it was a common garter snake, the fact that I could kill such a creature with my chubby bare hands surely meant that I was special. My father is convinced that the reason I made law review was not because I had straight A's but because he had prayed to Ganesha to remove all obstacles from my rise to greatness.

  Like everyone else in America, I remember when Luke Warren stumbled out of the forest looking like some sort of missing link, and terrified a group of Catholic schoolgirls whose bus stopped for a lunch break at a highway rest stop along the St. Lawrence River. I watched the interviews he did with Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper and Oprah. I probably even skimmed the profile of him in People magazine, which had a picture of Georgie in it, sitting with Luke on the front steps of a house he hardly ever slept in, their kids flanking them like bookends.

  Still, when Georgie came into my office in Beresford asking if I could represent her in the divorce, I didn't recognize her by name or by face. I just thought that, even after I'd paid an interior designer named Swag fifty thousand dollars to give my office feng shui, it wasn't until Georgie walked through the door that anything really looked like it belonged there.

  The divorce was a nonevent; all Luke wanted was shared custody and some crappy trailer on the grounds of Redmond's Trading Post. I managed to get Georgie a portion of the proceeds he'd earned doing the Animal Planet specials on wolf behavior, too. I called her Ms. Warren, and was a hundred percent professional, until the day the divorce decree was handed down. And then I called her cell phone and asked if she wanted to go out sometime.

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