Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  "Edward," I say, "I think it's time I saw that letter."

  LUKE

  Years after I came out of the wild, when I was working with Ukrainian farmers to divert wolf packs from their land and their cattle, I observed the most remarkable thing. There was a pack whose pups had been separated by biologists. One was sent off in one direction, the other was sent off in the opposite direction. Years later, they had formed rival packs, and one day, I saw them meet on a breach line of territory. They stood with their brethren, bristling, teeth bared, on two facing ridges.

  As soon as the litter mates saw each other, they ran to the no-man's-land between the territories and greeted each other, brother and sister rolling in the grass and having a grand old reunion.

  It wasn't until some of the other adult wolves went down and reminded each of them that the sibling was part of a rival pack that they stopped.

  And then the two wolves fought each other as if they'd never met before in their lives.

  GEORGIE

  It's not politically correct to say that you love one child more than you love your others. I love all of my kids, period, and they're all my favorites in different ways. But ask any parent who's been through some kind of a crisis surrounding a child--a health scare, an academic snarl, an emotional problem--and we will tell you the truth. When something upends the equilibrium--when one child needs you more than the others--that imbalance becomes a black hole. You may never admit it out loud, but the one you love the most is the one who needs you more desperately than his siblings. What we really hope is that each child gets a turn. That we have deep enough reserves to be there for each of them, at different times.

  All this goes to hell when two of your children are pitted against each other, and both of them want you on their side.

  For years after Edward left us, I used to wake up in the middle of the night and imagine all the worst that could happen to him in a foreign country. I pictured drug busts, deportation, rapes in alleys. I pictured him mugged and beaten, bleeding, unable to find someone to help. Like a missing tooth, sometimes an absence is more noticeable than a presence, and I found myself worrying about him even more than I had when he was here. I loved him most because I thought that might be the spell that would bring him back to me.

  Meanwhile, Cara blamed me for the divorce when Luke moved out for good; and she blamed me for replacing our old, broken family with a shiny new one. I admit, sometimes I agree with her. When I am with the twins, I think that this is my second chance, that maybe I can bind these two little people to me more closely than I managed to do with my first pair of children.

  I am out front watching the kids as they play in the snow fort we built two weeks ago--before the car accident, before Edward came home, before I had to take sides. After my confrontation with Cara, it's liberating to sit on the porch steps and listen to Elizabeth and Jackson pretending that they live in a frost palace and that the icicles are magic talismans. I'd give anything, right now, to dream away reality.

  When I hear a car coming down the driveway, I stand up and walk between the road and the twins, as if that would be enough to protect them. They poke their heads out from the window of their little igloo as a stranger rolls down the window. "Hi," he says. "I'm looking for Georgiana Ng?"

  "That would be me," I reply. I wonder if Joe's had flowers sent to me again; sometimes he does that--not to apologize for missing my birthday or anniversary, like Luke, but just because.

  "Great." The man hands me a blue folded packet, legal papers, and reverses out of the driveway.

  I don't need Joe to translate; it's a petition to appoint a permanent guardian for Luke. The reason I've been served is because Cara, as a party of interest, is still a minor. Which is exactly why she has all the odds stacked against her.

  "Hey, guys," I say, "time for hot chocolate!" The twins won't want to come inside yet, but I have to tell Cara about this. So I negotiate a deal that includes an extra half hour of television time this afternoon, install the kids on the couch in front of Nickelodeon, and then walk upstairs to her room.

  She is sitting at her desk, watching a YouTube video of her father bent over a carcass, feeding between two wolves. It was probably uploaded by a visitor to Redmond's; you find hundreds if you Google Luke's name. The novelty of watching a grown man defend himself between the snapping jaws of two wild beasts never gets old, I guess. I wonder how those amateur videographers would react if they knew that eating the raw innards of the calf gave Luke such bad diarrhea that he started having the organs removed and flash-fried by Walter, then tucked back into the carcasses in small plastic bags. The animals were never the wiser--they thought he was just eating his allotted portion of the calf--but Luke's digestive system stopped rebelling.

  No matter how much he liked to think of himself as a wolf, his body betrayed him.

  Cara swivels in her chair when she sees me. She looks nervous. "I'm sorry for sneaking out," she begins. "But if I'd told you where I wanted to go, you never would have taken me."

  I sit down on her bed. "An apology with a defense built in isn't much of an apology," I point out. "And I actually can forgive you for that, because I know you were thinking of your father. What's harder to forgive is the other stuff you said downstairs. This isn't a contest between you and your brother. Or you and the twins."

  Cara looks away from me. "It's just hard to compete with a tortured runaway or supercute toddlers."

  "There's no competition, Cara," I say. "Because I wouldn't have traded you for anything. And no one's better at being you than you."

  She bites the cuticle on her thumb. "When Edward first left? You used to come into my room when I was asleep and curl up behind me. You thought I was asleep and didn't know, but I did," Cara says. "I used to wish on every star and every stray eyelash that he would stay where he was, so you'd keep doing it. It was just the two of us, and then one day, it wasn't anymore." She swallows. "First Edward was gone, and the next minute you were gone. So for the longest time, it's just been Dad and me."

  Cara may think I don't love her as much as I do her brother, but parents aren't the only ones who play favorites. Both Cara and Edward, they loved Luke best. How could they not, when he was the one who took them orienteering in the woods and showed them what kind of clover is edible and who put wolf puppies into their laps to chew on their sleeves. Me, I was the one who told them to clean up their rooms and eat their broccoli.

  I want to reach out to Cara, but the wall she's put between us is invisible and thick and strong. "Do you know when I found out I was pregnant with you I burst into tears?"

  Cara's jaw drops, as if she expected an admission like this but never thought I'd have the guts to say it out loud.

  "I didn't think I could possibly love another baby as much as I loved the one I'd already had," I continue. "But the strangest thing happened when I held you for the first time. It was like my heart suddenly unfolded. Like there was this secret space I didn't even know existed, and there was room for both of you." I stare at her. "Once my feelings were stretched like that, there was no going back. Without you, it just would have felt empty."

  Cara leans forward, her hair obscuring her face. "It doesn't always feel that way on the receiving end."

  "I didn't choose Edward over you," I say. "I choose you both. Which is why I'm giving this to you." I hand her the legal papers. "On Thursday a court's going to appoint a permanent guardian for your father."

  Cara's eyes widen. "And whoever they pick is the one the hospital has to listen to?"

  "Yes," I say.

  "And your name is on the papers because you're my legal guardian."

  "I assume so. And I assume that Edward's gotten the same set of papers."

  She gets up so fast the chair spins backward. "They have to pick you," she says. "You need to get a lawyer . . ."

  Immediately I hold up my hand. "Cara, there's no way I'm getting involved in your father's life again." Or his death, I think.

  "It's ju
st for three months, until I turn eighteen," she begs. "All you have to do is say what I say, and the doctors will listen. And who knows, by then, Dad could even be recuperating."

  "I know how much you love him, honey, but this is outside my comfort zone. Your father is a roller coaster, and I can't handle that ride again."

  "You don't understand," Cara says. "I can't lose him."

  "Actually, I do understand," I tell her softly. "There was a time when I felt the same way. There's no one else in this world like your father. But I had to remind myself that he wasn't the same man I'd fallen for, anymore. That he'd made some bad choices."

  Cara glances up, dry-eyed, determined. "He didn't choose this," she answers. "Maybe he left you, Mom, but he would never, ever leave me."

  Her words take me back. I am pregnant with Cara, and Luke sleeps with his arms around me. An alpha female can have a phantom pregnancy, he tells me.

  I'm pretty sure this one's real, I tell him, turning slightly in the hope I can find a comfortable position for my bulk. I can't imagine wanting to fake this.

  It puts every other wolf on his best behavior. They're busy advertising themselves as potential nannies, or proving to the alpha that they're still good at protecting the pack or diffusing the pack or whatever their jobs are that will make those pups safe and sound. And then, at the very end of it, when the alpha's got everyone acting just the way she wants, she turns off the hormones that have been in her urine and her scent and says, Gotcha.

  That's pretty impressive, I say.

  He cups his hands over my belly. You don't know the half of it. Four or five months before she even comes into season, an alpha female knows the number of pups she is going to have, their gender, and if they'll stay in her pack or be dispersed to form a new one, he says.

  I laugh. I'd settle for knowing whether to buy blue or pink clothes.

  It's amazing, he whispers. These babies are part of the family before they even are conceived.

  Now, I realize Cara is right. Luke may have been a singularly selfish, lousy husband, but he loved his children. He showed it the only way he knew how: by bringing them into the world he couldn't live without. For Edward, that turned out to be a clash. For Cara, it was a delight.

  I had defended Edward when he needed an advocate; I would do no less for Cara. I can't be the guardian she wants me to be for her father, but that doesn't mean I can't help her. Resolved, I stand up. "Meet me in the car. We'll have to take the twins with us, but they might fall asleep on the way . . ."

  "Where are we going?" Cara asks.

  "To track down Danny Boyle," I tell her. "He's going to find you a lawyer."

  The county attorney is not in his office, but as it turns out, old reporters don't die--they just arrange playdates instead of secret meetings with sources, and wear homemade Play-Doh instead of pencil skirts. It only takes one call to a former colleague to find out that Boyle's holding a press conference in the Beresford Grange Hall. An attempted murder charge in a small New England town--even a revoked one--is enough to merit a top story, and the county attorney isn't one to let a golden opportunity pass him by.

  By the time Cara and I arrive, the press conference is in full swing. The twins have fallen asleep in the car, and we're each holding one, a damp, warm weight. Among the reporters and television crews we stick out, so even though we hover at the lacy edge of the crowd, I'm not surprised when I see Boyle's eyes light on Cara, and he pauses just the slightest bit during his speech.

  "I consider myself a champion of justice," he says. "Which is why I will do whatever it takes to always make sure justice doesn't get out of hand. We will not become a litigious society with trumped-up charges based on false evidence, if I have any say."

  It's curious that he doesn't mention that he is the one who let the charges get out of hand in the first place.

  "What about the wolf guy in the hospital?" some reporter calls out, and beside me, I feel Cara flinch.

  "Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with him and his family," Boyle says soberly, and then he holds up a hand. "Sorry, folks, no more questions today."

  He pushes his way through the crowd until he reaches Cara, and grasps her upper arm. "What are you doing here?" he hisses.

  "You owe me," she says, lifting her chin.

  Boyle looks around to see if anyone's listening and then drags Cara into the Grange's community kitchen. I follow them, clutching Jackson as he sleeps against my shoulder. "I owe you?" Boyle says, incredulous. "I ought to be putting you in jail." He frowns, noticing me. "Who's this?"

  "My mom," Cara says.

  This makes Boyle tone down his attitude a little. After all, I'm a voter. "If I didn't firmly believe that your whole scheme was a result of you being overwrought by your father's condition, I would have indicted you myself. I don't owe you anything; I'm cutting you a colossal break."

  "Well," Cara replies, undaunted, "I need a lawyer."

  "I already told you I don't try civil suits--"

  "A temporary public guardian was appointed for my father. I don't even know what that is, really. But there's a court date on Thursday to pick a permanent guardian, and I have to let the judge know that I'm the only person who wants to keep my father alive."

  Watching Cara in action, I am impressed. She is a terrier with her teeth sunk into the mailman's pants cuff. She may be the underdog in size and in scope, but she isn't giving up without a fight.

  Boyle looks from Cara to me. "Your kid," he says, "is quite a piece of work."

  When he says that, I realize who Cara reminds me of at this moment.

  Me, back when I was a reporter, and wouldn't stop until I got the answer I wanted.

  "Yes," I say. "I couldn't be more proud."

  Maybe Cara chose to live with Luke instead of Joe and me. Maybe she is willing to give up everything, now, to care for her father. Yet in spite of her infallible allegiance to Luke, it turns out she is very much her mother's daughter.

  Danny Boyle scribbles something on the back of one of his business cards. "This woman used to work for me. She practices law part-time now. I'll call and tell her you'll be in touch." He hands the card to Cara. "And after that," he says, "I never want to hear from you again."

  LUKE

  There is a very real pecking order in a wolf pack, a fluid and constant test of dominance and respect. If a higher-ranking wolf comes toward me, I am supposed to move my weaponry--my teeth--from right to left, horizontally. If, on the other hand, I am passing by that wolf, I should not approach too quickly or I'll find him stiffening and leaning forward, holding the position until I lower myself. Once he looks at me, making the eye contact to beckon me forward, I can inch closer--and even then, I have to pass on the side, avert my head and my teeth to greet him, proving that I am not a threat.

  Needless to say, I didn't know any of this at first. Instead, I was just my stupid human self with a true gift for getting in the way of wolves who ranked higher than me. The first time I tried to get too close to the beta without a formal invitation, he schooled me. We were in the clearing, and it had started to rain--a nasty, cold sleet. The beta had the good fortune to be positioned under the thickest cover of trees, and I thought there was plenty of room beside him. So the other young male wolf and I decided to share the space.

  The beta's eyes slitted and he growled, a low rumble, but I didn't get the message. When I was about twenty feet away, he showed his teeth. The young male immediately ducked sideways, but when I didn't, the beta growled again, deeper in his throat.

  I still didn't see this as a warning. After all, he'd been the one to engage me first, to invite me to travel with the pack. So you can imagine how my heart rate skyrocketed when, in an instant, he closed the distance between us and snapped at me, his teeth clamping centimeters away from my face.

  I was rooted to the spot with fear. I couldn't move, couldn't breathe. The beta gripped me with his jaws, his teeth and breath sealing over my face. He roughly turned my head to the left and d
own, teaching me the correct response. Then he snapped at me, growled deeply, showed his teeth, and growled lightly, reversing the lesson.

  Later that day I was sitting with my knees drawn up when the beta loped closer and suddenly lunged, grabbing my throat on the underside. I could feel his teeth sinking into my skin, and instinctively I rolled to my back, a position of utter subordination. He wanted to make sure I'd learned what he'd been trying to teach me earlier, I realized. He squeezed my neck harder, stealing my breath. You know what I am capable of, he was saying. And yet this is all I'm going to do to you. This is why you can trust me.

  The highest-ranking wolf in the pack isn't the one that uses brute force. It's the one who can, and chooses not to.

  HELEN

  It is telling, I suppose, that all of my work outfits are different shades of gray. Not just for the metaphorical value, but because it means that in the morning, I don't have to agonize over whether I should wear the green blouse or the blue and if one is too showy for my job as a public guardian. The sad truth is that when it comes to making personal decisions, I find it difficult to commit, whereas when it comes to organizing the affairs of others, I am a natural.

  The Office of Public Guardian in New Hampshire is a nonprofit that serves nearly a thousand people who are mentally ill or developmentally disabled, who have Alzheimer's or who have suffered a traumatic brain injury. We are assigned to cases by judges who receive requests for temporary and permanent guardianship. Yesterday, my boss tossed another file onto my desk. It was not the first time I'd been appointed a temporary advocate for someone with a brain injury, but this case was different. Usually, our office is pressed into service when a hospital can't find someone willing or able to make medical decisions for a ward. From what I've read, however, the problem here is that both of the man's children are jockeying for that position, and things have spiraled out of control.

 
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