Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  Apparently I am the only person in my office who has never heard of the ward, Luke Warren. He is famous, or at least as famous as a naturalist can be. He had a television show on a cable network that showcased his work with wolf packs, but I only listen to the news and to PBS. It is La-a (pronounced Ladasha, which leads me to wonder if she's as frustrated by her moniker as I am by my own) who drops the book off on my desk this morning. "Helen," she says, "thought you might like this. Hank left it behind when he moved out, the pig."

  Who knew that Luke Warren was not only a television personality and wildlife conservationist but also an author? I run my hand over the raised foil lettering of the title of this autobiography. LONE WOLF, it reads. ONE MAN'S JOURNEY INTO THE WILD. "I'll give it back when I'm done," I promise.

  La-a shrugs. "It's Hank's. Which means you can burn it as far as I'm concerned." She touches the cover of the book, with its photo of Luke Warren being smothered in kisses by a presumably wild animal. "Sad though. That someone could go so fast from this"--she moves her hand to the dark case folder--"to this."

  Most of the wards I've worked with have not published autobiographies and do not have YouTube footage of themselves in their prime at work. In this, it is easier to get a sense of who Luke Warren was before his accident. I pick up the book and read the first paragraph:

  What I get asked all the time is: How could you do it? How could you possibly walk away from civilization, from a family, and go live in the forests of Canada with a pack of wild wolves? How could you give up hot showers, coffee, human contact, conversation, two years of your children's lives?

  When I become someone's guardian, even in a temporary position, I try to slip under that person's skin, to find something within myself that's similar to him. You would think that a forty-eight-year-old single woman with a monochromatic wardrobe and a manner so quiet that librarians ask her to speak up might not be able to relate to a man like Luke Warren, but the connection I feel is immediate, and intense.

  Luke Warren would have been deliriously happy to shed his human skin and become a bona fide wolf.

  And like him, I've spent my whole life wishing I were someone I'm not.

  My mother's name on her birth certificate is Crystal Chandra Leer. She worked at the Cat's Meow Gentlemen's Club as their star attraction until, amid a night of tequila and moonlight, the bartender seduced her in the stockroom on top of boxes of Absolut and Jose Cuervo. He was long gone by the time I was born, and my mother raised me by herself, supporting us by hosting home parties to sell sex toys instead of Tupperware. Unlike other mothers, mine had hair bleached so white that it looked like moonlight. She wore high heels, even on Sundays. She didn't own a piece of clothing that did not incorporate lace.

  I stopped having friends over after my mother told them during a sleepover party that when I was a baby, I was so colicky the only thing that could calm me down was tucking a vibrator along the side of my baby car seat. From that day on I made it my mission to be the antithesis of my mother. I refused to wear makeup and dressed in shapeless, washed-out clothing. I studied incessantly, so that I had the highest GPA in my graduating class. I never dated. Teachers who met my mother at open school night would say, with amazement, that we didn't seem related at all, which was exactly how I liked it.

  Now, my mother lives in Scottsdale with her husband, a retired gynecologist who, for Christmas, bought her a powder-pink convertible with the vanity license plate 38DD. For my last birthday she sent me a Sephora gift card, which I regifted on Secretary's Day.

  I am sure that my mother didn't mean to hurt me by putting my birth father's last name on my birth certificate. I'm equally sure that she thought my name was a cute play on words and not a moniker fit for a drag queen.

  Let's just say this: whatever your response is when I introduce myself to you . . . I've heard it all before.

  "I'm here to see Luke Warren," I say to the ICU nurse manning the main desk.

  "And you are?"

  "Helen Bedd," I reply, primly.

  She smirks. "Well, good for you, sister."

  "I spoke to one of your colleagues yesterday? I'm from the Office of Public Guardian." I wait while she finds me on a list.

  "He's 12B, on the left," the nurse says. "I think his son might be in with him."

  That, of course, is what I'm counting on.

  I am struck, when I first walk into the room, by the resemblance between father and son. You'd have to know Luke Warren from before his accident, of course, but this young man curled like a question mark in the corner looks exactly like the man on the cover of the book in my bag, albeit with a much more metrosexual haircut. "You must be Edward," I say.

  He looks me up and down with bloodshot, wary eyes. "If you're with the hospital counsel, you can't make me leave," he says, immediately on the offensive.

  "I'm not with the hospital," I tell him. "My name's Helen Bedd, and I'm the temporary guardian for your father."

  It is as if an entire opera plays across his features: the opening salvo of surprise, a crescendo of mistrust, then an aria of realization--I am the one who will be presenting my findings to the judge on Thursday. He cautiously stands up. "Hi," he says.

  "I'm sorry to intrude on your private time with your father," I tell him, and for the first time I really look at the man in the hospital bed. He is like every other ward I've worked with: a husk, an object at rest. My job isn't to see him the way he is now, though. It's to figure out who he used to be, and think the way he would have thought. "When you have a moment, though, I'd like to speak with you."

  Edward frowns. "Maybe I should call my lawyer."

  "I'm not going to talk to you about any of the criminal matters of the past few days," I promise. "That's not my concern, if that's what's worrying you. All I care about is what's going to happen to your father."

  He looks over at the hospital bed. "It's already happened," he says quietly. Behind Luke Warren, something beeps, and a nurse comes through the door. She lifts a full bag of urine that's been collecting on the side of the bed. Edward averts his eyes.

  "You know," I say, "I could use a cup of coffee."

  We sit at a table near the window in the hospital cafeteria. "I imagine this is incredibly hard for you. Not just because of what happened to your father, but because you've been away from home, too."

  Edward folds his hands around his coffee cup. "Well," he admits, "it wasn't the way I thought I'd come back here."

  "When did you leave?"

  "When I was eighteen," Edward says.

  "So as soon as you could fly the coop, you did."

  "No. I mean, no one ever would have suspected that of me. I was a straight-A kid, I'd applied to half a dozen colleges, and I pretty much just got up one morning and walked away from home."

  "That sounds like a radical decision," I reply.

  "I couldn't live there anymore." He hesitates. "My father and I . . . didn't see eye to eye."

  "So you left because you didn't get along?"

  Edward laughs mirthlessly. "You could say that."

  "It must have been quite an argument, if it made you angry enough to leave your home."

  "I was angry long before that," Edward admits. "He ruined my childhood. He left for two years to go live with a pack of wolves, for God's sake. He used to say all the time that if he could have, he would have chosen to never interact with humans again." Edward glances up at me. "When you're a teenager and you hear your dad saying that to a television crew, believe me, it doesn't exactly make you feel warm and fuzzy inside."

  "Where have you been all this time?"

  "Thailand. I teach ESL there." Edward shakes his head. "Taught ESL."

  "So you've moved back here permanently?"

  "I honestly don't know where I'll wind up," he says. "But I've made my way before. I'll do it again."

  "You must want to get back to your own life," I suggest.

  He narrows his eyes. "Not enough to kill my father, if that's what you're thinking."

  "Is that what you think I was thinking?"

  "Look, it's true that I didn't want to come back here. But when my mother called me and told me about the car accident, I got on the first flight I could. I've listened to everything that the neurosurgeon has said. I'm just trying to do what my father would want me to do."

  "With all due respect, after six years without contact, what makes you think you're a decent judge of that?"

  Edward glances up. "When I was fifteen, before my dad left to go into the wild, he signed a letter giving me the right to make medical decisions about him if he couldn't do it himself."

  This is news to me. I raise my brows. "You have this letter?"

  "My lawyer has it now," Edward says.

  "That's quite a lot of responsibility for a fifteen-year-old," I point out. I'm not just learning whether Luke Warren wanted to terminate life support. I'm learning about his parenting skills. Or lack thereof.

  "I know. At first, I really didn't want to do it, but my mother couldn't even face the fact that my father was leaving for two years--she was a mess about it--and Cara was a little kid. There were times, when he was gone, that I used to lie in bed and hope he'd die out there with the wolves, just so I wouldn't be forced to make that kind of decision."

  "But you're willing to do it now?"

  "I'm his son," Edward says simply. "It's not a decision anyone wants to make. But it's not like this hasn't happened before. I mean, that's what my father always asked of his family--to give him the freedom to go places we didn't want him to go."

  "You know your sister feels differently."

  He toys with a sugar packet. "I wish I could believe that my dad is going to open his eyes and wake up and recover, too . . . but my imagination just isn't that good." He stares down at the table. "When I first got here, and people would come into the room to talk to me about my dad's condition, I always lowered my voice. As if we were going to wake him up because he was asleep. But you know what? I could have yelled at the top of my lungs and he wouldn't have budged. And now . . . after eleven days . . . well. I don't lower my voice." The sugar packet slips out of his hands and lands on the floor beside my tote bag. Edward bends to retrieve it, and spies a copy of his father's book inside. "Homework?" he asks.

  I take Lone Wolf out of my bag. "I just started it this morning. Your father is a very interesting man."

  Edward reverently touches the gold lettering on the cover. "May I?" He picks up the book and riffles through the pages. "I was gone when it was published," he says. "And then one day I was in an English language bookshop, and there it was. I sat down right in the aisle and read the whole thing, six hours straight." He flips through the middle section, a sheaf of black-and-white photos of Luke Warren with his wolves--as pups, as adults. Feeding, playing, resting.

  "See this?" Edward points to a picture that shows Luke in one of the enclosures while a small child sits on the hillside, watching. The child is viewed from the back, head covered with a sweatshirt hood. Cara Warren watches her father teach Kladen and Sikwla how to hunt. "That's not Cara," Edward says. "That's me. My sweatshirt, my skinny ankles, even my book on the grass. It was A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle--if you go look it up online, you'll see the same cover." He traces the caption again with one fingertip. "Years ago, when I first saw that, I wondered if some publishing minion got the citation wrong, or if my dad just gradually edited me out of his life after I left."

  He looks up at me, his eyes suddenly sharp and intense. "In other words," he tells me, "don't believe everything you read."

  The inside of the house looks like a snow globe that's been upended. There are tiny white feathers coating the floor, the couch, and the hair of the woman who opens the door. "Oh," she says weakly. "Is it already two?"

  I had called to speak with Georgie Ng while still at the hospital, asking if now might be a good time to chat with Cara. But from the looks of the tiny twin demons shrieking and sliding through the feathers in their stocking feet, I'm wondering if there's ever a good time to do anything in this household.

  As I step through the entryway, feathers coat my gray skirt like metal filings drawn to a magnet. I wonder how long it will take me to get them off with a lint brush. Georgie is holding the neck of a vacuum cleaner. "I'm so sorry about . . . this. Kids will be kids, right?"

  "I don't know," I tell her. "I don't have any."

  "Wise choice," Georgie murmurs, grabbing the exploded pillow out of the hand of one of the kids. "What part of stop do you not understand?" she asks. She turns to me again, apologetic. "It might be easier if you go upstairs to talk to Cara," she suggests. "She's in the room to the right at the top of the stairs. She knows you're coming." Then she disappears around a corner, still holding the vacuum in a death grip, in hot pursuit of her children. "Jackson! Do not put your sister in the clothes dryer!"

  Gingerly picking my way through the fluff, I walk upstairs. It is odd to reconcile Georgie Ng with the woman that Luke Warren mentions briefly in his book--a former reporter who fell for him on the job because of his passion for wolves, and realized too late that left no room for a passion for her. I imagine she is happier now, with a more attentive husband and another family. Cara would not be the first child of divorce to shuttle between parents, but the difference in lifestyle between the two must have been drastic.

  I knock softly on the door. "Come in," Cara says.

  I admit, I'm curious to meet a girl who has the wherewithal to get the county attorney to listen to her. But Cara looks young, slight, a little nervous. Her right arm is wrapped tight against her body like a broken wing, and between that and her shoulder-length, wavy dark hair and fine features, she calls to mind a bird that's been pushed from a nest. "Hi," I say. "I'm Helen, your father's temporary guardian." Something flashes over her face when I say that, but it is gone too quickly for me to interpret. "Your mother thought if we talked up here, we might be less . . ."

  "Allergic?" she suggests.

  She offers me the seat at the desk, while she sits on the bed. The room is painted a serviceable blue, with a wedding ring quilt on the bed and a single white dresser. It looks like a guest room, but not for a frequent guest. "I'm sure this is very hard for you," I begin, taking out my notebook. "I'm sorry to have to ask you all these questions right now, but I really need to talk to you about your dad."

  "I know," she says.

  "You two were living together before the accident, is that correct?"

  She nods. "For the past four years. At first I was living with my mom, but when she had the twins, it was sometimes hard to feel like I wasn't a fifth wheel. I mean, I love her and I love Joe and I love having a little brother and sister, but . . ." Her voice trails off. "My dad says, with the wolves, every day begins and ends with a miracle. Here, every day begins and ends with a cup of coffee, a newspaper, a bath, and a bedtime story. It's not that I don't like being here or that I'm not grateful for being here. It's just . . . different."

  "So you're a bit of an adrenaline junkie, like your father?"

  "Not really," Cara admits. "I mean, there were times my dad and I would just rent a movie and have popcorn for dinner, and that was just as good as the times that I got to go to work with him." She feeds the edge of her quilt through her fingers. "It's like a telescope. My dad, no matter what he's doing, zooms right in so he can't see anything except what's right there with him at that minute. My mom, she's always on wide angle."

  "It must have been hard, then, when his focus was on the wolves and not you."

  She is quiet for a moment. "Have you ever been swimming in the summer," she asks, "when a cloud comes in front of the sun? You know how, for a few seconds, you're absolutely freezing in the water and you think you'd better get out and dry off? But then all of a sudden the sun's back out and you're warm again and when you tell people how much fun you had swimming you wouldn't even think to mention those clouds." Cara shrugs. "That's what it's like, with my father."

  "How would you describe
your relationship with him?"

  "He knows me better than anyone else on the planet," she says immediately.

  "When was the last time you saw him?"

  "Yesterday morning," Cara replies. "And my mom promised she'll take me to the hospital as soon you leave." She looks up at me. "No offense."

  "None taken." I tap my pen on the pad. "Could we talk a little bit about the accident?"

  She folds in on herself, pulling her bandaged arm tighter against her body with her free arm. "What do you want to know?"

  "There's some question about whether or not you'd been drinking that night."

  "It was hardly anything. I had a beer before I left--"

  "Left where?" I ask.

  "This stupid party. I went with a friend, and I freaked out when I saw how drunk everyone was getting, so I called my dad. He came all the way to Bethlehem to pick me up." She looks at me, earnest. "I wasn't driving the car, even if that's what the police think. He never would have let me do that."

  "Was he angry at you?"

  "He was disappointed," she says quietly. "That was worse."

  "Do you remember the accident?"

  She shakes her head.

  "The paramedics said that you dragged your father from the car before it caught fire," I say. "That was incredibly brave of you."

  Cara slips her free hand beneath her thigh. Her fingers are shaking. "Can we . . . can we just not talk about the accident anymore?"

  Immediately I back off into safer ground. "What do you love most about your dad?"

  "That he doesn't give up," she says. "When people told him he was crazy for wanting to go live with a wild wolf pack, he said he could do it, and that when he was done, he'd know more about them than anyone else on this planet. And he was right. When someone brought him a wolf that was injured or starving to death or once even kept as a pet in some idiot lady's apartment in New York City, he didn't ever say the wolf was a goner. Even if they died during the process, he still tried to save them."

  "Did you and your father ever have a conversation about what he'd want if he was in this kind of situation?"

  Cara shakes her head. "He was too busy living to talk about dying."

  "What do you think should happen, now?"

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