Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

"Well, obviously I want him to get better. I know it's going to be hard and everything, but I'm practically done with school and I could go to community college instead of somewhere out of state so I could help him through rehab--"

  "Cara," I interrupt, "your brother feels differently. Why do you think that is?"

  "He thinks he'll be putting my father out of his misery. That living with a traumatic brain injury isn't really living. The thing is, that's what Edward thinks. My father would never look at a chance at life as miserable--no matter how small that chance is," she says tightly. "Edward's been gone for six years. My father wouldn't recognize him if they bumped into each other on the street. So I have a really hard time believing that Edward knows what's best for my dad."

  She is fierce in her convictions, evangelical. I wonder what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of that unconditional love. "You've talked to your dad's doctors, haven't you?" I ask.

  Cara shrugs. "They don't know anything."

  "Well, they know a lot about medicine," I counter. "And they have a lot of experience with people who have brain injuries like your father."

  She looks at me for a long moment, and then gets off the bed and walks toward me. For an awkward moment, I think she's going to hug me, but she reaches past my shoulder to push a button on her laptop. "You ever hear of a guy named Zack Dunlap?" she asks.

  "No."

  I turn the chair around so that I can see the computer screen. It is a clip from the Today show, of a young man in a cowboy hat. "He got into an ATV accident in 2007," Cara explains. "Doctors declared him brain-dead. His parents decided to donate his organs, because he said he wanted to on his license. But when they went to turn off the life support machines, one of his cousins--who was a nurse--had a hunch and ran a pocketknife blade along his foot, and the foot jumped. Even though another nurse said it was just a reflex, the cousin dug his fingernail underneath one of Zack's, and Zack swatted his arm away. Five days later, he opened his eyes, and four months after the accident he left rehab."

  I watch the montage of Zack in his hospital bed, of his parents recounting their miracle. Of Zack receiving his hero's welcome in his hometown. I listen to Zack talk about the memories he's lost, and the ones he remembers. Including one where he heard the doctors pronouncing him dead, although he couldn't get up and tell them he wasn't.

  "Doctors said Zack Dunlap was brain-dead," Cara repeats. "That's even worse off than my dad is now. And today Zack can walk and talk and do just about everything he used to do. So don't tell me my dad isn't going to recover, because it happens."

  The video clip ends, and the next Favorite in Cara's YouTube queue rolls into play. Transfixed, we both watch Luke Warren rubbing the tiniest, squinting squeal of a wolf pup with a towel. He tucks it underneath his shirt, warming it with his own body heat.

  "She was one of Pguasek's babies," Cara says quietly. "But Pguasek got sick and died, so my dad had to raise the two pups in her litter. My dad fed them with eyedroppers. When they were old enough, he taught them how to function in the pack. This one, he named Saba, Tomorrow, so that she'd always have one. It was the one thing he never got used to in the wild--how a litter would die, in order to teach the mom wolf how to do a better job next time. He said he had to interfere, because how can you throw out a life just like that?"

  On the tiny rectangular screen, Luke Warren's hair falls forward, obscuring the pinched face of the wrinkled pup. Come on, baby girl, he murmurs. Don't you quit on me.

  LUKE

  Who tells the new generation what they need to know?

  In a household, it's a parent. In a wolf pack, it's the nanny. The position is a coveted one, and when an alpha is pregnant, several wolves in the pack will advertise themselves for the role, like beauty pageant contestants, trying to convince this mother-to-be to pick one over the rest. You are awarded the job because of the experience you have--often an older alpha or beta who can no longer perform the tasks necessary to keep the pack safe will take care of the new pups. In this, wolf culture is a lot like Native American culture, where age is revered--and nothing like most Americans, who stick their aging parents in rest homes and visit twice a year.

  I didn't audition for the nanny role in the wild; I would have been a disaster, since I could barely keep myself safe and my own learning curve was so steep. But I watched the wolf who became the caretaker, and committed her actions to memory. And it was a good thing, too, because I became a nanny by default. When I was back at Redmond's years later and Mestawe refused her pups, Cara and I saved three out of the four--and someone was going to have to teach them how to function as a pack. That meant guiding them into positions of leadership--by the time I was done, I would rank higher only than Kina, who was destined to be a tester wolf.

  You teach wolves by example; you discipline by taking away the warmth the pups crave. When the pups were behaving well, I would be in the tumble of their play. When they got out of hand, I'd nip them, roll them over, and bare my teeth over their throats so that they knew they could trust me. I started their differentiation in hierarchy through their food source, because wolves truly are what they eat. It's a cycle: what the wolves feed on determines their rank in the pack; their rank in the pack determines what they feed on. So as soon as Cara and I weaned the pups off Esbilac and onto rabbit, I gave them the three different parts of the animal. Kina, the lowest-ranking pack member, could have the stomach contents. Nodah, the tough beta, got the "movement meat"--the rump and leg muscle. Kita was given the precious organs. As we moved on to single calf carcasses, I directed the wolves to the appropriate parts, the way my wolf brothers had done for me in Canada.

  Nodah, who was a bully, sometimes shoved Kita out of the way to get to the good stuff--the heart, the liver. When that happened, I'd go off and have a fake fight with Kina for a few minutes, and then I'd come back with my blood racing and my adrenaline levels raised. Just like that, Nodah would back down and do what I told him to do.

  I taught them their own language: that a high-pitched whimper is encouraging, that a low whimper is calming. That a growl is a warning, and an uff, uff sound means danger.

  But the hardest lesson I had to teach them was the order of importance. If a pack is in danger, they protect the alpha at all costs. Anyone else can be replaced, but if you lose the alpha, the pack will likely break apart. So after digging rendezvous holes--deep holes they could run to and hide in if danger came in the form of a bear or a human or any other threat--I would play tag, biting at their legs and hindquarters as if a predator was in pursuit. I directed them toward the RV holes, so they'd learn that the only way to get away from me was to burrow. But I had to make sure they always let Kita in first. Compared to this future alpha, Nodah and Kina were nonessential.

  It killed me, every time. Because as much as I wanted to be a wolf, I was only human. And what parent chooses one child at the expense of another?

  CARA

  Zirconia Notch lives on a sustainable farm so high up in the state of New Hampshire it's practically Canada. There are goats and llamas milling free-range in her yard when my mother drives in, which delights her, because it means that she can let the twins pat the animals to kill time while I'm meeting with my brand-new lawyer.

  She told me on the phone that she doesn't do much with her law degree these days; instead, she's got a new profession: a medium to pets that have passed. It wasn't until five years ago that she realized she had this gift, when the spirit of her neighbors' dead Labrador came to her in the middle of the night and started barking. Sure enough, the neighbors' house was on fire. Had Zirconia not roused them, it could have been a disaster.

  When I walk into the house, I smell incense. A window with twenty-five tiny panes has a jelly jar in each cubicle, filled with what looks like water with food coloring mixed in. The result is a cross between a rainbow and what I always imagined Romeo and Juliet's apothecary shop to look like, when I read the play in tenth grade. There is a curtain of crystal beads hanging in the do
orway, but if I stand at a certain angle, I can see Zirconia sitting with a client at a table draped with purple lace and strewn with heather. Zirconia has long white hair and a tattoo of a sweet pea vine that wraps around her neck and disappears into her collar. She's wearing a furry, sleeveless vest that looks like it started its life on the back of one of the llamas in the yard, and she's holding a pet's rope chew toy. "Nibbles wants you to know that she didn't mean to soil the Oriental rug," Zirconia says, her eyes shut, her body swaying just the tiniest bit. "And that she is with your grandma Jane--"

  "June?" the client says.

  "Yes. Sometimes it's hard to understand the dialect in a bark . . ."

  "Can you tell her we miss her? Every day?"

  Zirconia purses her lips. "She doesn't believe you. Hang on . . . I'm getting a name." Zirconia opens her eyes. "She's talking about a bitch named Juanita."

  "Juanita's our Chihuahua puppy," the client gasps. "I guess technically she's a bitch, but she hasn't replaced Nibbles. No other dog could do that."

  Zirconia holds a hand to her temple and squints. "Nibbles is gone now," she says. She sets down the chew toy.

  The woman sitting across from her is frantic. "But you have to get a message back to her! Tell her we love her!"

  "Trust me." Zirconia touches the client's hand. "She knows." Briskly she gets to her feet, spying me in the mudroom through the crystal curtain. "That's three hundred dollars," she says. "I take personal checks."

  As Zirconia leads the client into the mudroom to get her coat, I see that she's wearing hot pink tights under her black skirt. "You must be Cara," she says. "Come right in." She gives a parting hug to the other woman. "If Nibbles comes through during any other readings, I have your phone number."

  The crystal beads sing as I walk through them. "So," Zirconia says. "You found your way here."

  I take a seat. "My mom did. She's outside with my half brother and half sister."

  "Does she want to come in? I can make her some tea. Read the leaves for her."

  "I'm pretty sure she's okay out there," I say.

  Zirconia disappears through another crystal curtain and returns with two steaming cups of what seems to be dishwater with tobacco at the bottom. "Thanks for agreeing to represent me, Ms. Notch."

  "Zirconia. Or better yet, Z." She shrugs. "I was born in a yurt at the base of Franconia Notch. My parents thought about naming me Diamond--for its strength and beauty--but they were afraid it sounded too much like a madam in the Wild West, so they went for the next best thing."

  A cat, which I'd thought was a statue on the mantel, suddenly yowls and jumps onto the middle of the table, getting its claws tangled in the lace. Zirconia absently extracts it as she continues talking. "I know you're probably wondering why Danny Boyle recommended me, given that I cherry-pick my cases. I'll tell you, I never thought I'd become a lawyer. I wanted to fight The Man. But then I realized I'd get farther if I fought The Man from the inside. You hear me?"

  She talks like someone who smoked way too much dope in the sixties. I nod. "Loud and clear," I say, and I wonder what the heck Danny Boyle was thinking.

  "Turns out that I was really gifted at prosecution. I like to think it's because my chakras are aligned, and let me tell you, there wasn't a single person in the county attorney's office who could make the same claim. I had a higher conviction rate than Danny Boyle."

  "So why aren't you still a prosecutor?"

  She strokes the cat twice and releases him onto the floor, where he races through the crystal curtain. "Because one day I woke up and questioned being in a profession that, by definition, suggests you'd never be proficient. I mean, how long did I have to practice law before I got it right?"

  I laugh, and take a sip of the tea. To my surprise, it tastes decent.

  "A lot of people would tell you that a pet medium is a colossal hack. I would have told you that myself, before my first experience with contact from the other side." She shrugs. "Who am I to question a talent that brings closure to so many grieving families? I'll be honest with you--it's a blessing, and a curse."

  I admit I was pretty skeptical of Zirconia when she told me what she did for a living now. And sure, maybe every dead dog wants to apologize to its owner for taking a whiz on the nice rug in the house . . . but then again, how would she have known that this family's new dog was named Juanita? I'm not saying I'm a believer, but I will admit it gave me pause.

  "Now, Cara," Zirconia says, "I'm your advocate. That's what lawyers used to be called, you know, and I hold true to the definition. I want to know what you want the outcome to be, and then I want to figure out how I can advocate for you to get there." She leans forward, her hair falling down her back like a glacial avalanche.

  "I just want my dad to get better," I tell her. It's what I told that guardian yesterday, too, but this time I have a lump in my throat. I think it's because I feel like I've been an army of one, and all of a sudden, there's someone fighting next to me.

  Zirconia nods, visibly moved. "You know what we're going to do? We're going to light a special candle for your dad right now, so that it's like he's here with us."

  She rummages through a cabinet and comes out with a Yankee Candle. She sets it down between us on the table and lights it. The room smells like a pine forest, all of a sudden, and it takes me by surprise, because that's what my dad always smells like, coming in from the outdoors.

  "Now that we have the goal in sight, we have to begin to chip away at the obstacles," Zirconia says. "And the biggest problem is that you're seventeen."

  "My mom says she'll sign anything," I tell her.

  "Unfortunately, to the state of New Hampshire, you're still a minor, and minors aren't allowed to make medical decisions for someone incapacitated."

  "It's just a number. First of all, in three months, I'll be eighteen. And besides, I've been taking care of myself and my dad for years."

  "Unfortunately, that's not how the law sees it. So what could I say to the court that would help them decide to override the legal technicalities?"

  "I've lived with my dad for four years," I say. "We've made every decision together. I drive. I go to school. I babysit to make money. I do the grocery shopping, and I'm listed on my dad's bank account. I pay all the bills, and I take care of the business questions that come in about his TV series and answer his fan mail. The only thing I can't do is vote."

  "To be honest," Zirconia says, "there haven't been a wealth of wonderful candidates anyway in the past twelve years." She looks up at me. "What was this about drinking?"

  "I don't. Drink, I mean. But I did, the night of the crash."

  Zirconia steeples her hands in front of her face. "How much?"

  "One beer."

  "One?"

  I pick at the cuticle on my thumb. "Three."

  Zirconia raises her brows. "So you've basically lied to everyone about that." She waves her arms in a circular motion. "This is a circle of truth. Whatever you say to me from now on better be exactly what happened. If it didn't happen that way, I don't want to hear it."

  "Okay," I say, ducking my head.

  "Those are the two sticking points that your brother's lawyer is going to use against you," Zirconia says.

  "There's plenty that makes him an unfit guardian," I point out. "Starting with a murder charge."

  "Which has been vacated," Zirconia replies, "so it's like it never happened."

  We speak for another three hours, talking about my dad, and how he lived his life, and all the names on the Internet I've found of people who recovered when given a second chance. Zirconia writes notes on a recycled paper napkin and then on the back of an old Southwest Airlines e-ticket that is tucked into her skirt pocket. She stops only once, to make banana-soy shakes for the twins, who are watching a movie in my mother's van.

  Finally, she puts down her pen. "I'm going to give you some homework," she says. "I want you to go to your dad's hospital room and lay your head on his chest. Then tell me what thoughts come to
you."

  I promise her I will, even though it is way too New Age for me. We talk about the logistics of court on Thursday; where I have to go, where I will meet her. It isn't until she's walking me through the questions she's going to ask me on the stand that it suddenly hits me: This is happening. I'm standing up against my brother in court, in the hope that I will win guardianship for my father.

  Zirconia is watching me carefully. "It just got real," she hypothesizes.

  "Yeah." My heart is racing. "Can I ask you something?"

  I am afraid to phrase the question out loud, but I have to, because there's no one else I can pose it to. And she did say she was my advocate, my helper, and God knows I need help. So I whisper the words that have been cycling around my heart, squeezing when I least expect it. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing?"

  "The right thing," Zirconia repeats, turning the words over in her mouth as if they are hard candy. "I once talked with a mastiff that had passed. The vet said it was remarkable he lived as long as he did; given the medical tests, he should have died three years earlier. The mastiff's owner was a little old woman, lived by herself. When he started to talk to me from the other side, he said he was so tired. It had been exhausting work, staying alive for the lady all that time. But he couldn't let himself go because he knew he'd be leaving her alone."

  Zirconia looks at me. "I think that you're asking the wrong question. It's not whether your dad would want to die. It's whether your dad would want to leave this world without knowing that someone was going to be here to take care of you."

  Until she hands me a clean napkin, I'm not even aware that I'm crying.

  When I get to my father's hospital room, Edward is there.

  For a moment, we both stare at each other. Part of me understands that now that he's not in jail, he would of course be back here; the other part of me wonders how he could possibly have the nerve to walk through the ICU after the stunt he pulled. His eyes darken, and for a second I think he's going to cross the tiny space and throttle me for getting him into all that trouble, but my mother steps between us. "Edward," she says, "why don't you and I grab dinner while your sister has some private time with your dad?"

 
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