Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  Dr. Saint-Clare stands up, but before he can leave the witness stand, the judge interrupts. "Doctor," he says. "I have one more question for you. I don't understand a lot of the medical jargon you've used today, so I want to cut to the heart of the matter. If this man were your brother, what would you do?"

  The neurosurgeon sinks slowly back into his chair. He turns away from the judge, and he looks at Cara, his gaze bruised and almost tender. "I'd say good-bye," Dr. Saint-Clare answers, "and I'd let him go."

  LUKE

  I must have walked for six or seven days, trying to find my way back to humanity. Much of the time I cried, already feeling the loss of my wolf family. I knew they'd survive without me. I just wasn't sure if the same could be true in reverse.

  Understand I hadn't seen myself in two years, except for the occasional muddy reflection in a pool of water. My hair reached halfway down my back and was matted into unintentional dreadlocks. My beard was full and thick. My face was full of healing scratches incurred during play with the wolves. I hadn't fully bathed in months. I had lost nearly sixty pounds, and my wrists stuck out like twigs from the cuffs of my coveralls. I looked, I am sure, like anyone's biggest nightmare.

  I heard the highway long before I saw it, and I realized how keen my senses had become--I could smell the hot tar of the summer pavement miles before the trees thinned and the embankment of the road rose in front of me. As I stepped into the full sunlight, I squinted; a passing tractor-trailer was so loud I nearly staggered backward at its roar. The hot gust of wind it left behind blew my hair away from my filthy face.

  When I came to the chain-link fence, I touched it, the cool steel pressing like a lattice into my palm and so unlike anything I'd touched for so long that I stood for a moment, just feeling the strength and the clean lines of the metal. I started to climb up it, deftly leaping over the top edge and dropping to the ground silently: these were the skills I'd been honing. When I heard the voices, every hair on the back of my neck rose and I dropped into a natural crouch. I crossed so that I was upwind, so that they wouldn't know I was coming.

  They were a group of Girl Scouts, or whatever Girl Scouts are called in Canada. They were having a picnic at this highway rest stop, while their motor coach slept like a hulking beast in the shade of the parking lot.

  I felt edgy, wild, too exposed. There wasn't any tree cover; there wasn't anyone flanking me willing to fight beside me if I needed it. I could hear the high, ripping sound of cars whizzing by on the road, and each noise seemed to me a bullet skating too close for comfort. The laughter of the girls was deafening; it had me covering my ears with my palms.

  In retrospect, I can imagine what it was like for them: to be joking around one minute and the next to have a beast at their picnic table, hulking and ragged and reeking. Some of the girls started screaming, one ran for the bus. I tried to calm them down, but my immediate instinct was to lower myself, duck my head. Then I remembered I had a voice.

  One I hadn't used in two years, except to howl and growl.

  It was rusty, thin, a yelp. A sound I didn't remember.

  It hurt, to make this sound. To try to shape it on the bowl of my tongue into a word. As I stuttered and choked on the syllables, the bus driver came running over. "I've already called the police," he threatened, holding me at bay with a gigantic flashlight, a makeshift weapon.

  That's when speech returned to me. "Help," I said.

  It actually was a blessing in disguise when the police showed up. It was at first hard to convince them of my ID, even though in the breast pocket of my tattered coveralls was the driver's license I'd walked into the woods with two years ago. I'm sure, given the looks of me, they thought that I was a homeless bum who stole some guy's wallet. It was when they called Georgie and she broke down sobbing on the phone that they finally believed me and let me shower in the precinct locker room. They gave me a police-issue T-shirt and a pair of sweats. They bought me a hamburger from McDonald's.

  I ate it in about five seconds. Then I spent the next hour in the bathroom, throwing up.

  The police chief brought me water and saltines. He wanted to know what the hell would make a guy go live with a pack of wolves. He especially wanted to know how I didn't wind up as their dinner. The more I talked to him, the more my voice lost its rasp, and the words that had been hovering like ghosts on the roof of my palate landed softly, solid and real.

  He apologized for making me sleep in the holding cell, on the thin cot. It was the first bed I had been in in two years, though, and I could not get comfortable. The walls felt like they were closing in on me, even though the officers left the cell door unlocked. Everything smelled like ink and toner and dust.

  When Georgie was brought into the holding area in the morning, having driven through the night to reach me, I was fast asleep on the floor of the cell. But like any wild animal, I became one hundred percent alert before her footstep crossed the threshold. I knew she was coming because the scent of her shampoo and perfume rolled in like a tsunami before I could even see her.

  "Oh, God," she murmured. "Luke?"

  She rushed toward me.

  I think that's what did it--made the instinct take over, and the reason in my mind shut down. But at any rate, when Georgie came running at me, I did what any wolf would have done in that situation.

  I ducked away from her, wary.

  No matter how long I live, I will always remember the way the light went out of her eyes, like a candle flame caught in an unexpected wind.

  EDWARD

  While I'm on the witness stand being sworn in, I stick my hand into the pocket of my father's jacket, and feel a tiny piece of paper there. I don't want to be obvious and pull it out and see what it is, especially while I'm in the hot seat, but I'm dying to know. Is it a note? A grocery list, in my dad's handwriting? A receipt from the post office? A laundry ticket? I have a fleeting vision of a dry cleaner's employee, wondering why the trousers Luke Warren dropped off weren't picked up last Monday, like they were supposed to be. I wonder how long they'd keep the clothes, if they'd call my father and ask him to come pick up his belongings, if they'd donate the pants to charity.

  But when I manage to slide the paper secretly out of the pocket and hold it beneath the bar of the witness stand so that it would look, to anyone else, like I am just staring down into my lap, I see that it's a fortune from a cookie at a Chinese restaurant.

  Anger begins with folly, and ends with regret.

  I wonder why he kept it. If he felt like it was speaking personally to him. If he would read it from time to time and consider it a warning.

  If he just shoved it in his pocket and forgot it was there.

  If it reminded him of me.

  "Edward," Joe says, "what was it like growing up with your father?"

  "I thought I had the coolest dad on the planet," I admit. "You have to understand, I was kind of quiet, a brainiac. Most of the time I could be found with my head buried in a book. I was allergic to, well, practically all of nature. I was the bull's-eye for bullies." I can feel Cara's eyes on me, curious. This is not the big brother she remembers. From the point of view of a little kid, even a geek can be cool if he's in high school and drives an old beater and buys her licorice. "When my dad came back from the wild, he was an instant celebrity. I was suddenly more popular just because I was related by blood."

  "What about the relationship you and your dad had? Were you close?"

  "My father spent a lot of time away from home," I say diplomatically, and a phrase pops into my head: Don't speak ill of the dead. "There was his trip to Quebec, to live with the wild wolves, but even after he got back home and started building the packs at Redmond's, he'd stay overnight there in a trailer, or sometimes in the enclosures. The truth is that Cara liked tagging along with him more than I did, so she'd spend more time at the theme park, and I stayed with my mom."

  "Did you resent your father for not being with you?"

  "Yes," I say bluntly. "I remember being jealo
us of the wolves he raised, because they knew him better than I did. And I remember being jealous of my sister, too, because she seemed to speak his language."

  Cara looks down, her hair falling into her face.

  "Did you hate your father, Edward?"

  "No. I didn't understand him, but I didn't hate him."

  "Do you think he hated you?"

  "No." I shake my head. "I think he was baffled. I think he expected that his kids would naturally be interested in the same things he was--and to be totally honest, if you weren't into the same things he was, he couldn't really hold up his end of a conversation."

  "What happened when you were eighteen?"

  "My father and I had . . . an argument," I say. "I'm gay. I'd just come out to my mother, and at her suggestion, I went to my father's trailer at the theme park to tell him, too."

  "Things didn't go very well?"

  I hesitate, picking my way through a minefield of memory. "You could say that."

  "So what happened?"

  "I left home."

  "Where did you go?"

  "Thailand," I say. "I started teaching ESL, and traveled around the country."

  "And you've been there for how long?"

  "Six years," I reply. My voice cracks in between the two words.

  "During the time you were away, did you have any contact with your family?" Joe asks.

  "Not at first. I really wanted--needed--to make a clean break. But eventually I got in touch with my mother." I meet her gaze, and try to communicate that I'm sorry--for putting her through hell, for those months of silence. "I didn't speak to my father."

  "What were the circumstances under which you came back from Thailand?"

  "My mother called me and said that my father had been in a very bad accident. Cara had been in it, too."

  "How did you feel when you heard that?"

  "Pretty freaked out. I mean, it doesn't really matter if you haven't seen someone for a long time. They never stop being your family." I look up. "I got on the next plane out to the States."

  "Tell the court, please, about the first time you saw your father in the hospital."

  Joe's question takes me back. I am standing at the foot of my father's bed, looking at the tangle of tubes and wires snaking out from beneath his hospital johnny. There's a bandage on his head, but what gets me like a fist in the gut is the tiniest fleck of blood. It's on his neck, just above his Adam's apple. I could easily see how it might have been mistaken for a bit of stubble, a scratch. But when the evidence of trauma has been so carefully cleaned from him already by the attentive nurses, this one tiny reminder nearly brings me to my knees.

  "My father was a big man," I say softly, "but when you met him, he looked even bigger than he was. His energy alone probably added two inches. He was the guy who didn't just walk somewhere; he ran. He didn't eat, he devoured a meal. You know how you meet people who live at the very edge of the bell curve? That was him." I pull his jacket closed around me. "But the man in the hospital bed? I'd never seen him before in my life."

  "Did you speak to his treating neurosurgeon?" Joe asks.

  "Yes. Dr. Saint-Clare came in and talked to me about the tests they'd done, and the emergency surgery they had performed to relieve pressure on his brain. He explained how even though the swelling had gone down, my father still had suffered a severe trauma to the brain stem and that no further surgery could fix that."

  "How often have you seen your father in the hospital?"

  I hesitate, figuring out how to say that I've been there constantly--except for the moments I was legally barred from his room. "I've tried to make some time to visit every day."

  Joe faces me. "Did you and your father ever have a conversation about what he'd want to do if he became incapacitated, Edward?"

  "Yes," I say. "Once."

  "Can you tell us about it?"

  "When I was fifteen, my father decided to go into the forests of Quebec and try to live with wild wolves. No one had ever done anything like it before. Biologists had tracked wolf corridors along the St. Lawrence River, so he figured he would try to intercept them, and then infiltrate a pack. He'd gotten a few captive packs earlier in his career to accept him, and this was a natural extension, he thought. But it also meant living on his own during a Canadian winter without any shelter or food."

  "Was your father concerned about his welfare?"

  "No. He was just doing what he felt like he had to do--for him, it really was a calling. My mom didn't see it quite the same way. She felt like he was running out on her and leaving her with two kids. She was certain he was going to die. She thought it was irresponsible and insane, and that he'd come to his senses and decide to stay home, where he belonged . . . except he didn't."

  My mother is stone-still in her seat in the front row, her eyes cast down onto her lap. Her hands are clenched together. "The night before he left, my father called me into his office. He had two glasses and a bottle of whisky on his desk, and he told me I should have a drink, because I was going to be the man of the house now."

  The alcohol feels like fire; I cough and my eyes water and I think I might die right there, but he pats my back and tells me to breathe. I wipe my face with the bottom of my shirt and swear that I will never, in a million years, drink that crap again. When my vision clears, I notice something on the desk that wasn't there before. It's a piece of paper.

  "Do you recognize this document?" Joe asks.

  And there it is again, wrinkled and torn at one edge, the letter I found wedged in the file cabinet. He enters it into evidence and then asks me to read it out loud. I do, but it's my father's voice I hear in my head.

  And then, my own reply: What if I make the wrong choice?

  "Is that your signature at the bottom of the page?" Joe asks.

  "Yes."

  "And is that your father's signature?"

  "Yes."

  "In the past nine years did your father ever advise you that he was revoking this medical power of attorney?"

  "Objection!" Cara's lawyer stands up. "This note isn't a valid legal medical power of attorney."

  "Overruled," the judge mutters. He tears at his hair again. It's a wonder he's not bald by now, actually.

  In some parallel universe, Cara and I would laugh over that.

  "We never talked about it again. And one day, he came home from Quebec, and that was that."

  "When did you remember this contract?"

  "When I was going through his papers at his home a few days ago, trying to find the number of the caretaker who stays with the wolves up at Redmond's. It was caught in the back of a file cabinet."

  "When you were going through your father's papers," Joe says, "did you find any other powers of attorney?"

  "No, I didn't."

  "How about a will? Or an insurance policy?"

  "No will," I reply, "but I did find an insurance policy."

  "Can you tell the court who was the beneficiary of his insurance, in the unfortunate circumstance of his death?"

  "My sister," I say. "Cara."

  Her jaw drops, and I realize this is something my father never told her.

  "Were you a beneficiary, too?"

  "No."

  When I'd found the policy, in a file with the title to his truck and his passport, I had read it from cover to cover. I'd played the mind game, wondering if he'd taken me off the policy after I left, or if he'd only purchased the plan once I was gone.

  "Were you surprised?"

  "Not really."

  "Were you angry?"

  I lift my chin. "I've been making my own way for six years. I don't need his money."

  "So this whole initiative you've undertaken to become your father's guardian and make a decision about his future medical care--it isn't motivated by any pecuniary gain?"

  "I won't get a cent from my father's death, if that's what you're asking."

  "Edward," Joe says, "what do you think your father would want to happen now?"

  "O
bjection," Zirconia Notch argues. "It's a personal opinion."

  "That's true, Counselor," the judge agrees, "but it's also what I need to hear."

  I take a deep breath. "I've talked to the doctors and I've asked a hundred questions. I know my father's not coming back. He used to tell me about sick wolves, which would just start starving themselves because they knew they were dragging the pack behind, and they'd stay on the outskirts until they got weak enough to lie down and die. Not because they didn't want to live, or get well again, but because, in this condition, they were putting everyone they loved at a disadvantage. My dad would be the first to tell you he thinks like a wolf. And a wolf would put the pack above everything else."

  When I'm brave enough to look at Cara, it feels like I've been run through with a sword. Her eyes are swimming, her shoulders are shaking with the effort to hold herself together. "I'm sorry, Cara," I say directly to her. "I love him, too. I know you don't believe that, but it's true. And I wish I could tell you he'll get better, but he won't. He'd tell you that it's his time. That for the family to move on, he has to go."

  "That's not true," Cara bites out. "None of it. He wouldn't leave me behind. And you don't love him. You never did."

  "Ms. Notch, control your client," the judge says.

  "Cara," her lawyer murmurs, "we'll have our turn."

  Joe faces me. "Your sister clearly has a different opinion. Why is that?"

  "Because she feels guilty. She was in the accident, too. She's better, and he's not. I'm not saying it's her fault--just that she's too close to the situation to be able to make a decision."

  "Some might say you were too far away to make a decision," Joe counters.

  I nod. "I know. But there's one thing I've realized since I've been here. You think, when you leave, that everything stops. That the world is frozen and waiting for you. But nothing stands still. Buildings get torn down. People get into accidents. Little girls grow up." I turn to Cara. "When you were little, you used to go to the town pool in the summer and do belly flops off the diving board. You wanted me to grade you, like they did at the Olympics. Half the time I was busy reading and I'd just make up a number, and if it was too low, you'd beg me for an instant replay. The thing is, when you get older, there are no instant replays. You either get it right or you screw it up and you have to live with what you've done. I hadn't seen my father in six years and I always thought that, eventually, we'd talk. I thought he'd say he was sorry or maybe I would, but it would be like those Hallmark movies where everything gets tied up nice and neat in the end. I can't get back those six years, yet at any moment I could have been the one to pick up the phone and call my father and say, Hi, it's me." I reach into my pocket, feel that slip of fortune. "He trusted me once, when I was fifteen. I want him to know that, no matter what, even though I left, he can still trust me. I want him to know I'm sorry things worked out the way they did between us. I may never get a chance to tell him that to his face. This is the only way I know how."

 
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