Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  I wonder if what makes a family a family isn't doing everything right all the time but, instead, giving a second chance to the people you love who do things wrong.

  Once again when they try to swear me in I can't really do it because my right arm is tied up tight against my body. But I still promise to tell the truth.

  Zirconia begins by walking toward me. It's funny how at home she looks in a courtroom, even with her crazy fluorescent tights and yellow heels. "Cara," Zirconia begins, "how old are you?"

  "I'm seventeen," I say, "and three-quarters."

  "When is your birthday?"

  "In three months."

  "At the time of your father's injury," she asks, "where were you living?"

  "With him. I've been living with him for the past four years."

  "How would you describe your relationship with your father, Cara?"

  "We do everything together," I say, feeling my throat narrow around the words. "I spend a lot of time with him at Redmond's, helping him with the wolves. I also took over running the household, pretty much, because he's so busy with his research. We've gone camping in the White Mountains, and he taught me orienteering. Sometimes we just hang out at home, too. We'll cook pasta--he gave me his special recipe for Bolognese sauce--and watch a DVD. But he's also the first person I want to talk to if I get a great grade on a test, or if a kid is being a jerk to me at school, or if I don't know the answer to something. Almost everything I know, I know because of him."

  I feel guilty saying this, with my mother in the courtroom, even if it's true and I can blame it on being sworn in. I think that kids are always closer to one parent than to the other. We may love both, but there's one who's your default. When I look at the spot where my mom has been sitting, though, she's gone. I wonder if she is still in the bathroom; if she's sick, if I should be worried--and then Zirconia's voice pulls me back.

  "What about your father's relationship with Edward?"

  "He didn't have a relationship with Edward," I say. "Edward left us." But when I say this, I look at my brother. Can you really be mad at someone for doing something stupid if they truly, one hundred percent, thought they were doing what was right?

  "How about your relationship with Edward?" Zirconia asks.

  My whole life, people have said that I look like my mother and Edward is a clone of my father. But now I realize this isn't exactly true. Edward and I, we have the same color eyes. A strange, unearthly hazel that neither my mother nor my father has. "I hardly remember him," I murmur.

  "What were your injuries in the accident?"

  "I had a dislocated, fractured shoulder--the doctor says the humeral head was shattered. I also had bruised ribs and a concussion."

  "What was the treatment?"

  "I had surgery," I answer. "I had a metal rod placed in my arm, and the shoulder is held in place with a rubber band and something like chicken wire." I glance at the judge's white face. "I'm not kidding."

  "Were you on any medication?"

  "Painkillers. Morphine, mostly."

  "How long were you in the hospital?"

  "Six days. I had an infection that had to be treated after surgery," I say.

  Zirconia frowns. "It sounds like a very traumatic injury."

  "The worst part is that I'm right-handed. Well. I used to be, anyway."

  "You heard your brother testify about the conversation he had with you before he made the decision to terminate your father's life support. When was that?"

  "My fifth night in the hospital. I was in a lot of pain, and the nurses had just given me something to help me sleep."

  "Yet your brother tried to talk to you about a matter as serious as your father's life or death?"

  "My father's doctors had just come to my room to present his prognosis to me. To be honest, I got upset. I just couldn't listen to them telling me that my father wasn't going to get better--not when I didn't even feel strong enough to challenge them on what they were saying. One of the nurses made everyone else leave because I was getting agitated and she was afraid I'd tear out my staples."

  Zirconia looks at Edward. "And that was the moment when your brother chose to have a heart-to-heart?"

  "Yes. I told him I couldn't do it. I meant that I couldn't listen to the doctors talk about my father like he was already dead. But Edward apparently assumed I meant that I couldn't make a decision about my father's care."

  "Objection," Joe says. "Speculative."

  "Sustained," the judge replies.

  "Did you have any other conversations with your brother after that?"

  "Yeah," I say. "When he was about to kill my father."

  "Can you describe that moment for the court?"

  I don't want to, but in that second, I'm back in the hospital, hearing the hospital lawyer say that Edward told them I'd given consent. I'm running down the staircase in my bare feet to my father's room in the ICU. It's crowded, a party to which I haven't been invited. He's a liar, I say, and my voice throbs from a place so deep inside me that it feels primeval, foreign.

  There is a moment of relief, when the lawyer calls off the procedure, and I start to sob. It's a delayed reaction, the one you feel when you realize that you've escaped death narrowly.

  The last time I'd felt it was after our truck had crashed into the tree, before I--

  Before.

  "It was like Edward didn't even hear me," I murmur. "He shoved a nurse out of the way and reached down and pulled the plug of the ventilator out of the wall."

  The judge looks at me, encouraging me to continue.

  "Someone plugged the machine back in. An orderly held on to Edward until security came and took him away."

  "Cara, how is your father, after this unfortunate turn of events?"

  I shake my head. "Luckily, there hasn't been a change in his condition. Without oxygen, he could have wound up brain-dead."

  "Now, you had no idea that your brother had made this unilateral decision?"

  "No. He never asked me for my input."

  "Is it what you would have wanted to happen?"

  "No!" I say. "I know if we give my dad some more time, his condition will improve."

  "Cara, you've heard Dr. Saint-Clare say it's highly improbable that your father will make a recovery, given the severity of his injuries," Zirconia points out.

  "I also heard him say that he couldn't be one hundred percent sure it wouldn't happen," I reply. "I'm holding out for that tiny percentage, because nobody else is."

  Zirconia tilts her head. "Do you know your father's opinion about how he'd want to be treated in this sort of medical situation?"

  I face Edward, because I want to say to him all the things he never gave me a chance to say before he pulled that plug. "My father always says that, with wolves, if your family makes it through the day--with all the hardships of weather and starvation and predators--and survives the night, well, that's something to celebrate. I've watched him stay up all night giving a wolf pup Esbilac from a bottle; I've seen him warm a shivering newborn underneath his own shirt; I've driven with him in a blizzard to a vet to try to save a pup who can't breathe right. Even though, in the wild, any of those wolves would just die as part of natural selection, my father couldn't be that careless. He'd tell me over and over that the one gift you can't throw away is a life."

  "Then why did he pay for his girlfriend's abortion?"

  My head snaps around at the sound of Edward's voice. He's standing now, red-faced, choking on his own words. "You take care of the bills now. But back then, I did. And that's how I found out."

  Joe tugs on Edward's arm. "Shut up," he grits out.

  "See, it wasn't just a one-time thing with another woman, even though that's what he told me. It was months, and that baby was his--"

  "Order!" the judge yells. He smacks his gavel.

  I've gone dead inside before Edward even speaks again, as Joe is calling for a recess and dragging him out of the courtroom. "He told you all kinds of things that were lies," Edwar
d says to me, just to me. "You think you know him, Cara. But really, you never knew him at all."

  LUKE

  Georgie insisted that I see a doctor. At the hospital, I sat in the waiting room reading people. Anticipating the movements of a predator was the difference between life and death in the wild, but here it became a parlor game. I could tell seconds before a woman opened her purse that she was going to reach for a tissue. I knew that the man sitting alone in the corner was on the verge of tears, although he was smiling at his daughter. I knew that the woman rubbing her stomach had been sick for a long time; I could smell it in her blood. With great curiosity I watched the nurse at the check-in desk. Every few minutes a complete stranger approached her and she didn't even react with the good sense to back away, even though there was no way she could have known whether the person was holding a gun in his coat pocket, or was going to strike her. She assumed trust before the newcomer even showed submission--and I kept waiting the way you watch an impending train wreck: certain that any minute now tragedy would strike.

  When I was called into the examination room, Georgie--who had been sitting behind me--stood up as if she planned to follow me in. "Um," I said. "I thought I could do this alone."

  Embarrassed, she blushed. "Right," Georgie said. "Of course."

  I followed the nurse into the exam room, where she took my pulse. Three times. "That can't be right," she said, and she was equally confused by my low blood pressure.

  I sat alone, waiting for the doctor, my eyes on the doorknob. I listened in the hallway for the rustle of papers in my file. I closed my eyes and breathed in aftershave. "Hello," I said, a moment before he entered.

  The doctor raised his brows. "Good morning. I'm Dr. Stephens, and you are . . . Luke Warren, according to your chart. So you've been living in the woods with a pack of wolves for two years and you can apparently see through doors," he said. He turned to his nurse. "Where's the psych consult?"

  "I'm not insane. I'm a wolf biologist. I followed a wild pack of gray wolves along the St. Lawrence corridor. I got them to accept me into the pack. I hunted with them, ate alongside them, slept beside them."

  I don't think he would have believed me if he hadn't seen my blood pressure numbers. He turned to his nurse. "Clearly these are a mistake . . ."

  "I took it three times," she argued.

  Dr. Stephens frowned, counting the beats of my heart himself. "Okay," he said. "Your pulse is lower than the pro basketball player I treated a year ago. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were barely alive. But obviously that's not the case. So what's going on?"

  "I had a . . . unique diet and exercise plan," I explained.

  The doctor's jaw dropped. "You're telling the truth," he said, and I nodded.

  He sat down and listened while I explained how I'd become part of a pack. I told him about our meals, how we traveled, how we hunted. I explained our sleeping habits, how far we would move on patrol, how we fought predators, how we brought down prey. By the time I finished, an hour later, he was staring at me as if he'd cornered an alien, and had the opportunity to do the first full-body examination of it. "I'd love to run some blood work," he said, excited. "See how your experience has affected you physically. Would you mind . . . ?"

  He left me alone to order the tests, and I put my shirt back on. But instead of waiting for the phlebotomist, I walked into the hall, where I was stopped by an orderly. "Can you show me where the nearest restroom is?" I asked.

  He gave me directions--down the hall and to the left. I followed them but didn't go to the bathroom. I kept walking. I walked out the back door, down a flight of stairs, and into the bright sunlight.

  There was a teenager sitting on the curb weeping. He had a pair of enormous air-traffic-controller headphones on, and he was rocking back and forth. "Too much," he said, over and over, as he shook his head. His voice sounded as if he was speaking from the bottom of the ocean.

  I sat down next to him, and a moment later, a woman ran out of the door. It took everything in my power not to react by shrinking away. "There you are!" she exclaimed, dragging him up by the arm.

  "Is he all right?" I asked.

  "His cochlear implants were activated today," she said proudly. "He's just getting used to them."

  I could see it, then, the silver disk in the skull, surrounded by cropped hair. "Too much," the teenager howled.

  To this day he is the only person in this world who I think understands what it felt like for me to return.

  JOE

  "You know," I say, closing the door to the conference room, "just once I'd like you to actually tell me what you're going to say before you say it. In fact, I'd also settle for you restricting your statements to direct questions instead of spontaneous utterances."

  "I'm sorry," Edward mutters. He buries his face in his hands. "I didn't mean to."

  "Didn't mean to what? Throw another bomb into the courtroom? Bring your sister to tears? Completely destroy your mother?"

  I look down at my phone. Georgie has vanished. I've called and I've texted, but she isn't answering. One minute she was in the courtroom, the next, Edward had confessed to his father's infidelity and she was gone. I'm trying really hard to convince myself that she hasn't become so upset by the news about her ex that she's gone into hiding. I'm trying really hard to believe that she's happy enough with me, now, to feel the sting of the revelation and then shrug it off. The only good news here, in fact, was that she wasn't in the courtroom during this latest episode of Edward's True Confessions.

  I sit down, loosen my tie. "So?"

  Edward looks up at me. "The night I caught him in the trailer with his assistant, he was like I'd never seen him before. Freaking out. Terrified I'd tell Mom. He swore to me that it was a mistake and that it had only happened once in the heat of the moment, that it wouldn't happen again. I don't know why I bothered to believe him. But I went home, and Mom knew something was off with me. She thought it had something to do with telling my father I was gay, and because it was easier, I let her believe that. But a day later, I was paying bills, like usual, and I saw one from an abortion clinic in Concord. I only knew about it because of a junior who'd gotten pregnant that year, and who'd gone there to take care of things. Anyway, there was a Post-it note attached to the bill. It said, Thanks for paying in full at the time of your visit--sorry our computer system was down. Please find enclosed a copy of your receipt for insurance purposes. I was pretty surprised to find a bill from there, and I was sure it was a mix-up in the mail, until I read the patient's name: Wren McGraw. She was the college kid my father had hired to be a wolf caretaker. The one I'd found him sleeping with." He bites down on his words, as if they are a chain between his teeth. "The one he swore he'd never slept with before." Edward forces a laugh. "So I guess it's fitting that everyone always thought my father was some kind of god, since apparently he's capable of immaculate conception."

  "That's when you left," I say.

  Edward nods. "My whole life, I felt like I was never the son he wanted me to be. But it turned out he wasn't the father I wanted him to be, either. Once you know something, you can't unknow it, and every time I saw him I knew I wouldn't be able to keep myself from getting mad at him. But I couldn't explain why I would be acting that way, not without hurting my mother or Cara. So instead, I drove to Redmond's and left the receipt for the abortion taped to his bathroom mirror. And then I took off."

  "Didn't you think it might hurt your mother if you left?"

  "I was eighteen," Edward says, an explanation. "I wasn't thinking at all."

  "Why are you doing this, Edward? Is it some kind of karmic final bitch slap you want to give your father?"

  He shakes his head. "In fact, I think he's the one who gets the last laugh. If I didn't know better, I'd think he had this planned all along. After six years of being apart, we're all together again. We're being forced to make decisions together. Go figure," Edward says. "My father's finally taught us how to function like a pack."

&n
bsp; The good news, when we return to the courtroom, is that Georgie is there, and she seems not upset but vindicated. The bad news is that I have to cross-examine my own stepdaughter.

  Cara looks like she's about to face the Inquisition. I walk toward her and lean forward. "Cara," I begin. "Did you hear about the guy who fell into an upholstery machine?"

  She frowns.

  "Well, he's fully recovered."

  A tiny laugh bubbles out of her, and I wink. "Cara, isn't it true that one of the wolves at your father's enclosures lost its leg?"

  "Yes, to a trap," she says. "He chewed his own leg off to get free, and my father nursed him back to health when everyone said he was a goner."

  "But that wolf was able to use three legs to run away, correct?"

  "I guess."

  "And he could still get food with three legs?"

  "Yes."

  "And he could run with his pack?"

  "Yes."

  "And he could communicate with other wolves in his pack?"

  "Sure."

  "But that's not the case with your father, is it? His injury isn't one that would allow him to do any of those other things that would constitute a meaningful life?" I ask.

  "I already told you," Cara says stubbornly. "To him, any life is meaningful."

  She carefully avoids looking at Edward when she says that.

  "Your father's doctors have said there's virtually no chance of recovery for him, right?"

  "It's not as black-and-white as they make it out to be," she insists. "My father is a fighter. If anyone is going to beat the odds, it's going to be him. He does things no one else can do, all the time."

  I take a deep breath, because now I'm getting to the part of the cross-examination that's going to be less than civil. I close my eyes, hoping that Cara--and Georgie--will forgive me for what I'm about to do. But my first responsibility, at this moment, is to Edward. "Cara, do you drink alcohol?"

  She blushes. "No."

  "Have you ever drunk alcohol?"

  "Yes," she admits.

  "In fact, the night of the accident, you were drinking, weren't you?"

  "It was just one drink--"

  "But you lied and told the police that you'd had no alcohol, right?"

 
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