Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  "I thought I'd get in trouble," Cara says.

  "You called your father to come pick you up from a party because you didn't want to drive home with friends who'd been drinking--is that correct?"

  She nods. "My dad and I always said that if I ever got into a situation like that, he wouldn't judge me for making a bad choice to begin with as long as I called him. That way he knew he could get me home safely."

  "What did your father say to you in the car?"

  She hugs her arm a little more tightly against her body. "I don't remember," Cara says, looking down into her lap. "Some of the accident is just . . . missing. I know I left the party, and the next thing I remember are the EMTs."

  "Where do you live right now?" I ask.

  The change in subject catches her off guard. "I, um, with you. And my mother. But only because I still need help since I had surgery."

  "Before the accident you lived with your father?"

  "Yes."

  "In the past six years since your parents' divorce, you've in fact lived with both of them, right?"

  "Yes," she says.

  "Isn't it true that when you got fed up with your mother, you left her home and moved in with your father?"

  "No," Cara says. "I didn't get fed up with my mother. I just felt--" She stops dead, realizing what she's about to say.

  "Go on," I urge softly.

  "I felt like I didn't belong there, after she married you and had the twins," Cara murmurs.

  "So you left our house and moved in with your dad?"

  "Well, he is my dad. It's not that big a deal."

  "What about when you had arguments with your father? Did you ever come back to stay with us?"

  Cara bites her lower lip. "That only happened twice. But I always went back home to him."

  "If your father does miraculously recover, where are you planning to live, Cara?"

  "With him."

  "But you're going to need care for your shoulder for several months. Care that he won't be able to provide--not to mention the fact that you won't be in any shape to help with his rehabilitation . . ."

  "I'll figure it out."

  "How will you pay the mortgage? Utilities?"

  She thinks for a moment. "With his life insurance policy," she says triumphantly.

  "Not if he isn't dead," I point out. "Which brings me to something else: you said that Edward was trying to kill your father."

  "Because he was."

  "He pulled out a ventilator plug. In that case, wouldn't your father actually have died of natural causes?"

  She shakes her head. "My brother is trying to kill my dad; I'm trying to keep him alive."

  I look at her, an apology. "But isn't it true that if not for you and your poor judgment, your father wouldn't be in this position in the first place?"

  I can see her eyes widen with surprise, with the realization that someone she trusted has just stabbed her in the back. I think of all the food I've cooked for her, the conversations we've had over the past six years. I knew the name of her first crush before Georgie did; I was the shoulder she cried on when that same guy started dating her best friend.

  The judge tells Cara she can step down. Her upper lip is trembling. I start toward her, to offer a hug or a few words to cheer her up, and then realize that I can't; that in this courtroom she is the opposing party, the enemy.

  Georgie folds her daughter into her embrace and looks at me coolly over Cara's head. She must have known, when she asked me to represent Edward, that it would come to this. That Cara--through no fault of her own--might lose not just one father figure but two.

  LUKE

  When I was working with my Abenaki friends--the wolf biologists who studied the wild packs along the St. Lawrence corridor--I heard a tribal elder giving two young boys hell because they'd been caught spray-painting expletives on the back of a neighbor's barn. Blistering, the old man asked why they'd done something they knew was wrong. One of the boys said, simply, "Grandfather, sometimes we want to be good. But sometimes we want to be bad."

  The elder said he'd have to give this some thought. There wasn't force, there wasn't violence, there wasn't even discipline. It was more like a think tank, as he treated these ten-year-olds like little adults, encouraging them to put their heads together to figure out the root of misbehavior. That night after dinner, he called the boys to him again. "I have the answer," he told them. "You each have two wolves that fight inside you: a good wolf, and a bad wolf. If the bad wolf wins the fight, then you behave badly. If the good wolf wins the fight, you behave well."

  The boys looked at each other. "Grandfather," one said, "how do I make sure that it's the good wolf who wins the fight?"

  The old man looked from one boy to the other. "The wolf that will win the fight is the one you feed the most."

  After I lived with the wolves, I thought a lot about that comment. When you consume a carcass, there is a spot allotted for everyone. The alpha will tell you where to stand with ear postures, turning one ear flat and the other pinned back against the head, or rotating those ears like airplane wings to direct each member of the pack to the appropriate position. A junior member of the pack is still expected to defend what's his, to growl and stand over his food. Dominance isn't about taking away the food he deserves; it's about being able to stand beside him, controlling the distance without taking any notice of his display of possessiveness.

  An alpha could, of course, take any other pack member's food. But why would she? She needs those junior members, and if she starves them to death, they become useless in protecting the family.

  With all due respect to the Abenaki elder, when he was teaching those boys a lesson, I think he left out this small irony. The good wolf would never let that bad wolf starve. She may test his ability to defend his food, but for the sake of the pack, she's going to make sure he survives.

  CARA

  When the judge calls for a two-hour lunch break so that he can eat and go to Mass, I am up and out of the courtroom like a shot, because I feel like I'm going to punch someone. After all, it's not every day that you find out your father was screwing around on your mom and that your stepfather skewers you in public. I run blindly up the stairways of the courthouse, aware that I probably have an entourage at my heels, and rattle doorknobs until I find one that's open.

  Inside, I sit down on a conference table and draw my knees to my chest.

  The worst part of it is that everything Joe said is true. My father wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed if it weren't for me. He never would have gone out on the roads that night. In some other, better world, he's still looking after captive packs of wolves, with his cheerful, obedient daughter by his side.

  The doorknob turns, and suddenly Edward is standing in front of me. "If you want to hide," he says, "you have to lock the door. Take it from me."

  "You're the last person I want to see right now."

  "Well, everyone's looking for you. Mom thinks you've wigged out and run away again. Joe feels like crap, but he was just doing his job. And your lawyer . . . God, I don't know. I guess she's off making goat cheese or something."

  Against my will, a laugh bubbles out of me, carbonated emotion. "Don't do that," I say.

  "Do what?"

  "It's easier when I can hate you," I admit.

  "You don't hate me," Edward says. "We're on the same side, Cara. We both want to give Dad what he wants. We just each have a different idea of what that might be."

  "Why can't you just wait a month or two? And then if nothing happens, you can still do what you want to do. But it doesn't work the other way around. If you take him off life support now, we'll never know if he could have gotten better."

  He hops up on the table next to me. "Nothing's going to be different in a month," Edward says.

  I can think of so many things that will be different. I'll be out of this sling. I'll be back at school. Maybe I will even have gotten used to having Edward back here in Beresford.

  I realize t
hat we are having the conversation Edward didn't have with me before he pulled the plug. So that's changed, too.

  I look up at him. "I'm sorry I got you arrested and put into jail."

  He grins. "No you're not."

  I kick his foot, swinging next to mine. "Well. Maybe just a little."

  When I was tiny, the county fair came through town. Our parents took us, and got tickets for the rides, even though I was scared to death of all of them. Edward was the one who convinced me to go on the merry-go-round. He put me up on one of the wooden horses and he told me the horse was magic, and might turn real right underneath me, but only if I didn't look down. So I didn't. I stared out at the pinwheeling crowd and searched for him. Even when I started to get dizzy or thought I might throw up, the circle would come around again and there he was. After a while, I stopped thinking about the horse being magic, or even how terrified I was, and instead, I made a game out of finding Edward.

  I think that's what family feels like. A ride that takes you back to the same place over and over.

  "Edward," I ask. "Could you drive me somewhere?"

  If my mother and Joe are surprised to hear that Edward is the one taking me to see my father, they hide it well. It is a fifteen-mile ride, but it feels much longer. This nondescript rental car isn't Edward's old beater and I am not hauling a backpack, but we've slipped seamlessly into the same spots we used to be in when Edward drove me to school as a kid. I fiddle around with the radio station until I find one of the French Canadian FM ones. Although Edward had taken six years of French in school, he used to mock-translate for me, making up outrageous news stories about live goldfish found in public drinking fountains and a pet donkey named Mr. LeFoux who was unwittingly elected to the town selectboard. I wait for him to start translating again, but he just frowns and turns on some classic rock.

  When we get to the hospital, Edward pulls up right to the front. "Aren't you coming in?" I ask.

  He shakes his head. "I'll come back later."

  It's funny. All this time, when Edward was gone, I never felt like I was alone. But now that he's back, as I watch him drive off, I feel lonely.

  The nurses at the ICU desk all say hello to me, ask me how my shoulder feels. They tell me my dad has been a good patient, and I'm not sure if this is supposed to be some kind of joke, so I pretend to smile before I go into his room.

  He is lying just the way he was the last time I visited, his arms tucked on top of the thin blanket, his head canted back on the pillow.

  The pillows here suck. I know this from experience. They are too thick, and they are wrapped in plastic so your scalp sweats.

  I walk toward my dad and gently reposition the pillow so it doesn't set his neck at that weird angle. "Better, right?" I say, and I sit down on the foot of the bed.

  Behind him is the weird techno-array of machines and computer monitors, like he is the star of a sci-fi movie. How cool would that be, I think. If he could communicate by making the little green lines jump on the screen. Twist and spell out the letters of my name.

  For a moment, I watch just in case.

  A nurse, an LPN, comes into the room. Her name is Rita, and she has a canary named Justin Bieber. She has a picture of the bird on her hospital ID tag. "Cara," she says. "How are you doing today?" Then she pats my father on his shoulder. "And how's my own personal Fabio?"

  She calls him that because of his hair, or what's left of it where it hasn't been shaved. I guess the real Fabio is Mr. Romance Novel Cover, although I've never read one of those. I only know him as the guy who shilled I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!, and who got hit in the face by a bird on a Disney World ride.

  While Rita hangs a new IV bag, I stare at my father's hand on the blanket and try to imagine it touching a woman I cannot even picture in my memory anymore. I imagine him driving her to the clinic for her abortion. She would have been sitting in my seat.

  I lean forward, as if I'm going to kiss his cheek, but really I'm doing this so Rita can't hear me. "Dad," I whisper. "How about I forgive you, if you forgive me?"

  And just like that, he opens his eyes.

  "Oh, my God," I cry.

  Alarmed, Rita looks down at her patient. She reaches for the intercom behind the bed and pages the nurses' desk. "Get neurology up here," she says.

  "Daddy!" I get off the bed and walk around it so that I can sit closer to him. His eyes slide to the left as I walk in that direction. "You saw that, didn't you?" I say to Rita. "How he followed me?" I put my hands on his cheeks. "Can you hear me?"

  His eyes are locked on mine. I've forgotten how blue they are, so bright and clear they almost hurt to look at, like the sky the morning after a snowstorm. "I'm fighting for you," I tell him. "I won't give up if you don't."

  My father's head lolls to the side, and his eyes drift shut. "Dad!" I shout. "Daddy?"

  I cry and I shake him--nothing happens. Even after Dr. Saint-Clare comes in and tries to make him react with more clinical tests, my father does not respond.

  But for fifteen seconds--for fifteen glorious seconds--he did.

  My mother is pacing in the hospital lobby when I race across it, ten minutes late for our scheduled pickup. "You're going to be late for court," she says, but I throw myself into her arms.

  "He woke up," I say. "He woke up and looked at me!"

  It takes a moment for my words to sink in. "What? Just now?" She grabs my hand and starts running toward the elevator.

  I stop her. "It was only for a little bit. But there was a nurse in there who saw it, too. He looked right at me and his eyes followed me when I walked around the bed and I could see he was trying to tell me something--" I break off, hugging her tight around the neck. "I told you so."

  My mother pulls her cell phone out of her pocket and dials a number. "Tell Zirconia."

  Which is how, twenty minutes later, I find myself racing back into the courtroom as Judge LaPierre begins to speak. "Ms. Notch, I understand you have something you need to say?"

  "Yes, Your Honor. I need to recall my client and a new witness to the stand. Some evidence has come to light that I think the court needs to hear."

  Joe stands up. "You rested your case," he argues.

  "Judge, a man's life or death hangs in the balance here. This happened only moments ago, or I would have given notice earlier."

  "I'll allow it."

  So once again I climb into the little wooden balcony built for a witness. "Cara," Zirconia asks, "where did you go during the lunch break?"

  "To visit my father in the hospital."

  "What happened when you got to his room?"

  I look right at Edward, as if I am telling him the story, and not the judge. "My dad was just lying there, like usual, like he was asleep. His eyes were closed and he wasn't moving. But this time, when I started talking to him, his eyes opened."

  Edward's jaw drops. Immediately, Joe leans toward him and whispers something in his ear.

  "Can you show us?"

  I close my eyes, and then as if I am a doll coming to life, I snap them open.

  "What happened next?"

  "I couldn't believe it," I say. "I got up and walked around the bed, and he kept looking at me, all the way until I sat down next to him again. He watched me the whole time."

  "And then?" Zirconia asks.

  "Then his eyes closed," I finish, "and he went back to sleep."

  Joe is leaning back in his chair with his arms folded. I'm sure he thinks this is my Hail Mary pass, my eleventh-hour attempt to make up some crazy story that sways the judge in my favor. The thing is, it's not a story. It happened, and that has to mean something.

  "Clearly Mr. Ng thinks it's incredibly convenient for you to have witnessed this," Zirconia says. "Is there anyone who can corroborate what you've told us?"

  I point to Rita, the nurse, who has slipped into the back row of the gallery. She's still wearing her scrubs and her hospital ID tag. "Yes," I say. "Her."

  LUKE

  The hardest part about b
eing back in the human world was relearning emotion. Everything a wolf does has a practical, simple reason. There is no cold shoulder, no saying one thing when you mean something else, no innuendo. Wolves fight for two reasons: family and territory. Humans are driven by ego; wolves have no room for it and will literally nip it out of you. For a wolf, the world is about understanding, knowledge, respect--attributes that many humans have cast off, along with an appreciation of the natural world.

  The Native Americans know that wolves are mirrors for humans. What they show us are our strengths and our weaknesses. If we don't respect our territory, the wolf will invade it. If we don't keep our children close by, if we don't value the knowledge our senior population has accrued, if we leave our garbage around, the wolf will overstep its bounds to let us know we've made a mistake. The wolf is one of those creatures that links everything in the ecosystem. Where they exist in the wild, they regulate the prey populations--not just by controlling their numbers but also by assuring their parenting skills. If a wolf is in the area, there will be fewer cold-related fatalities among other animals, because domestic animals are taken inside or hidden in brush, or herded around a youngster to keep her warm and protect her from the threat of the wolf.

  When I lived with the wolves, I was proud of the reflection of myself.

  But when I came back, I always paled in comparison.

  EDWARD

  After all the hours I spent in his hospital room, by his bed, maintaining a vigil, my father opened his eyes when I wasn't there.

  Story of my life.

  Joe's already called a recess so that he can talk to Dr. Saint-Clare, and he's told me that I shouldn't believe everything I see, and neither should Cara. "It's evidence, but it doesn't mean a thing until the doctors explain it," he said.

  And yet.

  What if it had been me in the room when my father woke up? What would I have said to him?

  What would he have said to me?

  I wonder if the conversations you've never had with someone count, if you've been over them a thousand times in your mind.

  Rita Czarnicki sits on the witness stand now, reciting all her medical qualifications and the number of years she's worked in the ICU. "I was checking the IV," she says. "Mr. Warren's daughter was in the room, talking to him."

 
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