Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  "What do you think LaPierre is saying?" Edward asks.

  "A novena?" I suggest.

  "Maybe he needs to see with his own eyes what a vegetative state looks like."

  "Or maybe," I counter, "he's hoping to see Dad wake up again."

  "Open his eyes," Edward corrects.

  "Same difference."

  "Cara," he says, towering over me, "it's not."

  My mother used to talk about Edward's growth spurts. I used to think that meant Edward sprouted overnight, like the plants she kept in the kitchen. I worried he would become too big for the house, and then where would we put him?

  Armand LaPierre rises from the chair beside my father's bed. He steps into the hallway just as Joe comes out of the elevator and Zirconia hurries toward us from the lounge. "Nine A.M.," he announces, and he walks off.

  Zirconia draws me aside. "You're in great shape. You've done everything you can at this point. Between the fact that LaPierre's Catholic, and more inclined to err on the side of life, and the endorsement of the temporary guardian, it's looking very strong, Cara."

  I hug her. "Thanks. For everything."

  "My pleasure." She smiles. "You need a ride back home?"

  "I'll take her," Joe says, and I realize that he and my brother have been close enough to hear everything Zirconia said to me. I wanted to win this case. So why does that make me feel so bad?

  "I'm going to stay for a while," Edward says, nodding toward Dad's room.

  "You'll call me--"

  "Yes," he says. "If anything happens."

  "If he wakes up again--"

  But Joe is already pushing me toward the elevator. The doors close behind us. The last image I have is of Edward sitting down beside my father's bed.

  I watch the floor numbers fall as the elevator descends, a rocket's countdown. "What happens if I lose?" I ask.

  Joe seems surprised. "Your lawyer thinks it's a lock."

  "Nothing's a hundred percent," I tell him, and he grins.

  "Yes," he says. "I remember that from today's testimony."

  I glance at him sharply. "And I remember today's cross-exam."

  At least he has the grace to blush a little. "How about we put that behind us?"

  I hold out my hand to shake on that, but he doesn't let go. "If you don't win," Joe says gently, "then Edward will be your father's guardian. He's going to schedule a time to terminate your father's life support, and to donate his organs. You can be there. And if you want, Cara, I will be right there next to you."

  My throat gets tight. "Okay," I say.

  When the elevator doors open in the lobby, what people see is a man holding on to a girl who's crying, who looks about the right age to be his daughter. What people see is just one of hundreds of sad stories born inside the walls of this building.

  When I was younger, my brother told me that he had the power to shrink me to the size of an ant. In fact, he said, he used to have another sister, but he shrank her down and stepped on her.

  He also told me that when you became a grown-up, you were admitted into a private party that was full of monsters and horror movie characters. There was Chucky, drinking a cup of coffee. And the mummy on the cover of the Hardy Boys book that used to freak me out, except he was doing the twist while Jason from Friday the 13th played the alto sax. He told me you stayed at the party as long as you had to, making conversation with these creatures, and that was why adults were never afraid of anything.

  I used to believe everything my brother told me, because he was older and I figured he knew more about the world. But as it turns out, being a grown-up doesn't mean you're fearless.

  It just means you fear different things.

  LUKE

  My Abenaki friends say that if a hunter and a bear spill each other's blood, they become the same person. No matter what, after that moment, the hunter will never be able to shoot the bear, and the bear will never be able to kill that person.

  I'd like to believe it's true.

  I'd like to believe that the by-product of a near-death experience is a healthy dose of mutual respect.

  EDWARD

  I was the kid who woke up in the middle of the night with a stomachache, certain there was a monster under the bed. I thought ghosts came to sit on my windowsill. Every gust of wind and snapping branch became a thief who was going to come through the attic to kill me. I used to wake up sobbing, and my father, who was usually just getting back from Redmond's, would be the one to calm me down. You know, he told me once, completely exasperated, you've got one glass of water inside your head, with all the tears for a lifetime. If you waste them over nothing, then you won't be able to cry for real when you need to. He told me he'd once met an eight-year-old who'd used up his whole glass of tears and who now couldn't sob, no matter what.

  To this day, I hardly ever cry.

  My father doesn't open his eyes, twitch, blink, or move a muscle during the three hours I sit by his bed. His IV bag empties and his catheter bag fills with urine. A nurse comes by to check his vitals. "You should talk to him," she tells me. "Or read out loud. He likes People magazine."

  Frankly I can't imagine anything my father would like less. "How do you know that?"

  She smiles. "Because I read him last week's issue and he didn't complain once."

  I wait until she leaves the room, and then I pull my chair up to my father's bed. It's no wonder I haven't talked much to him, but then again, I never really knew what to say. And yet, this nurse has a point. What better time to finally tell him the things I should have said ages ago than now, when he has no choice but to listen? "I don't hate you," I admit, the words dissolving the silence.

  His response is the pump and fall of the ventilator. It almost feels wrong, an unfair fight.

  "The temporary guardian, she said something today I can't get out of my head. She said you would have been hurt because I left. I guess I always figured you were thrilled. That you'd gotten rid of the son who was nothing like you. But it turns out that I'm exactly like you. I walked away from my family, too. I realized too late I'd made the biggest mistake of my life. I didn't belong in Thailand, and I didn't belong here. I was just . . . caught somewhere in the middle."

  Breathe in, out. In, out.

  "There's something else I realized, too. You never said you wished I was more athletic or outdoorsy or straight. I was the one who was so sure I didn't measure up. And that's probably because there was nobody else like you. So how could I ever come close?"

  I look down at him, still and slack. "What I'm trying to say is that I blamed you, when it was me all along."

  I reach for my father's hand. The last time I held it I must have been very small, because I do not remember this at all. How weird, to start and end at the same place, to be the child hanging on to a parent for dear life. "I'm going to take care of her. No matter what happens tomorrow," I tell him. "I thought you should know I'm back for good."

  My father doesn't respond. But in my mind, I can hear his voice, booming and clear.

  It's about time.

  Finally, I let myself cry.

  By the time I return to the house, it is after midnight. Instead of falling into bed, though, or even just collapsing on the couch, I go to the attic. I haven't been up there and I have to use my phone as a flashlight, but I manage to rummage through boxes of old tax documents and moth-eaten clothing, some DVD sets of the Animal Planet shows and a bin full of my high school notebooks before I find what I'm looking for. The frames are stacked in a corner with layers of newspaper between them.

  The surge of relief I feel when I realize these weren't thrown out is a shot of pure adrenaline. I carry them all downstairs.

  There's one hallway in my father's house with photographs. They are all of Cara, except for two of my dad with some of his wolves, and one of them together.

  Every year, my mother made us take a picture for our Christmas card. Usually it was August when she was inspired, and usually I had to wear the heaviest, itchiest s
weater I owned. Since we didn't have any snow then, she'd make us pose with all the trappings of Christmas, hats and scarves and mittens, as if our relatives and friends were too dumb to tell from the scenery that it was summer in New England. Every year, she framed the photo and gave it to my father for Christmas. And every January, he hung it in the stairwell.

  I sort through the pictures of me and Cara. There's one where she's so little, I'm carrying her. Then the one where her pigtails stick out like silk tufts from each side of her head. There's the one where I have braces and the one where she does. There's the last photo we took together, before I left.

  It's strange to see myself six years younger. I look wiry and nervous. I'm staring at the camera, but Cara's staring at me.

  I hang the photographs up along the stairwell, taking down Cara's individual school portraits. I leave up the two of my father with his wolves. Then I stand back, reading my history on the wall.

  The last picture I hang is one I remember well. It was the last vacation we took as a family, before my father went to Quebec. My dad and I stand with our feet in the water on the beach at Hyannis. My mom is piggybacked on him, and Cara is piggybacked on me. Looking at us, with our tanned faces and our white teeth and our wide smiles, you'd never know that, in three years' time, my father would go off to live in the woods. You'd never know that he would have an affair. That I would leave without saying good-bye to anyone. That there would be an accident that changed everything.

  This is what I like about photographs. They're proof that once, even if just for a heartbeat, everything was perfect.

  The next morning I oversleep. I throw on the same shirt I was wearing the day before and my father's buffalo plaid jacket and slide into a seat beside Joe as the clerk is telling us to rise for the Honorable Armand LaPierre.

  "Nice of you to show up," Joe murmurs.

  For a long, silent minute, the judge sits with his head bowed, tearing at his hair. "In all my years of sitting on the bench," he says finally, "this has been one of the most difficult cases over which I've presided. It's not every day you have to make a decision about life and death. And I also realize that whatever decision I make will not be a happy decision for anyone."

  He takes a deep breath and perches his glasses on the edge of his nose. "The fact that Cara is only seventeen is immaterial to me, given the circumstances. She lived with her father, she had a close relationship with him, she is as competent of making a decision as she will be in three months' time. Given her brother's absence for six years, I consider her on an equal par with Edward in terms of her ability to act as guardian for her father. I cannot discount the fact that the decision I make today might take away a father from a young girl who gets great reassurance out of simply knowing he's still part of her world, even if he is in a vegetative state. Furthermore, he's only been in this state for thirteen days.

  "Yet I am also cognizant of the irrefutable testimony of Dr. Saint-Clare, who has stated that it is beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Warren will not recover from his injuries and will continue to deteriorate. When you look at the precedents set by earlier decisions like this--Cruzan and Schiavo and Quinlan--the outcome has always been death. Mr. Warren is going to die. The question is, will it be tomorrow? A month from now? A year from now? You want me to make that decision, and in order to do that, I need to determine what Luke Warren would have wanted."

  Pursing his lips, he continues. "Ms. Bedd looked at the swath Mr. Warren cut through television and publishing media, and came to her conclusion. But to look at Mr. Warren in the public eye is not necessarily to see the man behind the celebrity. And the only concrete evidence I have of the way and manner in which Mr. Warren lived his life is a conversation he had with his son saying that if he were in this very situation, he'd want to terminate life-sustaining measures. A conversation that was reinforced on paper in a handwritten, signed advance directive." He glances at me. "Moreover, on Mr. Warren's driver's license, he indicated a desire to be an organ donor. We can see this as further evidence of his personal wishes."

  The judge takes off his reading glasses and turns to Cara. "Honey, I know you don't want to lose your father," he says. "But yesterday, I spent an hour at his bedside, and I think you'd have to agree with me--your father's not in that hospital anymore. He's already gone." He clears his throat. "For all of these reasons and after great consideration, I'm awarding permanent guardianship to Edward Warren."

  It's not really the kind of verdict that you get congratulated on. A small knot of support forms around Cara, and before I can say anything to her, Joe takes me away to get the paperwork I'll need to present to the hospital, so that they will terminate my father's life support, and schedule an organ donation.

  I drive myself to the hospital, and spend an hour talking to Dr. Saint-Clare and the donor coordinator. I sign my name to forms and nod as if I am taking in everything they say, going through the same motions I went through six days ago. The only difference is that this time, when I don't have to talk to Cara, I know I want to.

  She's curled up on my father's bed, her face still wet with tears. When I walk in, she doesn't sit up. "I knew I'd find you here," I say.

  "When?" she asks.

  I don't pretend to misunderstand. "Tomorrow."

  Cara closes her eyes.

  I imagine her staying here all night. My mom and Joe probably gave her permission, under the circumstances. And I can't imagine any of the ICU nurses would kick her out. But if she wants to say good-bye to our father, I also know this isn't the place she needs to be.

  I reach into my pocket for my wallet and pull out the photo I took from my father's billfold, the one of me as a little kid. I slip it underneath my dad's pillow, and then hold out my hand to her, an invitation.

  "Cara," I say. "There's something I think you should hear."

  LUKE

  To evict a wolf from a pack, you use natural suppression and intimidation--which usually takes the form of speed and directional control. Sometimes this is done just to test the members of the pack to make sure everyone's up to speed and doing his job--a beckon here, a direction to stay put, a higher-ranking wolf keeping you from moving by cutting you off.

  At the tip of the spine, above the tail, there is a little covered well with a gland in it that's as distinctive as a human fingerprint. It's how wolves identify each other. In captivity, when a wolf can't leave an enclosure, a pack member who's being evicted will sometimes have that gland gnawed at, gouged out by others, thus removing that wolf's individuality. A wolf who loses its scent gland loses all status, and will often die.

  Who gets evicted? It depends. It might be a wolf that is no longer performing to his best capabilities. It might be a young wolf growing up with alpha characteristics, when the pack already has a viable alpha. A wolf that's been evicted becomes a lone wolf. In the woods, he'll eat small animals and live on his own, howling at other packs to determine new vacancies that suit his role. A lone wolf usually has the characteristics of an alpha, beta, or mid-ranking wolf, and his acceptance into a new pack--which may be years later--is a happy constellation of circumstances. Not only must you be qualified to fill a certain position in the pack but there must be an opening for you.

  I can tell you from experience that when wolves evict a member of the family, there is no looking back. It's not quite that easy for humans.

  Then again, a wolf that has been evicted from a pack could be asked to rejoin it, in certain circumstances. Say that pack with the extra alpha wolf suddenly loses its alpha to a predator? They'll be in need of another alpha to fill his shoes.

  CARA

  We can't go into the enclosures. Although the wolves would most likely just keep their distance, my sling would be like a red flag; they'd try to rip it off and get at the wound to clean it. So instead we sit on the rise, outside the fence, huddled in our coats, watching the wolves watch us.

  There's a cruel comfort to being here. It's better than the hospital, I guess, and lying on my father
's bed listening to the beeps of machines like a time bomb ticking, knowing that when the electricity goes so will he. But I can't turn around without seeing a ghost of a memory: my father running through the enclosure with a deer's hindquarter, teaching the youngsters how to hunt. My father with Sikwla draped over his neck like a stole. My father nannying, teaching pups how to find and dive into a rendezvous hole.

  Even though his wolves were in captivity, he taught them the skills to live in the wild. His goal was to get wolves rereleased into the forests of New Hampshire, the way they had been reintroduced in Yellowstone, and were now thriving. Although there had been some solo sightings of wild wolves, there were laws against their reintroduction. It had been two hundred years since they'd roamed free in the state, but that didn't stop my father from making sure that any one of his captive packs survived the way its wild counterparts would. You know what the difference is between a dream and a goal? he used to say to me. A plan.

  It's funny, how he had to teach the wolves to be wild, when they taught him so much about being human.

  I realize that I'm already thinking about him in the past tense.

  "What's going to happen to them?" I ask.

  Edward looks at me. "I'll ask Walter to stay on. I'm not going to get rid of them, if that's what you're asking."

  "You don't know anything about wolves."

  "I'll learn."

  Now, that would be the greatest irony of all. If I'd told my dad that one day Edward would be living out his legacy with the wolves, he probably would have laughed himself into a hernia.

  I stand up and walk closer, until I can curl my fingers into the chain-link fence. That was the first lesson my father taught me down here--don't ever do that. A tester wolf will turn around before you know it and will bite you.

  But these wolves, they know me. Kladen rubs his silvery side up against my hand and licks me.

  "You could even be the one to teach me," Edward suggests.

  I crouch down, waiting for Kladen to pace by me again. "This place won't be the same if he's not here."

  "But he is," Edward says. "He's in every corner of it. He built it with his hands. He created these packs. This is who Dad was, not what you see in the hospital bed. And none of this is going away. I promise you."

 
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