Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

  Some people believe that wolves kill everything they encounter.

  In reality, they only kill to eat. Even when they attack a herd, they don't slaughter every animal. The alpha wolf very specifically directs which member of the herd should be brought down.

  Some people believe that wolves will decimate the deer population.

  In reality, for every ten times they hunt, they'll make a single kill.

  Some people believe they infiltrate farms and kill livestock.

  In reality, this happens so infrequently, biologists don't even count them as a category of predatorial risk.

  Some people believe wolves are harmful to humans.

  In reality, of the twenty or so recorded cases, the encounter between wolf and man was brought on by the person. And there's not a single documented case of a healthy, wild wolf killing a human.

  You can imagine that I'm not too fond of the three little pigs, either.


  I'm sitting at one of the outdoor tables at the trading post, wrapped up in my down jacket and a woolly blanket. There's no one here because it's February and the park is officially closed, but the signature attraction--the animatronic dinosaurs that you can't miss the minute you walk through the gates--runs year-round. It's some weird computerized wiring glitch--you can't turn off the T. rex without cutting power to the whole facility, and that of course would affect the skeleton crew that manages the animal habitats on the off-season. So every now and then, when I need to get away, I come to the part of the park that's a ghost town and watch the triceratops shake his plastic head every hour on the hour, dislodging last night's snowfall. I watch the raptor get into a mock fight with the T. rex, both of them thigh-high in drifts. It's creepy. It feels like I'm watching the end of the world. Sometimes, because it's so quiet, their canned roars get the gibbons all riled up, and they start hollering, too.

  It's because of the gibbons, actually, that I don't hear my father calling my name until he's nearly standing right in front of me. "Cara? Cara!" He is wearing his winter coveralls--the ones that hang outside the trailer on a tree branch and never get washed because the wolves recognize him by scent. I can tell he's been in with the pack sharing a meal, because there's a little bit of blood on the ends of the long hair framing his face. He usually plays the diffuser, which means he gets right between the beta and the alpha rank on the carcass. It's crazy to watch, actually. Feeding time, for the pack, is like a gladiator sport. Everyone's got a set position around the carcass and feeds at a specific time on a specific part of the animal. There's growling and snarling and gnashing as each wolf--my dad included--protects his piece of the kill. He used to eat the raw meat, like the wolves, but when it started messing too much with his digestive system, he began to cook up bits of kidney and liver and hide it inside his coveralls, in a little plastic bag. He somehow manages to transfer this into the slit belly of the calf and eat like the wolves without them noticing anything's been doctored.

  My father's face collapses with relief. "Cara," he says again. "I thought I'd lost you."

  I try to stand up, to tell him that I've been here the whole time, but I can't move. The blanket's gotten caught, and my arms are trapped. Then I realize it's not a blanket, it's a bandage. And it's not my father who's been calling my name, it's my mother. "You're awake," she says. She's looking down at me, trying to smile.

  My shoulder feels like there's an elephant sitting on it. There's something I want to ask, but the words taste like they're covered in clouds. Suddenly there's another face, a woman's face, soft as dough. "When it hurts," she says, "press this." She curls my hand around a little button. My thumb pushes down.

  I want to ask where my father is, but I'm already falling asleep.

  I am dreaming again, and this is how I know:

  My father's in the room, but it's not my father. This is someone I've only seen in photographs--three pictures, actually, that my mother keeps inside her underwear drawer, beneath the velvet liner of the box that holds her grandmother's pearls. In all three pictures, he's got his arm around my mother. He looks younger, leaner, short-haired.

  This current version of my father is staring at me as if he's just as surprised to see me looking this way as I am to see him. "Don't leave," I say, but my voice is barely a voice.

  That makes him smile.

  This is the second reason I know I am dreaming. In those old photographs, my dad always looks happy. In fact, he and my mother both always look happy, which is again something I've only seen in pictures.

  I'm awake, but I'm pretending not to be. The two police officers that are standing at the foot of the bed are talking to my mother. "It's critical that we speak to your daughter," the taller one says, "to piece together what happened."

  I wonder what my father has told them. My mouth goes dry.

  "Clearly Cara isn't fit for interrogation." My mother's voice is stiff. I can feel the eyes of all three of them touching me like flame on paper.

  "Ma'am, we understand that her health is the primary concern."

  "If you understood, then you wouldn't be here," my mother says.

  I watch Law & Order. I know all about how a microscopic paint chip can put away a lying criminal for life. Is their visit a routine one, part of every car crash? Or do they know something?

  I break out in a sweat, and my heart starts beating harder. And then I realize that's something I can't hide. My pulse is right there on a monitor next to the headboard for everyone to see. Knowing that just makes it worse. I imagine the numbers rising, everyone staring.

  "Do you really believe her father was trying intentionally to crash the car?" my mother asks.

  There is a pause. "No," one policeman replies.

  My heart's hammering so hard that, any minute now, a nurse is going to burst in and call a code blue.

  "Then why are you even here?" my mother asks.

  I hear one of the policemen rustle through his clothing. Through slitted eyes I see him give my mother a card. "If you could just give us a call when she's awake?"

  Their footsteps echo on the floor.

  I count to fifty. Slowly, with a Mississippi after each number. And then I open my eyes. "Mom?" I say. My voice is full of scrapes and angles.

  She immediately sits next to me on the bed. "How do you feel?"

  There's still pain in my shoulder, but it's not what it was before. I touch my forehead with my free hand and feel swelling, stitches. "Sore," I say.

  My mother reaches for that hand. There's a little clip on one of my fingers, with a red light glowing through the flesh. Like E.T. "You fractured your shoulder blade in the car accident," she tells me. "You had surgery on Thursday night."

  "What day is it now?"

  "Saturday," she tells me.

  I have entirely lost Friday.

  I struggle to sit up, but that turns out to be impossible with one arm wrapped up mummy-tight against my body. "Where's Dad?"

  Something flickers across her face. "I should tell the nurse that you're awake . . ."

  "Is he okay?" My eyes fill with tears. "I saw the paramedics with him, and then they . . . then they . . ." I can't finish the sentence, because I am starting to put together all the secrecy and the look on my mother's face and that hallucination I had of my father as a much younger man. "He's dead," I whisper. "You just don't want to tell me."

  She grips my hand more tightly. "Your father is not dead."

  "Then I want to see him," I demand.

  "Cara, you're in no condition to--"

  "Goddammit, let me see him!" I scream.

  That, at least, gets some attention. A woman wearing hospital ID--but not nurse whites--hurries into the room. "Cara, you've got to relax--"

  She is small and bird-boned, with black ringlets that bounce with every syllable. "Who are you?"

  "My name is Trina. I'm the social worker assigned to your case. I understand that you've got some questions--"

  "Yeah, like how about this one: I'm wrapped up
like King Tut and I've got Frankenstein stitches on my head and my father's probably in the morgue so how am I supposed to relax?"

  My mother and Trina exchange a look, some secret code that lets me know in that instant they've been talking about me the whole time I've been drugged unconscious. Here's what I know: If they don't want to help me get to my dad, wherever he is, then I will walk there myself. Crawl, if I have to.

  "Your father's suffered a very severe brain trauma," Trina says, the same way you'd say, I heard it's going to be a very cold winter or I think I need to take the car in to get the tires rotated. She says it as if a severe brain trauma is a hangnail.

  "I don't understand what that means."

  "He had surgery to remove swelling in the brain. He's not breathing on his own. And he's unconscious."

  "Five minutes ago, so was I," I say, but the whole time I am thinking: This is all my fault.

  "I'll take you to see your father, Cara," Trina says, "but you have to understand that when you see him, it's going to be a shock."

  Why? Because he's in a hospital bed? Because he's got stitches, like me, and tubes down his throat? My father is the kind of man who never rests, who's rarely indoors. Seeing him fall asleep in a chair is enough of a shock.

  She calls in a nurse and an orderly to get me into a wheelchair, which requires moving my IV and gritting my teeth as I'm relocated. The hallway smells like industrial cleaner and that plastic hospital smell that's always freaked me out.

  The last time I was in this hospital was a year ago. My dad and I were doing outreach with Zazi, one of the wolves we sometimes bring to elementary schools to teach about wolf conservation. My dad always goes through a mini-training session with the kids to teach them how to behave around a wild animal--don't hold out your fingers, don't approach too fast, let the animal catch your scent. And that day, the kids were being great, as was Zazi. But some idiot delinquent in another part of the building had pulled the fire alarm as a prank, and the loud noise startled the wolf. He tried to get away, and the nearest exit was a plate-glass window. My dad wrapped his arms around Zazi to protect him, so that he was the one who wound up going through the window instead of the wolf. Sure enough, when I got Zazi back into his travel cage, he didn't have a scratch on him. My father, on the other hand, had a cut so deep on his arm that I could see bone.

  Needless to say my father refused to go to the hospital until Zazi was safely back home in his enclosure. By then, the dish towel he'd used as a makeshift bandage was a bloody mess, and the frantic school principal--who'd driven back to the trading post with us--insisted that my father go to the emergency room. There--here--he had to get fifteen stitches. But no sooner had we returned home than my dad headed down to the enclosure that housed Nodah, Kina, and Kita--the three wolves he'd had to raise from pups, the pack where he now functioned as a diffuser wolf.

  I stood at the chain-link fence, watching Nodah bound up to my dad. Immediately he ripped off the white bandage with his teeth. Then Kina started licking the wound. I was sure he'd tear the stitches, and I was just as sure my father was hoping for that very thing. He'd told me about his time in the wild; how sometimes during a hunt he'd be injured because his skin didn't have the same protective fur covering that his brother and sister wolves had. When that happened, the animals would lick the gash until it reopened. My father had come to believe that something in their saliva functioned medicinally. Even though he was sleeping in dirt and had no access to antibiotics, in the nearly two years he spent in the woods, he never had a single infection and every wound healed twice as fast. As Kina dug deep, my dad winced a few times, but eventually the cut stopped bleeding and he left the enclosure. We started walking up the hill toward the trailer. I freaking hate hospitals, he said, an explanation.

  Now as Trina wheels me down the hallway--my mother trailing behind--we pass people in casts, or shuffling with walkers or crutches. My room is in orthopedics, but my father is somewhere else. We have to get into the elevator, and go down to the third floor.

  The sign next to the double doors we enter says icu.

  In this hallway, nobody's walking around except the doctors.

  Trina stops pushing the chair and crouches down in front of me. "Are you still feeling up to this?"

  I nod.

  Trina backs into my father's hospital room, pulling the wheelchair, and then turns me to face the bed.

  My dad looks like a statue. Like one of those marble warriors you see in the ancient Greece section of a museum--strong, intense, and completely expressionless. I reach for his hand and touch it with one finger. He doesn't move. The only reason I know he's still alive is because the machines he's hooked up to are making quiet noises.

  I did this to him.

  I bite my lip because I know I'm going to cry and I don't want Trina and my mother watching.

  "Is he going to be all right?" I whisper.

  My mother puts her hand on my shoulder. "The doctors don't know," she says, her voice breaking.

  Tears are running down my face now. "Daddy? It's me. Cara. Wake up. You have to wake up."

  I'm thinking about all those stories you always hear on the news, the miraculous ones, where people who were never supposed to be able to walk get out of bed and start sprinting. Where people who were blind can suddenly see.

  Where fathers with brain injuries suddenly open their eyes and smile and forgive you.

  I hear the sound of water running, and a door opens--one that leads to the bathroom. The younger version of my dad that I hallucinated yesterday walks out, still drying his hands on his sweatpants. He looks at my mother, and then at me. "Cara," he says. "Wow. You're awake?"

  That's the moment I understand that he was never a figment of my imagination. It's a voice I recognize, now housed in a different, adult body.

  "What is he doing here?" I whisper.

  "I called him," my mother says. "Cara, just--"

  I shake my head. "I was wrong. I can't do this."

  Immediately, Trina whirls the chair around, so that I am staring at the door again. "That's all right," she says, not judgmental at all. "It's hard to see someone you love in that condition. You'll come back when you're feeling stronger."

  I pretend to agree. But it isn't just facing my father, unconscious in a hospital bed, that has made the floor drop out of my world.

  It is seeing my brother, who's been dead to me for years.

  I can't say that Edward and I were ever close. Seven years is a lot, when you're young, and there just isn't all that much that a high school kid will have in common with a kid sister who is still using her Easy-Bake oven. But I idolized my big brother. I would pick up the books he sometimes left on the kitchen table and pretend that I understood the words inside; I'd sneak into his room when he went out and would lie on his bed and listen to his iPod, something he would have murdered me for if he knew I was doing it.

  The elementary school was a distance away from the high school, which meant that Edward had to drop me off in the morning. It was part of a negotiated deal that included my parents paying for half of the eight-hundred-dollar beater he found at a garage, so he'd have his own wheels. In return, my mother insisted that my brother physically deposit me on the steps of my school before going on to his.

  Edward took this direction literally.

  I was eleven years old--plenty grown-up enough to navigate a traffic light's walk signal alone. But my brother never let me. Every day he parked the car and waited with me. When that signal changed and we stepped off the curb together, he'd grab my hand or my arm and hold on to it until we reached the other side. It was such a habit I'm pretty sure he wasn't even aware he was doing it.

  I could have pulled away, or told him to let go, but I never did.

  The first day after he left us, the first day I had to go to school and cross alone, I was positive the street had grown twice as wide.

  Logically, I understand that it wasn't Edward's fault my family fell apart after he left. But when
you're eleven years old, you don't give a fuck about logic. You just really miss holding your big brother's hand.

  "I had to call him," my mother says. "He's still your father's son. And the hospital needed someone who could make medical decisions for Luke."

  As if it's not bad enough that my father is in some kind of coma, the only person who seems to have information about his condition is, against all odds, my long-lost brother. The thought that he's the one who's been sitting next to my dad, waiting for him to open his eyes--well, it makes me furious.

  "Why couldn't you do it?"

  "Because I'm not married to him anymore."

  "Then why didn't anyone ask me?"

  My mother sits down on the edge of the hospital bed. "You weren't in any condition to be making decisions when you were brought in. And even if you had been--you're a minor. The hospital needed someone who's over eighteen."

  "He left," I say, the obvious. "He doesn't deserve to be here."

  "Cara," my mother replies, rubbing her hand over her face. "You can't blame Edward for everything."

  What she is careful not to say is that this was my father's fault--the breakdown of the marriage, and Edward's departure. She knows better than to bitch about my dad in front of me, though, because that's partly what made me move out of her house four years ago.

  I had left my mother's house because I didn't fit into her new family, but I had wound up staying with my dad because he seemed to parent me in a way my mom never could. It's hard to explain, really. It didn't really matter to me if my bedsheets were washed weekly or only once every few months when someone remembered to do it. Instead, my dad taught me the name of every tree in the woods, knowledge I didn't even realize I was accumulating. He showed me that a summer storm isn't an inconvenience but a great time to work outside without being swarmed by mosquitoes or sweltering in the heat.

  Once, when we were in one of the enclosures, a badger had the bad luck to wander inside. We usually let the wolves kill whatever small prey wound up in their pen, but this time, one of the adult wolves chased down the badger and, instead of killing it, bit the backbone so it was dragging its rear legs. Then he backed away, so that the two young pups in the pack could make the kill. It was, basically, a training session. That's what life with my father was like. With my dad, it didn't matter that Edward had left. With my dad I was worthy enough to be the only other member of his pack, the one he taught everything he knew, the one he depended on as much as I depended on him.

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