Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  When Cara was just a year old, we stopped at a McDonald's on the way home from one of Edward's Little League games. While I was busy opening up jars of baby food and digging in my purse for a bib, Cara reached from her high chair to Edward's Happy Meal place mat and started happily gumming a French fry. "What about her baby food?" Edward asked.

  "Well," I replied. "I guess she isn't a baby anymore."

  He considered this. "Is she still Cara?"

  Turn around, and the people you thought you knew might change. Your little boy might now live half a world away. Your beautiful daughter might be sneaking out at night. Your ex-husband might be dying by degrees. This is the reason that dancers learn, early on, how to spot while doing pirouettes: we all want to be able to find the place where we started.

  Cara pushes away her dinner tray with her good hand and starts flipping through the television channels with the remote control. "There's nothing on."

  It is five o'clock; all the networks are airing local evening broadcasts. "The news isn't nothing," I tell her. I look up at the screen, set on the station where I used to work. The anchor is a girl in her twenties who has too much eye makeup on. If I had stuck with broadcast journalism, I'd be a producer now. Someone who stayed behind the camera, who didn't have to worry about zits and gray roots and five extra pounds.

  "In a stunning victory," the anchor is saying, "Daniel Boyle, the Grafton County attorney, has won a contentious trial that some say is a ringing victory for conservatives in the state. Judge Martin Crenstable ruled today that Merilee Swift, the pregnant woman who suffered an aneurysm in December, will be kept on life support for another six months, until her baby is delivered at full term. Boyle chose to prosecute the case himself when the woman's husband and parents asked the hospital to turn off Merilee Swift's respirator."

  "Pig," I say under my breath. "He wouldn't have blinked twice at the parents' request if it wasn't an election year."

  The screen cuts to a courthouse-steps interview with Danny Boy, as he likes to be called, himself. "I'm proud to be the guardian of the smallest victims, the ones without voices," he says. "A life is a life. And I know if Ms. Swift could speak, she'd want to know her baby's being taken care of."

  "For the love of God," I murmur, and I grab the remote away from Cara. I flip to the next channel, and my mouth drops open.

  A picture of Luke, grinning as one of his wolves licks his face, fills the screen over the anchor's shoulder. "WMUR has learned that Luke Warren, the naturalist and conservationist who made a name for himself by living in the wild with a pack of wolves, is in critical condition after a motor vehicle accident. Warren will be remembered for his cable television show, which detailed his experiences with wolves at New Hampshire's own Redmond's Trading Post--"

  I push the button on the remote, and the screen goes black. "They'll say whatever they can to get viewers to watch," I tell her. "We don't have to listen."

  Cara turns her face against the pillow. "They're talking about him like he's already dead," she says.

  It is ridiculous to think that after six years of my being continents away from Edward, he's now just a floor below where I'm sitting, and we're still separated.

  I don't have to tell any mother what it's like to have a son leave. It happens a multitude of natural ways--summer camp, college, marriage, career. It feels as if the fabric you're made of has a hole in its center all of a sudden, yet whatever weave you use to fix it is sure to be a hatchet job. I don't believe any parent moves gracefully into the acceptance that a child doesn't need her anymore, but I was blindsided by the truth. Edward left when he was just eighteen, when he was still applying to colleges for the following year. I thought I'd have another six months to figure out how to surgically extract him from the pattern of my life, smiling all the while, so that he didn't think I was anything less than thrilled for his good fortune. But Edward never went to college. Instead, one awful morning, he left me a note and vanished, which is maybe why it felt as if I'd been shelled by a cannon.

  I don't want to leave Cara alone, so I wait until she falls asleep again before I go to the ICU. Edward sits in a chair with his head bowed to his hands as if he's praying. I wait, not wanting to disturb him, and then realize he's dozed off.

  It gives me a chance to look more carefully at Luke. The last time I'd been down here, with Cara and the social worker, I'd been more attuned to my daughter's reaction than I was to forming one of my own.

  I've always thought of Luke as a verb. Something in motion, rather than at rest. Seeing him this still reminds me of times I used to will myself to wake up before he did, so that I could study him: the sculpted curve of his ear, the golden horizon of his jaw, the iridescent scars on his hands and neck that he'd accumulated over the years.

  I must make some kind of noise in the back of my throat, because suddenly Edward is awake and staring at me. "I'm sorry," I say, but I'm not sure to whom I'm apologizing.

  "It's weird, right?" Edward gets up and stands beside me. He smells like a man, I realize. Like Old Spice deodorant and shaving cream. "I keep thinking he's just asleep."

  I slide my arm around my son's waist, hug him closer. "I wanted to come down earlier, but . . ."

  "Cara," he says.

  I face Edward. "She didn't know you were here."

  He smiles crookedly. "Hence the warm reception."

  "She's not thinking clearly right now."

  Edward smirks. "Oh, she's clearly thinking I'm an asshole." He shakes his head. "And I'm kind of thinking she might be right."

  I look at Luke. He's not conscious, but it feels strange to be talking like this in front of him. "I need a cup of coffee," I say, and Edward follows me down the hall to a family lounge. It is a tired, sad little room with gray walls and no windows. There is a coffeemaker in the corner, and an honor box where you can pay a dollar per cup. There are two couches and a few extra chairs, some ancient magazines, a box of battered toys.

  I brew one of the Keurig singles for Edward while he sinks down on a couch. "Your sister may not realize it, but she needs you."

  "I'm not staying," Edward says immediately. "I'm out of here, as soon as . . ."

  He doesn't finish his sentence. I don't finish it for him.

  "I feel like a fraud. There's a part of me that knows I have to be in that room and talk to his doctors because I'm his son, right, and that's what sons do. But there's another part of me that knows I haven't been his son for a long time and that the last person he'd want to see if he opened his eyes was me."

  The coffee spits out of the machine in one final hiss. I realize I have no idea how Edward takes his coffee. Once, I could have told you any detail about this boy of mine--where the scar on the back of his neck came from, where he had birthmarks, which spots of him were ticklish, whether he slept on his back or his stomach. What else do I no longer know about my own child?

  "You came home when I asked," I say simply, handing him the coffee, black. "That was the right thing to do."

  Edward runs his finger around the rim of the paper cup. "Mom," he says. "What if."

  I sit down beside him. "What if what?"

  "You know."

  Hope and reality lie in inverse proportions, inside the walls of a hospital. Edward doesn't have to spell out what he's talking about; it's what I've worked so hard to keep from allowing myself to think. Doubt is like dye. Once it spreads into the fabric of excuses you've woven, you'll never get rid of the stain.

  There is a lot I'd like to say to Edward. That this isn't fair; that this isn't right. After all Luke's done, all those times he could have died of hypothermia or an attack from a wild animal or a hundred other horrific natural disasters, it seems humiliating to think of him being felled by something as mundane as a car accident.

  But instead I say, "Let's not talk about that yet."

  "I'm out of my league here, Ma."

  "Anyone would be." I rub my temples. "Just keep gathering the information the doctors give you. So that when Cara
's ready, you two can talk."

  "Can I ask you something?" Edward says. "Why does she hate me so much?"

  I think about hiding the truth from him, but that makes me think of Cara, and her drinking the night of the accident, and how I'm already being such a total hypocrite for being a cheerleader in front of her about Luke's condition, when clearly it doesn't warrant that kind of optimism. "She blames you."

  "Me?" Edward's eyes grow wide. "For what?"

  "The fact that your father and I got divorced."

  Edward chokes on a laugh. "She blames me. For that? I wasn't even here."

  "She was eleven. You vanished without saying good-bye. Luke and I started fighting, obviously, because of what had happened--"

  "What had happened," Edward repeats softly.

  "Anyway, as far as Cara sees it, you were the first step in a chain of events that split her family apart."

  In the forty-eight hours since I got the phone call from the hospital about Cara and the accident, I have held myself together. I have been strong because my daughter needed me to be strong. When the news you don't want to hear is looming before you like Everest, two things can happen. Tragedy can run you through like a sword, or it can become your backbone. Either you fall apart and sob, or you say, Right. What's next?

  So maybe it is because I'm exhausted, but I finally let myself burst into tears. "And I know you're feeling guilty, about being here, after everything that happened between you and your father. But you're not the only one who's feeling that way," I say. "Because as horrible as this has been, I keep thinking it's the first step in a chain of events that's put this family back together."

  Edward doesn't know what to do with a sobbing mother. He gets up and hands me the entire stack of napkins from the coffee amenities basket. He folds me into an awkward embrace. "Don't get your hopes up," he says, and as if by unspoken agreement we leave the family lounge side by side.

  Neither one of us comments on the fact that I never did get the coffee I wanted.

  LUKE

  In the wolf world, it's in everyone's best interests to fill a pack vacancy. For the family that's lost one of its members--one that's been killed or has gone missing--the ranks are suddenly depleted. A rival pack trying to overtake their territory will become an even bigger threat, and the defensive howl sung by the family will change to an inquiry instead: a higher-pitched question, an invitation to lone wolves in the area to join the pack and battle the rival together.

  So what would make a lone wolf answer?

  Imagine being all alone in the wild. You are another animal's potential prey, a rival pack's enemy. You know that most packs will be prowling between dusk and dawn, so instead you move around during the daytime--but that makes you vulnerable and more easily seen. You walk a precarious tightrope, urinating in streams to disguise your scent, so that you cannot be tracked and challenged. Every turn you make, every animal you meet, is a danger. The best chance of survival you have is to belong to a group.

  There is safety in numbers, and security. You put your trust in another member of your family. You say: if you do what you can to keep me alive, I'll do the same for you.

  EDWARD

  So my sister hates me because I ruined her childhood. If she understood the irony of that very statement, God, we'd have quite the laugh. Maybe one day, when we're old and gray, we actually can laugh about it.

  As if.

  It's always amazed me how, when you don't offer an explanation, other people manage to read something between the lines. The note I left my mother, pinned to my pillow so that she'd find it after I split in the middle of the night, told her I loved her, that this wasn't her fault. It said that I just couldn't look my father in the eye anymore.

  All of this was the truth.

  "Thirsty?" a woman says, and I jump back when I realize that the soda fountain I'm standing in front of in the hospital cafeteria is spilling Coke all over my sneakers.

  "God," I mutter, releasing the lever. I glance around to find something to sop up the mess. But the napkins are rationed by the cashiers, some sort of ecofriendly initiative. I look over at the cashier, who narrows her eyes at me and shakes her head. "Luellen?" she yells out over her shoulder. "Call the custodian."

  "Here." The woman beside me removes a packet of Kleenex from her purse and starts patting my soaked shirt, my pants. I try to take the ball of damp tissues from her, and we wind up bumping heads.

  "Oh!"

  "I'm sorry," I say. "I'm a little bit of a wreck."

  "I can see that." She smiles; she's got dimples. She's probably about my age. She's wearing a hospital ID tag, but no medical coat or scrubs. "Tell you what, the Coke's on me." Refilling another cup, she moves my banana and yogurt from my tray onto hers. I follow her into the seating area after she swipes her ID card to pay.

  "Thanks." I rub my hand across my forehead. "I haven't gotten a lot of sleep lately. This is really nice of you."

  "This is really nice of you, Susan," she says.

  "I'm Edward--"

  "Nice to meet you, Edward. I was just correcting you, so you'd know my name for later."

  "Later?"

  "When you call me . . . ?"

  This conversation is moving in crazy circles I can't follow.

  Immediately, Susan cringes. "Shoot. I should have known better. I swear my gut instinct is permanently disabled. This is creepy, right? Trying to hit on someone in a hospital cafeteria? For all I know you're a patient or your wife's upstairs having a baby but you looked so helpless and my parents met at a funeral so I always figure it's worth taking the chance if you see someone you want to get to know better--"

  "Wait--you were trying to hit on me?"

  "Damn straight."

  For the first time during this conversation, I smile. "The thing is, I'm not." Now it is her turn to look confused. "Straight, I mean. I bat for the other team," I say.

  Susan bursts out laughing. "Correction: my gut instinct isn't just disabled, it's irrevocably damaged. This might be a new single-girl career low for me."

  "I'm still flattered," I say.

  "And you got a free meal out of it. Might as well enjoy it while you're here." She gestures to the seat across from her. "So what brings you to Beresford Memorial?"

  I hesitate, thinking about my father, still and silent, in the ICU. About my sister, who hates my guts, and who's swathed like a fallen soldier from neck to waist in bandages.

  "Relax. I'm not going to violate HIPAA with you. I just thought it might be nice to have a conversation partner for a few minutes. Unless there's somewhere you need to be?"

  I should be at my father's bedside. This is the first time I've left it in twelve hours, and I only came to the cafeteria to get enough food to keep me going for another twelve. But instead, I sit down across from Susan. Five minutes, I promise myself. "No," I tell her, the first in a series of lies. "I'm good."

  When I walk back into my father's room, two policemen are waiting for me. I'm not even surprised. It's just one more item on a long list of things I never expected. "Mr. Warren?" the first policeman asks.

  It's strange to be called that. In Thailand I was called Ajarn Warren--Head Teacher Warren--and even that felt uncomfortable, like an oversize shirt that didn't fit. I've never actually known at what point a person becomes a grown-up and starts answering to titles like that, but I am pretty sure I'm not there yet.

  "I'm Officer Whigby; this is Officer Dumont," the cop says. "We're sorry for your--" He catches himself, before he speaks the word loss out loud. "For what's happened."

  Officer Dumont steps forward, holding a paper bag. "We recovered your father's personal effects at the scene of the accident, and thought you might like them," he says.

  I reach out and take the bag. It's lighter than I think it's going to be.

  They say their good-byes and head out of the room. At the threshold, Whigby turns around. "I watched every single one of his Animal Planet episodes," he says. "You know the one with the wolf tha
t almost gets poisoned to death? I cried like a baby, swear to God."

  He's talking about Wazoli, a young female who'd been brought to my father at Redmond's after being abused at a zoo. He built an enclosure for her and moved two brothers into it, forming a new pack. One day an animal-rights activist broke into Redmond's after hours and swapped meat that had been delivered from the abattoir for meat laced with strychnine. Since Wazoli was the alpha of the group, she ate first--and collapsed, unconscious, in the pond. The camera crews covered my father fishing her out of the water, carrying her to his trailer, wrapping her in his own blankets to warm her up until she began to respond again.

  This policeman isn't just telling me he's a fan of wolves. He's saying, I remember your dad back when. He's saying, That body in the hospital bed, that's not the real Luke Warren.

  When they're gone, I sit down beside my father and look through the bag. There's a pair of aviator sunglasses, a receipt from Jiffy Lube, spare change. A baseball cap whose bill has been chewed. A cell phone. A wallet.

  I set the bag down, turning the wallet over in my hands. It's hardly worn, but then, my father often forgot to carry one. He'd leave it in the console of the truck, because if he went into a wolf enclosure he was likely to have it snatched out of his back pocket by a curious animal. By the age of twelve I had learned to carry cash when I went out with my dad, to prevent the embarrassment of being stuck in a grocery line without the means to pay.

  With clinical detachment, I open the wallet. Inside are forty-three dollars, a Visa card, and a business card from a large-animal vet in Lincoln. There's a feed-and-grain store customer-rewards punch card that says "HAY?" on the back in my father's handwriting, and has a phone number scrawled beneath it. There's a wallet-size photo of Cara, with the cheesy blue background that school pictures always have. There's no indication that he even knew me, at all.

  I will give all of this to Cara, I guess.

  His driver's license is inside a laminated pocket. The photo on it doesn't even look like my father; he's got his hair pulled back and he's staring at the camera as if he's just been insulted.

 
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