Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult


  In the bottom right-hand corner is a small red heart.

  I remember filling out the paperwork for my own license when I was sixteen. "Do I want to be an organ donor?" I had yelled to my mother in the kitchen.

  "I don't know," she'd said. "Do you?"

  "How am I supposed to make that decision right now?"

  She had shrugged. "If you can't make it right now, then you shouldn't check the box."

  At that point my father had walked into the kitchen to grab a snack on his way back out to Redmond's. I remember thinking that I hadn't even known he was in the house that morning; my father would come and go with that sort of fluid frequency; we were not his home, we were a place to shower and change and eat a meal occasionally. "Are you an organ donor?" I had asked him.

  "What?"

  "On your license. You know. I think it would freak me out." I'd grimaced. "My corneas in someone else's eyes. My liver in someone else's body."

  He had sat down at the table across from me, peeling his banana. "Well, if it came to that," he'd said, shrugging, "I don't think you'd be physically capable of feeling freaked out."

  In the end, I hadn't checked off the box. Mostly because, if my father endorsed something, I was dead set on supporting its opposite.

  But my father, apparently, had felt differently.

  There is a soft knock on the open door, and Trina, the social worker, comes in. She's already introduced herself to me; she works with Dr. Saint-Clare. She was the one who'd been pushing Cara's wheelchair the first time my sister was brought in to see my father in his hospital bed. "Hi, Edward," she says. "Mind if I come in?"

  I shake my head, and she pulls up a chair beside mine. "How are you doing?" Trina asks.

  It seems like a strange question from someone who does this for a living. Is anyone she meets inclined to say "Fantastic!" Would she even be skulking around near me if she thought I was handling this well?

  At first I hadn't understood why my father, unconscious, had a social worker assigned to him. Then I'd realized Trina was there for me and for Cara. My previous definition of social worker involved foster care--so I wasn't quite sure what help she could offer me--but she's been an excellent resource. If I want to talk to Dr. Saint-Clare, she finds him. If I forget the name of the chief resident, she tells it to me.

  "I hear you talked to Dr. Saint-Clare today," Trina says.

  I look at my father's profile. "Can I ask you something?"

  "Sure."

  "Have you ever seen someone get better? Someone who's . . . as bad off as him?"

  I can't look at the hospital bed when I say this. I stare down at a spot on the floor instead. "There's a wide range of recoveries from brain injury," Trina says. "But from what Dr. Saint-Clare has told me, your father's injury is catastrophic, and his chances of recovery are minimal at best."

  Heat floods my cheeks. I press my hands against them. "So who decides?" I say softly.

  She understands what I'm asking.

  "If your father had been conscious when he was brought into the hospital," Trina says gently, "he would have been asked if he'd like to complete an advance directive--a statement explaining who is his health-care proxy. Who has the right to speak on his behalf for all medical decisions."

  "I think he wanted to donate his organs."

  Trina nods. "According to the Anatomical Gift Act, there's a protocol for which family members are approached, and in what order, to give a directive for organ donation for someone who's medically incapacitated and unable to speak for himself."

  "But his license has an organ donor symbol."

  "Well, that makes it a little simpler. That symbol means that he's a registered donor, and that he's legally consented to donation." She hesitates. "But, Edward, there's another decision that needs to be made before you even start to consider organ donation. And in this state, there's no legal hierarchy to follow when it comes to turning off someone's life support. The next of kin of a patient with injuries like your dad's has to make the decision for withdrawal of treatment before anyone even starts talking about organ donation."

  "I haven't talked to my father in six years," I admit. "I don't know what he eats for breakfast, much less what he would want me to do in this situation."

  "Then," Trina says, "I think you need to talk to your sister."

  "She doesn't want to talk to me."

  "Are you sure about that?" the social worker says. "Or is it that you don't want to talk to her?"

  When she leaves a few minutes later, I tip back my head and let out a sigh. What Trina's said is a hundred percent true--the reason I'm hiding in this room with my father is because he's unconscious--he can't get mad at me for walking out six years ago. On the other hand, my sister can and will. First, for leaving without a word. And second, for coming back, and being thrust into a position that naturally belongs to her: the person who knows my father best. The person my father would probably want sitting next to him, now, if given the choice.

  I realize that I am still holding my father's wallet. I take out the license, rub my finger over the little heart, the symbol for an organ donor. But when I go to slip it back into the laminated sleeve, I see there's something else in there.

  It's a photo, cut down to fit the small pocket in the wallet. It's from 1992, Halloween. I had on a baseball cap, covered with fur, with two sharp ears sticking up. My face was painted to give me a muzzle. I was four years old, and I had wanted a wolf costume.

  I wonder if I knew, even back then, that he loved those animals more than he loved me.

  I wonder why he's kept this photo in his wallet, in spite of what happened.

  Even though I was seven years older than Cara, I was jealous of her.

  She had auburn ringlets and chubby cheeks, and people used to stop my mother as she was pushing the baby stroller down the street, just to comment on what a beautiful baby she had. Then they'd notice the second grader walking sullenly beside her--too thin, too shy.

  But it wasn't Cara's looks that made me jealous--it was her mind. She was never the kind of kid who just played with dolls. Instead, she'd position them all around the house and make up some elaborate story about an orphan who travels across the ocean as a stowaway in a pirate ship to find the woman who sold her at birth in order to save her husband from a life in jail. When her report cards came home from elementary school, the teachers always commented on her daydreaming. Once, my mom had to go to the principal's office because Cara had convinced her classmates that her grandfather was an astrophysicist and that by 6:00 P.M., the sun was going to crash into the earth and kill us all.

  Even though there was a significant age gap between us, sometimes when she asked me to play, I'd go along with it. One of her favorite games was to hide inside her bedroom closet and blast off. In the dark, she'd chatter away about the planets we were passing, and when she opened the door again, she gasped about the aliens with six eyes and the mountains that shivered like green jelly.

  Believe me, even though I was old enough to know better, all I wanted was to see those aliens and mountains. I think even as a kid, when I realized I was different, my greatest hope was that change was possible, that I could be just like everyone else. Instead, I would open the closet door and glance around at the same old dresser and bureau, at my mother, putting away Cara's folded laundry.

  It was no surprise that when my father went into the wild, Cara offered different explanations to anyone who asked: He's on a dig with egyptologists in Cairo. He's training for a space shuttle mission. He's filming a movie with Brad Pitt.

  I have no idea if she really believed the things she was saying, but I can tell you this much: I wished it were that easy for me to come up with excuses for my father.

  The floor of the hospital where Cara and the other orthopedics patients are kept is considerably different from the ICU. There's more activity, for one, and the deathly quiet that makes you want to lower your voice to a whisper on my father's floor is replaced here by the sounds of
nurses interacting with patients, the squeak of the book cart being pushed by a candy striper, the spill of voices from a dozen televisions bleeding past the thresholds of the rooms.

  When I walk into Cara's room, she's watching Wheel of Fortune. "Only the good die young," she says, solving the puzzle.

  My mother spots me first. "Edward?" she says. "Is everything all right?"

  She means with my father. Of course she'd think that. The look on Cara's face makes my stomach hurt.

  "He's fine. I mean, he's not fine. But he's not any different." I am already fucking this up. "Mom, could I talk to Cara alone for a minute?"

  My mother looks at Cara, but then she nods. "I'll go give the twins a call."

  I sit down in the chair my mother vacated and drag it closer to the bed. "So," I begin, gesturing to Cara's bound shoulder. "Are you in a lot of pain?"

  My sister stares at me. "I've been hurt worse," she says evenly.

  "I, uh, I'm sorry that this is the way we had to have a reunion."

  She shrugs, her mouth pressed into a tight line. "Yeah. So why are you even here?" she asks after a minute. "Why don't you just go back to whatever you were doing and leave us alone?"

  "I will, if you want," I say. "But I'd really like to tell you what I've been doing. And I'd kind of like to know what you've been up to, too."

  "I've been living with Dad. You know, the guy you're downstairs pretending to know better than I do."

  I rub my hand over my face. "Isn't this hard enough without you hating me?"

  "Oh. Gosh. You're right. What am I thinking? I'm supposed to welcome you back with open arms. I'm supposed to ignore the fact that you tore our family to shreds because you're selfish and you left instead of trying to talk something out, so now you can ride in like some white knight and pretend you give a damn about Dad."

  There's no way to convince her that just because you put half a planet between you and someone else, you can't drive that person out of your thoughts. Believe me. I tried.

  "I know why you left," Cara says, jutting her chin up. "You came out and Dad went ballistic. Mom told me so."

  Cara was too young to understand back then, but she's not now; she would have eventually asked questions. And of course my mother would have told her what she believed to be the answers.

  "You know what? I don't even care why you left," Cara says. "I just want to know why you bothered to come back when no one wants you here."

  "Mom wants me here." I take a deep breath. "And I want to be here."

  "Did you find Jesus or Buddha or something in Thailand? Are you atoning for your past so you can move on to the next step in your karmic life? Well, guess what, Edward. I don't forgive you. So there."

  I almost expect her to stick her tongue out at me. She's hurt, I tell myself. She's angry. "Look. If you want to hate me, fine. If you want me to spend the next six years saying I'm sorry, I'll do that, too. But right now, this isn't about you and me. We have all the time in the world to figure things out between us again. But Dad doesn't have all the time in the world. We need to focus on him."

  When she ducks her head, I take it as agreement.

  "The doctors are saying . . . that his injuries aren't the kind that can heal--"

  "They don't know him," Cara says.

  "They're doctors, Cara."

  "You don't know him, either--"

  "What if he never wakes up?" I interrupt. "Then what?"

  I can tell, from the way her face pales, that she has not let herself go there, mentally. That she hasn't even let that hint of doubt creep into her head, for fear it will take root like the fireweed that grows along the road in summertime, rampant as cancer. "What are you talking about?" she whispers.

  "Cara, he can't stay hooked up to life support forever."

  Her jaw drops. "Jesus. You hate him so much that you'd kill him?"

  "I don't hate him. I know you don't believe it, but I love him enough that I'm willing to think about what he'd want, instead of what we'd want."

  "You have a truly fucked-up way of showing your love, then," Cara says.

  Hearing a curse word on my little sister's lips is like hearing nails on a blackboard. "You can't tell me that Dad would want machines breathing for him. That he'd want to live with someone having to bathe him and change his diaper. That he wouldn't miss working with his wolves."

  "He's a fighter. He won't give up." She shakes her head. "I can't believe we're even talking about this. I can't believe you think you have the right to tell me what Dad would or wouldn't want."

  "I'm being realistic, that's all," I reply. "You have to be ready to make some hard choices."

  "Choices?" she says, choking on the word. "I know all about hard choices. Should I have a total breakdown, or hold it together while my parents are splitting up? Even though the one person who'd understand what I'm feeling has totally abandoned me? Do I live with my mother or do I live with my father, because no matter what I decide, I know my answer's going to hurt the other person. I've made hard choices, and I picked Dad. So how dare you tell me I'm supposed to just give him up, now?"

  "I know you love him. I know you don't want to lose him--"

  "Before you left, you told Mom you wanted to kill him," Cara snaps. "So I guess now you have your chance."

  I can't blame my mother for telling her that. It's true.

  "That was a long time ago. Things change."

  "Exactly. And in two weeks or two months or maybe longer, Dad just might walk out of this hospital."

  That is not what I've been led to believe by the neurologists. That is not what I'm seeing with my own eyes. I realize, though, that she is right. How can I make a family decision with my sister when I haven't been part of this family?

  "For what it's worth," I say, "I'm sorry I left. But I'm here now. I know you're hurting, and this time, you don't have to go through it alone."

  "If you want to make it up to me," Cara says, "then tell the hospital I should be in charge of what happens to Dad."

  "You're not old enough. They won't listen to you."

  She stares at me. "But you could," she says.

  The truth is, I want my father to wake up and get better, but not because he deserves it.

  Because I want to leave as soon as possible.

  In this, Cara is right. I haven't been part of this family for six years. I can't just walk in and pretend to fit seamlessly. I tell my mother this, when I walk out of Cara's room and find her pacing in the hall. "I'm going back home," I say.

  "You are home."

  "Ma," I say, "who are we kidding? Cara doesn't want me here. I can't contribute anything valuable about what Dad would have wanted in this situation. I'm getting in the way, instead of helping."

  "You're tired. Overtired," my mother says. "You've been in the hospital for twenty-four hours. Get some rest in a real bed." She reaches into her purse and pulls a key off a chain of many.

  "I don't know where you live now," I point out. As if that isn't proof enough that I don't belong.

  "You know where you used to live," she says. "This is a spare key I keep in case Cara loses hers. There's no one in the house, obviously. It's probably good for you to go there anyway to make sure everything's all right."

  As if there would be a break-in in Beresford, New Hampshire.

  My mother presses the key into my palm. "Just sleep on it," she says.

  I know I should refuse, make a clean break. Start driving back to the airport and book the first flight to Bangkok. But my head feels like it's filled with flies, and regret tastes like almonds on the roof of my mouth. "One night," I say.

  "Edward," my mother says, as I am walking away from her. "You've been gone for six years. But before that, you lived with him for eighteen years. You have more to contribute than you think you do."

  "That's what I'm afraid of," I reply.

  "That you can't make the right decision?"

  I shake my head. "That I can," I tell her. "But for all the wrong reasons."
r />   I'm having an Alice in Wonderland moment.

  The house I step into is familiar, but completely different. There is the couch I used to lie on to watch TV after school, but it's not the same couch--this one has stripes instead of being a solid, deep red. There are photos of my dad with his wolves dotting the walls, but now they're mixed in with school pictures of Cara. I walk by them slowly, watching her grow up in increments.

  I trip over a pair of shoes, but they aren't my little sister's light-up sneakers anymore. The dining room table is covered with open textbooks--calculus, world history, Voltaire. Sitting on the kitchen counter are an empty carton of orange juice, three dirty plates, and a roll of paper towels. It's the mess of someone who thought he was coming back to clean up later.

  There's a nearly empty box of Life cereal on the counter, which feels more like a metaphor than a housekeeping oversight.

  The house has a smell, too. Not a bad one--it's outdoorsy, like pine and smoke. You know how when you go to someone's house it smells a certain way . . . but when you go to your own house it doesn't smell at all? If I needed any other confirmation that I'm a stranger, this is it.

  I push the blinking red button on the answering machine. There are two messages. The first is from a girl named Mariah, and it is for Cara.

  Okay, I totally have to talk to you and your cell phone voice mailbox is full. Call me!

  The second is from Walter, who lives at Redmond's Trading Post. Six years ago he was the caretaker for the wolves if my dad wasn't around--the one who sawed up the calves that came in from the abattoir for food, and who called my dad in the middle of the night if there was a medical problem and my dad happened to be home with us, instead of in the trailer on-site. I guess he's still the caretaker, because his message is asking a question about medication for one of the wolves.

  It's been two days now that my father hasn't turned up at Redmond's. What if no one has told Walter what's happened?

  I push all the buttons on the phone, but I can't figure out how to call the last incoming number. Well, there's got to be an address book somewhere around here, or maybe his contact information is on a computer.

  My father's office.

  It was what I called it back then, even though my father, as far as I knew, had never stepped foot in it. Technically it was the guest bedroom in our house, but it had a filing cabinet and a desk and the family computer, and we never had guests. It was where, twice a week, I sat down to pay family bills--my chore, just like Cara's, was loading and unloading the dishwasher. We all had to pitch in when my father left for Canada to join the wild pack. I'm sure he expected my mother to be in charge of our finances, but she wasn't good with deadlines, and after having the heat turned off twice because of bills past due, we decided that I'd take over. So even at fifteen, I knew how much money it took to run a household. I learned about interest rates through credit card debt. I balanced the checkbook. And once my father came home, it was simply assumed that I'd continue. His mind was always a million different places, but none of them happened to be that office desk, paying bills.

 
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