Seconds before our truck slams into the tree, I remember the first time I tried to save a life.
It was just after I'd moved back in with my father. I was still getting used to living in a trailer on the north end of Redmond's Trading Post, Wild Kingdom, & Dinosaur World, where my father's captive wolf packs were housed, along with gibbons, falcons, an overweight lion, and the animatronic T-Rex that roared on the hour. Although I'd thought this alternative beat living with my mom and Joe and the miracle twins, it hadn't been the smooth transition I'd hoped for. I was thirteen, and I guess I'd pictured us making pancakes together on Sunday morning, or playing Hearts, or taking walks in the woods. Well, my dad did take walks in the woods, but they were inside the pens he'd built for his packs, and he was busy being a wolf. He'd roll around in the mud with Sibo and Sobagw, the numbers wolves; he'd steer clear of Pekeda, the beta of the pack. He'd eat from the carcass of a calf with wolves on either side of him, his hands and his mouth bloody. My dad believed that infiltrating a pack was far more educational than observing, like biologists did. By the time I moved in with him, he'd already gotten five packs to accept him as a bonafide member — worthy of living with, eating with, and hunting with them, in spite of the fact that he was human. Because of this, some people thought he was a genius. The rest thought he was insane.
I had left the house I grew up in — the one my mom lived in, now, with her brand-spanking-new family, because I felt like a fifth wheel. I'd like to say that my dad was waiting for me with open arms when I showed up at his trailer, but that's not true. He was down in one of the enclosures with Mestawe, who was pregnant for the first time, and he was trying to forge a relationship with her so she'd pick him as the nanny for the pups. He even slept there, with his wolf family, while I stayed up and flicked through the TV channels.
In the summers, the White Mountains region was packed with visitors who went from Santa's Village to Storyland to Redmond's Trading Post. In March, though, that stupid T-Rex roared to an empty theme park. The only people who stayed on the off-season were my dad, who looked after his wolves, and Louie, a caretaker who covered the rest of the animals. It felt like a ghost town, so I started hanging out at the enclosures after school — close enough that Bedagi, the tester wolf, would pace on the other side of the fence, getting used to my scent. I'd watch my father dig a birthing bowl for Mestawe in her den, and meanwhile, I'd tell him about the football captain who was caught cheating, or the oboe player in the school orchestra who had taken to wearing caftans, and was rumored to be pregnant.
In return, my dad told me why he was worried about Mestawe: she was a young female, and instinct only went so far. She didn't have a role model who could teach her to be a good mother; she'd never had a litter before. Sometimes, a wolf would abandon her pups simply because she didn't know better.
The night Mestawe gave birth, she seemed to be doing everything by the book. My father celebrated by opening a bottle of champagne, and letting me drink a glass. I wanted to see the babies, but my father said it would be weeks before they emerged. Even Mestawe would stay in the den for a full week, feeding the pups every two hours.
Only two nights later, though, my father shook me awake. "Cara," he said, "I need your help."
I threw on my winter coat and boots and followed him to the enclosure where Mestawe was in her den. Except, she wasn't. She was wandering around, as far from her babies as she could get. "I've tried everything to get her back inside, but she won't go," my father said matter-of-factly. "If we don't save the pups now we won't have a second chance."
He burrowed into the den and came out holding two tiny, wrinkled rats. At least that's what they looked like, eyes squinched shut, wriggling in his hand. He passed these over to me; I tucked them inside my coat as he pulled out the last two pups. One looked worse off than the other three. It wasn't moving; instead of grunting, it let out tiny puffs every now and then.
I followed my dad to a tool shed that stood behind the trailer. While I was sleeping he'd tossed all the tools into the snow; now the floor inside was covered with hay. A blanket I recognized from the trailer — a fluffy red plaid — was inside a small cardboard box. "Tuck them in," my father instructed, and I did. A hot water bottle underneath the blanket made it feel warm and almost like a belly; three of the babies immediately began to snuffle into the pockets of the blanket. The fourth was cold to the touch. Instead of putting her beside her brothers, I slipped her into my coat again, against my heart.
When my father returned, he was holding baby bottles full of ESPlac, which is like formula, but for animals. He reached for the little pup in my arms, but I couldn't let her go. "I'll feed the others," he told me, and while I coaxed mine to drink a drop at a time, his three sucked down every last bottle.
Every two hours, we fed the babies. The next morning, I didn't get dressed for school and my father didn't act like he expected me to. It was an unspoken arrangement: what we were doing here was far more important than anything I could learn in a classroom.
From Lone Wolf: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. Copyright 2012 Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books. Excerpted by permission of Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books.