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Seconds before our truck slams into the tree, I remember the first time I tried to save a life.
I was thirteen, and I’d just moved back in with my father. Or, more accurately, my clothes were once again hanging in my former bedroom, but I was living out of a backpack in a trailer on the north end of Redmond’s Trading Post & Dinosaur World. That’s 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. Since that was where my father spent 99 percent of his time, it was expected that I follow.
I thought this alternative beat living with my mom and Joe and the miracle twins, but it hadn’t been the smooth transition I’d hoped for. I guess I’d pictured my dad and me 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 from afar the way biologists did. By the time I moved in with him, he’d already gotten five packs to accept him as a bona fide 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.
On the day I left my mom and her brand-spanking-new family, my dad was not exactly waiting for me with open arms. 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 late and flicked through the TV channels. It was lonely in the trailer, but it was lonelier being landlocked at an empty house.
In the summers, the White Mountains region was packed with visitors who went from Santa’s Village to Story Land to Redmond’s Trading Post. In March, though, that stupid T. rex roared to an empty theme park. The only people who stayed on in the off-season were my dad, who looked after his wolves, and Walter, a caretaker who covered for my dad when he wasn’t on-site. 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 toolshed 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 like a belly; three of the babies immediately began to snuffle between the folds. The fourth pup 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 Esbilac, which is like formula, but for animals. He reached for the little wolf 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 truth: what we were doing here was far more important than anything I could learn in a classroom.
On the third day, we named them. My father believed in using indigenous names for indigenous creatures, so all his wolf names came from the Abenaki language. Nodah, which meant Hear me, was the name we gave the biggest of the bunch, a noisy black ball of energy. Kina, or Look here, was the troublemaker who got tangled in shoelaces or stuck under the flaps of the cardboard box. And Kita, or Listen, hung back and watched us, his eyes never missing a thing.
Their little sister I named Miguen, Feather. There were times she’d drink as well as her brothers and I would believe she was out of the woods, but then she’d go limp in my grasp and I’d have to rub her and slip her inside my shirt to keep her warm again.
I was so tired from staying up round the clock that I couldn’t see straight. I sometimes slept on my feet, dozing for a few minutes before I snapped awake again. The whole time, I carried Miguen, until my arms felt empty without her in them. On the fourth night, when I opened my eyes after nodding off, my father was staring at me with an expression I’d never seen before on his face. “When you were born,” he said, “I wouldn’t let go of you, either.”
Two hours later, Miguen started shaking uncontrollably. I begged my father to drive to a vet, to the hospital, to someone who could help. I cried so hard that he bundled the other pups into a box and carried them out to the battered truck he drove. The box sat between us in the front seat and Miguen shivered beneath my coat. I was shaking, too, although I’m not sure whether I was cold, or just afraid of what I knew was coming.
She was gone by the time we got to the parking lot of the vet’s office. I knew the minute it happened; she grew lighter in my arms. Like a shell.
I started to scream. I couldn’t stand the thought of Miguen, dead, being this close to me.
My father took her away and wrapped her in his flannel shirt. He slipped the body into the backseat, where I wouldn’t have to see her. “In the wild,” he told me, “she never would have lasted a day. You’re the only reason she stayed as long as she did.”
If that was supposed to make me feel better, it didn’t. I burst into loud sobs.
Suddenly the box with the wolf pups was on the dashboard, and I was in my father’s arms. He smelled of spearmint and snow. For the first time in my life, I understood why he couldn’t break free from the drug that was the wolf community. Compared to issues like this, of life and death, did it really matter if the dry cleaning was picked up, or if he forgot the date of open-school night?
In the wild, my father told me, a mother wolf learns her lessons the hard way. But in captivity, where wolves are bred only once every three or four years, the rules are different. You can’t stand by and just let a pup die. “Nature knows what it wants,” my father said. “But that doesn’t make it any easier for the rest of us, does it?”
There is a tree outside my father’s trailer at Redmond’s, a red maple. We planted it the summer after Miguen died, to mark the spot where she is buried. It’s the same type of tree that, four years later, I see rushing toward the windshield too fast. The same type of tree our truck hits, in that instant, head-on.
• • •
A woman is kneeling beside me. “She’s awake,” the woman says. There’s rain in my eyes and I smell smoke and I can’t see my father.
Dad? I say, but I can only hear it in my head.
My heart’s beating in the wrong place. I look down at my shoulder, where I can feel it.
“Looks like a scapula fracture and maybe some broken ribs. Cara? Are you Cara?”
How does she know my name?
“You’ve been in an accident,” the woman tells me. “We’re going to take you to the hospital.”
“My . . . father . . . ,” I force out. Every word is a knife in my arm.
I turn my head to try to find him and see the firemen, spraying a hose at the ball of flames that used to be my dad’s truck. The rain on my face isn’t rain, just mist from the stream of water.
Suddenly I remember: the web of shattered windshield; the fishtail of the truck skidding; the smell of gasoline. The way when I cried for my dad he didn’t answer. I start shaking all over.
“You’re incredibly brave,” the woman says to me. “Dragging your father out of the car in your condition . . .”
I saw an interview once where a teenage girl lifted a refrigerator off her little cousin when it accidentally fell on him. It had something to do with adrenaline.
A fireman who has been blocking my view moves and I can see another knot of EMTs gathered around my father, who lies very still on the ground.
“If it weren’t for you,” the woman adds, “your dad might not be alive.”
Later, I will wonder if that comment is the reason I did everything I did. But right now, I just start to cry. Because I know her words couldn’t be farther from the truth.