Nervously, Cole tells the Circle that he was mad and didn’t understand that they were trying to help him. He says he knows he was wrong and that he can’t go back to the island. He hands the feather to his mom and notices that no one seems to believe him. Cole’s mom says that Cole has changed—he’s speaking openly now. Other Circle members say it’s time to send Cole’s case back to the courts, but Garvey insists that Cole has changed and should be allowed to change more. Peter’s lawyer, however, insists that everyone has suffered too much. She insists that Peter is doing poorly because of Cole, and nobody believes that a white bear attacked Cole. She concludes that this meeting is a waste of time.
Rather than try to defend himself—or even tell the story that he believes the Circle needs to hear—Cole simply admits that he was wrong and that he messed up. This is a major step for Cole, as it shows that he’s learning to take responsibility for his actions, at least verbally. It’s still up in the air whether Cole will accept the Circle’s desire to send him back to jail with grace, or whether he’ll revert to his old ways and blame them for ruining his life again.
Edwin asks Cole to help him with a demonstration. He points out a line in the linoleum floor and says it represents a bad life path. He and Cole walk along it together, pushing against each other. When they get to the other side of the room, Cole is only a few feet away from the line. Cole eyes Edwin as Edwin says that they’re going to now do the same exercise differently. Suddenly, Edwin shoves Cole and sends him sprawling. Cole fights his urge to shove Edwin—instead, he accepts Edwin’s hand to get up. Edwin addresses the group and says that people change either through persistent pressure or one traumatic experience. He says that Cole experienced something significant on the island—months ago, Cole would’ve hit him after a shove. Edwin concludes that Cole is facing a new direction.
The simple fact that Cole is willing to help Edwin with this demonstration and trust that Edwin is going to make a reasonable point also speaks to how far Cole has come. He’s reasonably comfortable with the physical contact that this exercise entails, and it’s especially meaningful that Cole accepts Edwin’s help up at the end. Even though the demonstration itself makes Edwin’s point just fine, Cole’s reaction to it makes it undeniable that Cole isn’t the same person he was six months ago. He has a better handle on his anger, and he’s more trusting.
The Keeper asks how they can be sure and mentions Cole’s claim that he saw a white bear. Edwin asks Cole if he saw a Spirit Bear. Cole realizes that if he lies, the Circle will believe him. If he tells the truth, they’ll think he’s a liar. Cole says he saw and touched the bear. Though she doesn’t have the feather, Peter’s lawyer insists they’re done. Edwin notes that a fishing crew recently sighted a white bear near Cole’s island, but Peter’s lawyer says this is irrelevant; Cole is out of chances. Cole can deal with not being in control right now, but he’s still angry. Edwin insists that if Cole goes back, he’ll pay his own way. Cole asks for the feather and says he knows he’s not over his anger, but he knows now that it takes strength to ask for help and tell the truth.
Again, Cole now has to deal with the consequences of lying—nobody believes him when he says something that seems unlikely, even if it is true. When Peter’s lawyer speaks without holding the feather, it’s an indicator that she isn’t taking this seriously. This is, importantly, similar to how Cole approached Circle Justice before going to the island—and it makes the case that there are many people in the world who need to learn the lessons that Cole learns in the novel.
Over the next few weeks, Cole prepares himself mentally for jail. He starts working out and realizes that he can exercise his anger away. No matter how much he does, though, his right arm remains weak. The Circle continues meeting without Cole and Edwin stays in Minneapolis to attend them. Edwin stops by a few times but says little. Nathaniel Blackwood visits to say that Cole’s dad won’t pay his legal fees anymore. Then, two days later, Garvey and Edwin stop by. Edwin tells Cole to explain how he’s changed, and Cole shares how he felt unimportant after he was mauled. He realized that he’d die, that no one would ever trust him, and that he’d never love anyone.
Discovering exercise is a way for Cole to start taking control of his emotions. It’s a tool he can use to turn his mind to healthier, more productive thoughts—something the novel suggests is important for anyone who wants to make their life more meaningful. Significantly, even though Nathaniel Blackwood ends his relationship with Cole, Cole doesn’t hold this against his dad or get angry. This suggests that Cole is emotionally distancing himself from his dad—and he sees that his dad is just trying to gain the upper hand in response to the child abuse accusations.
Cole admits he’s not sure how this changes anything, but he knows now that his dad is never going to apologize. Edwin asks if Cole thinks this is his dad’s fault, but Cole says he knows it’s not. He shares what his mom said about his dad’s parents beating him too. Cole starts to cry and says that he just doesn’t want to beat his own kid. Cole says that he’s worse than his dad, since his dad never went to jail. Garvey asks why Cole thinks he can be different, and Cole replies that he’s not sure, but that he does know that something changed on the island. He sniffs and irritably asks Garvey and Edwin why they’re trying to help when he’s a lost cause and is going to jail. Garvey and Edwin reveal that they’ve convinced the Circle to let Cole go back to the island.
When Cole insists that he doesn’t ever want to beat his own child, he demonstrates that he understands how the cycle of violence works—and how important it is for him to stop it now that he has the chance. It’s also telling that Cole nevertheless recognizes that this isn’t his dad’s fault. He now has the skills to feel compassionate and empathetic toward his dad, who must’ve had a horrible upbringing. However, this doesn’t excuse his abuse—just as it doesn’t excuse what Cole did to Peter.