The girl would wait by her mother’s bedside.
Chronic illness and a battered immune system left her mother bedridden for days on end. Just a cold, Marlowe, she would insist to her daughter, day after day. I’ll be right as rain soon. Her father hovered and worried and doted. He rubbed his dry hands together and kissed her forehead every hour as though it would cure her and ease her aching body, but still she stayed in her bed.
The girl, ever faithful even then, would drag her books into her mother’s bed and learn to read with her, though her mother could scarcely lift her head. “Come on, Momma, just a few more pages,” she would plead, her tiny hands clutching the edges of her picture book with fervent want. “It’s fun!”
And the girl would wait by the door when her parents left for their weekly trip to the hospital. She would eagerly greet her parents as they entered their shabby apartment smelling of plastic and sterility, gauze firmly taped onto her mother’s elbow. Little by little, her mother got better. Her strength returned and waned monthly with the cycles of the moon, but Marlowe was beyond ecstatic that her mother was back to sitting, standing, walking. The bed was rarely occupied now that her mother was happy and healthier than she’d been since Marlowe was very young. And Marlowe no longer had to wait – her mother would eagerly read with her whenever she asked, and loved to scoop her daughter up in her arms and hold her close to her heart.
Marlowe was eight years of age when they started taking family trips to the beach. Every last Friday of the month, her mother and father would pack up their bags for the day and pack into their dingy, rumbling car and head down to Santa Monica. They would return to Santa Barbara that night a few shades darker and a whole lot happier.
It was at this beach that her mother explained that she would soon be a sister. She patted her growing stomach and laughed that no, Marlowe, it’s not that I’m getting fat. And soon, there were four of them that visiting the beach, though Adrian knew little besides the breast of his mother and the soft, cooing noises from his father.
Adrian’s birth accompanied a steep decline in their mother’s health. The issues with her blood grew worse and worse following the strain from the delivery of her second child, and it wasn’t long until she was back to staying in bed, her moaning audible from the children’s room down the hall. And the girl, young as she was, saw her brother in a new light. He was so small, so innocent, and yet she could not help but harbor resentment for this tiny person. She would still have her mother, had it not been for his existence. There was love there, but Marlowe was young. It was hard to find the love among the selfish thoughts of a child.
Their father tried to take them down to the beach without her mother. The trips eventually stopped altogether; he was breaking under the strain of his wife’s health, and the children grew more irritated and impatient with each passing week.
Even from his infant days, Adrian had been stubborn. It had taken nearly 18 hours to bring him into the world, as he just refused to emerge from the womb. He was a fussy eater, a loud crier, and prone to bouts of colic every few months.
It was in Marlowe’s nature to help, and her parents desperately needed that help. So she watched and cared for Adrian. Slowly, she began to tolerate the tantrums and bull-headed refusals that were only amplified by his young age. Their father called Marlowe his second mother – she attempted to raise this younger brother when her mother could not. But Adrian fought her every step of the way. The only way he was like their mother was in his disease; he, too, required the monthly blood that his mother did.
Marlowe watched as her father desperately tried to keep this family of his alive. Her throat was often constricted by the sobs she dare not let loose; if her father knew that his only healthy member of the family was suffering, then he would have broken so much sooner than he did. It was enough that his wife and son could die if they didn’t get the right care; he didn’t need a crying, resentful daughter on top of it all.
One of the last days the girl ever saw her father was the day of the funeral.
When she was only 11 years old, her mother passed away quietly in the night during one of her hospital stays. Later in her life, Marlowe would learn that the doctors discovered cancerous cells growing on her organs, made only more complicated by her anterior blood disease. It killed her slowly and painfully.
Her mother wanted to be cremated, and so she was. The night after the funeral, as they drove home to their apartment, her father kept the urn of her ashes by his side. The ghost of her mother hovered in the space as Marlowe attempted to keep on living. Her father became useless, and spent most of his time lying in bed, like his wife had spent the last few months of her life.
“She’s still here, you know,” she remembered him telling her the night before he left. “In this building. Not just in the urn. She’s…here, Marlowe. She’s asking for you in the bedroom. She wants to tell you she loves you.” He was crying, but the look in his eyes was so sincere. Marlowe knew that he believed she was still alive somewhere, and she couldn’t bring herself to break the news to him. When she woke up to find his car missing, she was not surprised. He had broken long ago; it was a miracle he had lasted this long without his wife.
(When Carlton finds her curled up on the bed, he knows better than to ask. Silently, he takes her in his arms and lets her break down. She hates crying more than anything. However, it is when she is enveloped in his familiar smell that she finds there is nowhere she feels safer.
He whispers that it’s okay, and his voice scratches against his vocal chords as he chokes out the syllables. Never are his words ever so laced with emotion. So Marlowe clings to his shirt and sobs, shaking in his arms. In her entire life, she had never felt comfortable being so vulnerable, and perhaps it is a good thing that she can finally let it go.)
Foster care was the next logical step, at least until the courts managed to convince her father’s brother to take them in.
Adrian and Marlowe were shipped all the way across the country to Connecticut, where a new home awaited them. This new home was gated and huge, and boasted nearly triple the number of rooms that their apartment in California could claim. This branch of the Viccellio family was far more distant and closed than their own; the parents were never home, the children had learned to occupy themselves without bothering anyone in the vicinity. The sterility of the environment was disgruntling, to say the least.
Young Adrian, only a four-year-old, spent his first few months there sleepwalking. Their aunt and uncle took him to see a therapist to see if they could make it stop, but Marlowe knew he was just looking for their parents. Adrian was the fighter, after all. Whereas he was always willing to run, Marlowe was the one digging her feet in and letting the universe throw all these damn hurricanes at her. One of them needed to be able to take the abuse, and as the older sibling, Marlowe had no other choice. So life moved on, whether she wanted it to or not.
The girl was now a college student. Pride kept her from asking her aunt and uncle for financial aid, so here she was, working full time as both a student and a sales associate at a bookstore on campus. She often attended class in her work uniform, begrudgingly bearing the looks of her peers as she took notes and wrote essays.
Adrian was proving to be a problem, although that wasn’t much of a surprise this late in the game. She lived on campus a few miles away; he lived quite loosely with their relatives in that gated home. Their cousins never really bothered to cozy up with them the entire time that they had lived together, and now with Marlowe gone, there was nothing really keeping him there. He ran away at least once every few months. He made bad friends and bad choices, and puberty really didn’t help to mellow him out. His need for regular blood medication was perhaps the only thing that stopped him from dropping off the map entirely.
If Adrian weren’t so young and impressionable, she would let him ruin his life. But he’s barely in high school and he’s already in the wrong crowd, so it’s all she can do to scold him over the phone and sit on him for hours as punishment when she comes home between semesters. Somehow she’ll reach him. Somehow he’ll realize that she didn’t ask for this life, either, and he should stop fighting her because she’s on his side. She’s been on his side his entire life, but he’s just never seemed to notice.
(She is always quiet when she returns from the correctional facility. She takes off her shoes slowly and with care, and she takes extra time to hang her keys on the hook to keep them from jangling. Rarely is Carlton home in time to witness her ritual, but he is content to let her do as she pleases.
Her jacket is soon draped over the couch. She drops down onto it in her favorite corner spot and buries her head in her hands for a few moments – never longer than a few minutes, never shorter than a few sighs. Eventually she will look up, take a breath, and smile at him. “Hey, Carlton,” she’ll greet, with a tired smile. “How was your day?”)
She finishes her degree and moves back to California after a few years. Adrian be damned; she leaves after his 18th birthday and figures he’ll be in jail and out of her hair in a matter of months, and it’s far beyond being her problem now. She had tried to keep him sane and healthy and failed spectacularly.
Marlowe finds work at yet another bookstore and starts to sub at a local high school to make money while she figures out what she wants to do with this English degree. No longer is she strapped for time or saddled with a deadbeat brother; she can pay attention to her own life now, and realizes that she is lonely. So she begins to date.
She’s young and attractive and intelligent and it doesn’t take long for the guys to start flooding in. Her natural internal warning system keeps her from dating any major assholes, so she drifts through several long-term relationships. The company is nice and the sex is enjoyable, but it’s hard for her to really let loose when there is so much about her life that is in shambles. After so long, she just wants to be happy.
So she swears off dating for a while and heads down to Santa Monica to clear her head. She ends up weeping in the dead of night on the beaches where she spent the happiest days of her childhood, overwhelmed by the weight of a past that she cannot shake.
(Instead of pricey vacations and travels all over the world, Marlowe is happy and content in their corner of California. Much to Carlton’s relief, she doesn’t ask to visit the beach or demand that they spend a month of their life traversing through European cities to celebrate their anniversaries or anything. Once they move into their home besides the beach, her need to leave the house is even less.
He is, of course, a little perplexed – Marlowe had expressed interest in visiting old relatives in Italy once, but that was it. Carlton had only met a few other women like Marlowe, and those women hated to be trapped in cages and routines and ruts. But Marlowe only smiles and insists that she has everything she needs right around her – her daughter safe in a crib, her husband healthy and alive, her home on solid footing.
After drifting for so long, Marlowe is happy just to stay put. And he can appreciate that more than most.)
When Adrian finally shows up at her apartment, bleeding from his nose and shaking, she is entirely unsure of what to do. She had just recently gotten her teaching license and been hired at a local high school, she had just managed to get her own apartment without some nosy roommate. She had been focusing on herself, and suddenly, one of the blue, in a mist of blood and despair, her brother appears.
“Mar, please,” he whispers, his teeth unable to keep from rattling though he’s wrapped in about three jackets. “Please just let me in.”
Against her better judgment, she throws the door open and steps to the side to let him enter.
He tells her that their aunt and uncle had died, and there was no inheritance left for them. Adrian’s insurance rates were flying through the roof and he couldn’t muster up the strength to work while he was unable to get reliable medication and treatment, so here he is, struggling to hold onto life again. His eyes are weak and watery as he tells her this, his voice trembling and very, very quiet.
“You were right,” he says, and though she had expected this to feel sweet, the words wriggle their way under her skin and beneath her nails. “You were right the whole time, sis – and I didn’t listen.”
So he becomes her roommate, much to her displeasure. He recovers when he can and works sporadically, floating from job to job until he can find a place that will give him flexible enough hours to gain his strength back before coming to work. She continues with her steady job; he struggles to tread water beside her, barely able to stay above the surface. He doesn’t get better, not fully, and perhaps that is because Marlowe will always see him the way he appeared to her when he first returned to Santa Barbara. To her, Adrian will always be her sniveling, bleeding, pathetic, frail younger brother. And, Gods be damned, she loves him still, so under her wing he stays.
Money is short. The years fly by, and Adrian waffles constantly between living in her apartment and mooching off her insurance and being able to pretend that he can support himself. Marlowe is unable to keep up with the medical bills, so eventually she is forced to do what she should’ve done long ago.
“You need to move out,” she tells him one day, not looking him in the eye as she throws her clothing into a box. “Hell, I’m moving out. I can’t afford this place anymore and you certainly can’t either. You need to get a grip on your life, Adrian, and I can’t do that for you.”
When he looks at her this time, she actually feels her heart drop. The shadows under his sunken eyes are black and gruesome; his cheekbones are gaunt beneath his sullen skin. “I understand,” he says, and even helps her fold her clothes to pack it away.
By the time she moves in with Lucien and Ed and Jake, Adrian works at an awful haberdashery that is privately owned by a sympathetic entrepreneur. The emotional stress proves too much for her, so her school puts her on leave – at least until she can get her feelings back in check, which is easier said than done. She’s never taken a vacation as long as she’s lived, so they are more than happy to reward her unfailing and constant work with medical leave.
Adrian insists that she meet him at a bar, and when she shows up, she finds that he’s pouring over a sheet of paper. Before she can even sit, he shoves it at her. Her eyes scan over a printed spreadsheet full of names and genders and personal information. “What is this?” she asks, handing it back to him. He doesn’t take it, implying that he wants her to look closer.
He is grinning when he says, “This is a list of blood donors. O- blood, Marlowe.”
“What of it?”
“That’s how I’ll get my blood for the transfusions. I have syringes, I do well in a fight.”
For a second, Marlowe is convinced that he’s joking, but Adrian is looking at her intently. He hasn’t looked this focused in years. “Adrian, this is a crime. And very poorly thought out. How did you even get this information?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says easily. “Really, don’t. I’ll take a while for me to put this plan into action, but I don’t think I’ll need to get you involved. Just wanted you to know that I can fix this.”
And privately, she thinks he is only going to make things worse.
He lied. He does need her involved, at least for this next victim on his list – a police officer, a regular blood donor, and a very healthy man named Carlton Lassiter proves to be most elusive one on the list. Adrian’s contacts inform him that this man is armed to the teeth at any given moment of the day. If he’s awake, he’s prepared to spring on anyone who may approach him, particular someone who looks as scruffy as Adrian. So he begs and pleads and guilts Marlowe into once again doing something she will regret in the future.
She lies in wait at a bar that some seedy P.I. (a friend of her brother’s, apparently) says that he occasionally visits after work. This detective is solitary, he has a divorce on file, and only parks his own cars at his apartment. So he’s clearly single, and she’s been visiting this bar every day for a week waiting for him to appear, dressed in her best and nursing a whiskey at the corner of this broken-down establishment.
He finally appears one day, and though Marlowe is only going off of the shaky pictures the P.I. had given her, it is undeniably him. His slick hair is disheveled from his day’s work, his tie is loosened and his hands are stuffed into his pockets. He’s too far away for Marlowe to see if he’s packing heat, and his posture is so proper that it’s difficult to tell. She sucks in a breath, waits for him to order a drink, and saunters up to the bar. This is for Adrian. He won’t die from this. He’s innocent. This is for Adrian.
The girl slips the bartender a crisp bill and smoothes out her voice so it doesn’t tremble as her hands are. “I’ll have what he’s having.”