"So Marlie's coming home?" he asked. It was about time. Without Marlie around, there was no one to watch baseball with or play chess with or do anything with. Ben wasn't much fun. And without Marlie around, they had to have the weird babysitter with the blue hair come, and she talked on the phone the whole time and didn't even want to do anything with them. When Marlie babysat she would do cool things like help him on his lego castle or bake some brownies to eat.
"Looks like it," his dad replied.
"Does that mean we get to go out to dinner tonight?" he questioned, grinning at the thought.
His father glanced away from the road to shoot him an amused look. "Why would that mean we're going out to dinner?"
"To celebrate and stuff!" he exclaimed. "That'd be cool, right, Benny?"
From the back of the car, his little brother agreed with an enthusiastic, "Yeah!"
His dad only chuckled, though. "Your mom is cooking a celebratory dinner."
"Mom's cooking?" he asked. "How's that a celebration? Mom cooks every night. It's no fun at all."
"Anytime you want to cook dinner, just say the word," his dad replied. Before Jason could think of a reply to that, his dad's cell phone went off, buzzing wildly against the car console. "Get that for me, will you?" his dad asked as he turned onto the highway towards home.
Jason loved answering the cell phone. His mom said he couldn't get one until he was thirteen, but he had already picked out which one he'd get. Marlie said there would be a cooler one by the time he was thirteen, but he didn't care. "Hello?" he asked.
"Jason?" Marlie asked breathlessly.
"Is Dad there? Where's Dad? Put him on the phone!" Marlie demanded. Jason frowned.
"He's right here, but why? Is something wrong?"
"PUT HIM ON THE PHONE!"
She didn't have to be mean about it. "It's Marlie," Jason said, holding the phone out for his father to take. "She really needs to talk to you or something."
"Hey kid, what's the matter?" his dad asked. "Wait, hold on, slow down — what happened?"
Jason was curious. Was Marlie not going to come home anymore? What was so great about living with their grandma anyway? He was pretty sure it was their grandmother she was living with. She said the woman was her other mother, but Jason didn't really get it.
It would be cool to live with Grandpa Keith, sure, but Grandma Alicia was always cooking weird green stuff that was supposed to be extra healthy or something and it was so gross. Mom at least made stuff like mac n' cheese and burgers and spaghetti with really big meat balls.
"Did you get her to the hospital? . . . Okay, alright, just calm down; I'm on my way right now. Call your grandpa and grandma and your uncle Wallace. . . . No, thirty-four. Tell the doctor she's thirty-four weeks along. Okay. Yeah. It's gonna be okay. Call me if anything else happens, okay?" He hung up the phone.
"What's happening?" Jason asked. A moment later he grabbed the door to steady himself; his father had slammed suddenly on the accelerator, swerving off the highway and onto an exit. "Dad, what's happening? Is Marlie okay?"
"Marlie's fine," his dad replied, speeding down the ramp. "We're going to the hospital."
"The hospital?" Jason repeated. The only time he had been to the hospital was when he'd broken his arm at the carnival. It had been horrible. The whole place smelled funny and they made you sit through all those awkward x-rays and everybody stared at you and prodded you where it hurt. "Why are we going to the hospital? Did Marlie break her arm?"
"Marlie's fine, Jason," his dad insisted. He took a sharp turn and Jason felt his stomach go in the other direction. They were speeding back onto the highway again. The hospital must be in the other direction from the house. "Your mom is having the baby."
"Cool! Did you hear that Ben?"
"Yeah. I hope its a boy."
"It's a girl, Ben. Mom already told you that."
His dad didn't say anything.
Five minutes later the car was swinging into the hospital parking lot. His dad was in a hurry — probably wanted to be there when the baby was born; Katie Hudgins got to be there when her little brother was born and she said it was really cool — and the car went up on the curb, banging loudly and jarring Jason.
"Get out of the car," his dad said, already shoving his door open. The key was still in the ignition but his dad wrenched it out a moment later. Jason fumbled with his buckle. "Now!" his dad shouted. It finally came undone and he started out of the car. His dad never got this worked up.
Dad was now nearly dragging Ben out of the backseat, and before Jason knew what was happening, he was running to keep up with his dad as the man raced into the hospital. "DAD!" Marlie shouted, coming out of nowhere. She had been crying — she still was. Was the baby ugly or something? It was worse than that, wasn't it?
"What's wrong, Marlie?" Ben asked.
Marlie didn't spare him a glance. "They took her in to have a c-section," she told Dad, breathing heavily. "They were saying — I don't know, its like a placental, um, a placental abruption or something. They think. They don't know for sure. I don't know," she said, shaking her head wildly and looking as if the whole world were about to come crashing down. "There was all this blood and —"
"Blood?" Jason exclaimed. No one paid him any mind.
"Where are the doctors?" Dad asked Marlie.
"I don't —"
"Hey, YOU!" A tall, balding man with a bright green clipboard looked up when their dad shouted loudly. "Where's my wife? Veronica Echolls? What's happening? My daughter brought her in and —"
"Calm down, sir," the doctor replied. "You're the husband? Logan Echolls?"
'YES, I'm the husband! Who the hell do you think I am?!"
"Calm down, sir. I was here when they brought her in. She's in surgery right now."
"Jay, what's going on?" Ben asked, tugging on Jason's shirt.
"Mom — Mom's in surgery," Jason replied, not taking his eyes away from the scene. He didn't understand. Nobody said you had to have surgery to have a baby. He glanced back and forth between Marlie, his dad, and the doctor, but no one was about to explain anything.
"What's wrong with her? Is she gonna be okay? What about the baby?"
"Calm down, sir; you need to calm down. She —"
"I WILL NOT CALM DOWN! TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THEY'RE DOING TO MY WIFE!" Other people in the hospital were staring at them now, but neither Marlie nor Dad seemed to notice or care.
"She is in surgery," the doctor replied, not seeming very fazed by their dad's yelling. "We're not sure, but we suspect the abdominal pain and bleeding she experienced were due to a late-term placental abruption; it happens in about one percent of pregnancies —"
"What does that mean? Is she going to be okay?"
"The doctors are doing everything they can, Mr. Echolls —"
"They damn well better be or I'll sue this hospital into the ground!"
The doctor kept talking, their dad kept shouting, and Marlie kept crying. Jason had never been more confused. Something bad had happened to Mom. Was she going to be okay? She had to be okay. He thought suddenly of his friend Susan. She wasn't really his friend but she was pretty cool and when she was seven her mom had died and . . .
But Mom wasn't going to die . . . no way!
Jason whirled around to see his grandpa and grandma running towards them.
"Mommy's in surgery, Grandpa!" Ben exclaimed, grabbing onto Grandma Alicia, who wrapped her arms around him.
"What's going on? What happened?"
"Veronica felt pain in her stomach and her — you know — started bleeding," Logan answered. "Marlie called an amublance."
"Bleeding? I thought she only went into premature labor . . . bleeding is. . . ." Grandma Alicia looked worried; she was shaking her head, her eyes wide.
"They're doing a c-section," Dad answered, "and. . . ."
Jason stopped listening, his eyes locking on Marlie. She was crying so hard her face was contorted and she was rocking on her heels. "Marlie?" he asked, going closer to her. "What's going on? What happened to Mom?" Marlie clutched her mouth with her hand.
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU DON'T KNOW? THIS IS MY DAUGHTER WE'RE TALKING ABOUT!" Grandpa shouted.
"Sir, Mr. —"
"Sweetie," Grandma Alicia said, standing in front of Jason and blocking his view of his dad and grandpa chewing out the doctor. "Why don't you come with me to the cafeteria? We'll get something to snack on, okay? Come on. I'll get you anything you want."
"What's happening to my mom?" Jason demanded. "She's going to be okay, right?"
Grandma hesitated. "Right?" he repeated.
"Right," she said, giving a tight smile. "Let's get something to eat and leave the doctors to Dad and Grandpa, okay? Doctors are boring anyway, right? And I bet they have pudding in the cafeteria. . . ." Grandma Alicia began herding them away.
The last view Jason got of his family was his grandpa waving his hands about and yelling at the doctor, who had called over a nurse, and Marlie standing curled against their dad, his arm over her shoulder. Everything was going to be okay. Mom would get out of surgery and have a really cool scar and it'd all be okay.
"Grandma?" Ben began. "Is Mommy —?"
"Mommy's just fine," Grandma Alicia assured. "We'll even get her some pudding in the cafeteria. What flavor do you think she'll want?"
"Chocolate," Ben guessed. Grandma Alicia smiled.
"We'll get her chocolate, then. That's my favorite flavor, too. What flavor do you like?"
It would be okay. It would.
"You're up early," Mrs. Navarro said. She was sitting on the couch folding laundry.
"Yeah, couldn't sleep," he replied, slipping onto a stool at the kitchen counter. "You're here pretty early. When you said you liked working in the mornings I didn't realize you meant the crack of dawn."
She only smiled. When they'd moved to LA he hadn't sold the beach house; he was so attached to his first real home that he couldn't let it go. It was a good thing, too, because they were living in it once more until they found a more permanent place — and if Veronica got her way they would be finding a more permanent place outside of Neptune.
It was weird to be back in the little house, though; so much had changed since they'd lived there.
"You want to talk about it?" she asked kindly. He glanced over at her and she must have seen something in his expression. "I'm happy you're back, but you don't seem happy to be back," she told him. "What's the matter?" She put aside her laundry. She had gone on working for Keith after Logan and Veronica left; she only stopped by his house once a week and Keith paid her a little something, just enough that she didn't have to get another job. She was really too old to have any job, but there was only so much they could do about that.
Now that Logan and Veronica had moved back into town with Marlie in tow and another baby soon to come, Mrs. Navarro had volunteered to help Veronica around the house for free. Logan paid her for it despite her protests, but it was kind of nice thinking of the little old lady growing so fond of them.
"It's not that," he sighed. "It's . . . the baby."
She frowned. "Is everything okay with the baby? Veronica is healthy, yes?"
"Yeah, of course, that's fine, it's just . . . she's having a boy, did you know that?"
"I know, a sweet little chico. Marlie told me. She's excited to be a big sister." Mrs. Navarro smiled as she spoke of Marlie. She had always liked the little girl and Logan was pretty sure the older woman had first begun to like him and Veronica because she was impressed by their decision to raise Marlie.
He smiled. "It's all she talks about any more." He turned away, deciding to have a glass of water. Maybe that would make him feel better.
"But what's making you upset? You don't want a boy?"
"No, I want a boy," he said, using the tap to fill the glass before taking a sip. "It's nothing. Don't worry about it." She didn't say anything for a moment and he thought perhaps she had dropped the subject. But she hadn't.
"You'll be a good father," she said slowly. "Not like him."
He looked over at her to find that she was staring intently at him. How did she know he was thinking about . . . that? And how did she . . . ? "How . . . how do you know?" He almost felt ashamed asking it, but it was Mrs. Navarro. She had seen a hell of a lot worse than doubt from him before.
"I see you with Marlie. You're a good father. Better than my sons ever were. You will treat your son well. I know it." She gave him an encouraging smile, not breaking her steady gaze. Logan didn't know much about Mrs. Navarro's sons. He knew that Weevil was the son of one of her daughters, but that was about all he knew. He tried to imagine what it would be like to raise Marlie's kid because she didn't care enough. He couldn't fathom it. He thought suddenly of Lianne. He hadn't thought about her in a long time.
But it wasn't about Marlie, because Marlie . . . well, honestly. . . .
"But Marlie's . . . Marlie's a girl," he said, feeling as if he were admitting to some sort of sin by even alluding to it. "He never . . ." he paused. A part of him knew he shouldn't say anything. A part of him was desperate to nonetheless.
"He never touched Trina."
There. He'd said it. If only Veronica could have gotten pregnant with a girl. He could take care of a little girl; he knew it. He was doing an okay job with Marlie, wasn't he? But a boy . . . and how could he even say anything to Keith or Veronica? They would tell him it wasn't the same, that he wasn't like Aaron, but how would they know? They didn't understand. . . .
Mrs. Navarro stood up and came towards him, taking his hands in hers. "You are a good man, Logan Echolls. I knew the maids who worked for your parents got paid better than anyone else but I didn't know why until I went to work for him. He was a bad man, Logan. But you are not him. You might have become him. When you were young I thought you would. But you did not. You have not. You are a good man. Your son is lucky to have you."
"You really believe that?"
"I know it," she assured, squeezing his hand. "Veronica knows it. Marlie knows it. Keith knows it. You should know it, too. You are like Eli. You are a good man." She smiled again and finally released his hands, returning to the couch and the laundry.
"I've raised many children," she told him, starting to fold a shirt. "My children and my children's children. It is not easy. But you do a good job. Marlie is lucky she got you. Her real mama would not have taken good care of her. I know. Not good care at all. But you do. You give her all the love she needs. Just like you will for your son. You and Veronica are good parents. You have grown into good people." She gave him another smile and began to hum softly to herself.
Logan didn't know what to say. That was probably one of the longest conversations he had ever had with her, despite the fact that she had worked for his parents for years and had then worked for himself and for Keith. He took one last sip of water and then started back to the bedroom. He glanced over his shoulder before he disappeared into the dark room.
"Thanks," he said.
She smiled. "De nado."
Veronica was still sound asleep in bed. It was only seven in the morning, after all. Still, she was generally an early riser. She would probably be up soon. He crawled into bed beside her, slowly pulling back the sheets to reveal her large stomach. She was eight months pregnant now, and it still amazed him. He hoped it all went okay.
Wallace had gotten him a book about 100 things that could go wrong with a pregnancy, and things had been pretty scary for a while. It had come to a climax when a six months pregnant Veronica threatened to clobber him to death with an oven pan if he didn't give it a rest. Things were better now. She was healthy and in a month the baby would be born healthy and then. . . .
Well, then pigs would fly, because Logan Echolls would be a member of a standard family, complete with son and daughter, a new puppy, a cute little house and a happy marriage. Who knew it would ever happen? Even Mrs. Navarro had admitted she hadn't seen it coming.
"You're a good man," she'd told him. He let the words play over in his mind again and again. He ran his hand over Veronica's stomach. Was the baby sleeping too?
"I'll never hurt you," he whispered to her stomach, pressing a kiss to the stretched skin.
"Good," Veronica murmured sleepily back. "He's thrilled to hear it. Stop ogling me." Logan only smiled, pulling the covers back up and closing his eyes. It would be okay. It would.
"I don't drink coffee."
"That's why I got you Hot Chocolate." She drew her eyes away from their important task of staring at the wall and accepted the cafeteria cup he held out to her. He smiled but she couldn't return the favor.
"Thanks," she muttered. He sat down beside her, another cup in his own hands.
"I must say: Hospital coffee leaves something to be desired. That's not news, though, is it?" She didn't bother replying. "How are you doing?" he asked softly.
"Okay," she replied. "I'll be better when this is all over and my mom's not about to die."
"She's not going to die," he told her.
"You don't know that, and I'm not ten, so you can't convince me you do." He didn't say anything. That was something nice about him: sometimes he knew when not to say something. She sipped the Hot Chocolate. It was luke warm. That was probably better, wasn't it? She couldn't exactly drink it if it was scalding.
She hadn't eaten anything since lunch. "We're going Italian tonight."
"Do you know what caused it?" she asked suddenly, looking over at her grandfather.
"What?" he asked, looking startled.
"What caused her to have a, you know, torn placenta or whatever?" she asked. She had to know.
He started to shake his head. "Honey, I don't —"
"Was it because of stress? Can stress do that to a pregnant woman? I mean, I know stress is bad for them and stuff but . . . did I — did I do this? Because I've been so mean to her lately, and even when she was there for me and I knew, I knew that she was my mom, I was still yelling at her because of those stupid letters."
"Marlie," he said softly, "you did not cause this. Your mom knows you love her. I'm sure that this happened because . . . it happened. She's a tiny girl who's had multiple babies. Those aren't the best odds."
"But the stress couldn't have helped." He didn't seem to have a response, but she let him wrap an arm around her shoulder and press a kiss to the crown of her head.
"It's gonna be okay, kid. Just hold in there."
A few minutes later her grandma Alicia arrived back at the hospital and she ushered Grandpa Keith over to her, leaving Marlie by herself on the worn, hospital chairs. Grandma had taken Jason and Ben home to get some rest, and apparently she had found someone else to babysit them. She talked to Keith in a hushed voice. Marlie didn't care.
She looked down at the frayed edge of her seat. How many people had sat in this chair? How many people who sat in this chair finally stood from it only to learn from some doctor that someone they loved was dead? Wives, husbands, children, sisters, brothers, aunts, grandpas, mothers.
She wasn't going to be one of those people. As far as she could tell, the doctors were more worried about the baby. But if her mom lived and the baby died . . . that would still be her fault, too. And her parents would be devastated. Wasn't that the worse thing that could happen to a parent, losing a child?
Marlie glanced at her grandparents for a moment only to do a double-take. Clutched in her grandma's hands were, unmistakably, the letters. How had she gotten them? She must have found them at the house. Marlie hadn't exactly been paying much attention to them when she was hysterically crying and trying to get her pregnant mother to the hospital.
Suddenly Grandma Alicia and Grandpa Keith were both looking at her. As one, they came towards her. She didn't want to talk about it. She knew one of them must have been sending the letters back. She didn't want to hear their excuses.
"Honey, are these what you were fighting with your mom about?" her grandpa asked as they sat on either side of her. He was holding the letters out to her. She glared at the envelops as if they were to be blamed — cursed things.
"Yeah," she murmured.
"Sweetheart, I don't know what Lianne told you," Grandpa began. "But none of us have ever seen this letters. I think — we think — that maybe —"
"I don't care," she replied.
"I don't care. Okay? I just don't — I don't want to deal with it. My mom's in surgery. Either she's gonna die or my little sister's gonna die or . . . and even if they live I . . . and I just . . . I don't care about the stupid letters. It doesn't matter."
"Okay," Grandma Alicia murmured, running a hand over Marlie's hair and tucking a loose lock behind her ear. It was silent then. Marlie took another sip of her drink. It had gotten even cooler and was now a little gross. She wasn't thirsty anyway.
The next thing Marlie knew, she was being shaken awake. She wasn't sure when she had fallen asleep or even how — how could she possibly sleep when this was happening? But she had, and she blinked rapidly to clear away the grogginess. Pain shot through her neck and she realized she'd fallen asleep leaning on Grandma Alicia, who appeared to have left the conscious world, too.
Her grandpa was squatting in front of her. "Hey? Sleep good?"
"Fine," she said. "What — what's going on? Did something happen?" Alarm swam through her. Then he smiled and it looked genuine.
"Everything's fine," he assured. "Come with me. Grandma will be fine." She took his hand and let him lead her down the hall. Where was he taking her? To see her mom? How much time had passed?
He lead her into a room in the maternity ward, and there was her dad, his hands pressed to a clear box. She thought suddenly of all the doctor shows she'd seen on TV. "How's she doing?" Grandpa asked. Dad glanced back at them for a moment.
"She's doing okay. They got all the blood out."
Not sure what was going on, Marlie approached her dad and saw the occupant of the little plastic box: a tiny baby, small and pinkish with her eyes squeezed shut. Her sister. But what was she doing in a box? And there were . . . there were cords twisting all around her and in her. What had happened?
"Dad . . . ?" she asked as she stood beside him.
"She swallowed some blood so they had to pump her stomach. It's okay, though. They're giving her oxygen and have her hooked to an IV. They said it'll only be for a few days at most. She's gonna be okay." He finally looked away from the baby to muster a smile for her. He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her to his side. "How are you doing? Get some sleep?"
"A little bit," she answered. His hand ran assuredly up and down her back. She looked at her little sister, born fighting. Her mother would be proud. "Have you thought of a name yet?" she asked.
"Not yet," her dad answered. "We didn't ever really . . . come to a consensus or anything. Unless we go with Tangerine."
"Tangerine?" Marlie repeated. "You're not serious, right?"
He glanced at her, a small, familiar smirk on his face. "And if I am?"
"Then I — I use whatever big sister vetoing powers I have and veto that. God, Dad." He only chuckled. It was quiet for a minute. She had to ask. She had to know. "How, ah, how's Mom? Is she — okay? Or —"
"Your mother's going to be just fine." Marlie and her dad both looked back to see the doctor who stood in the doorway smiling at them. She was a young, blonde woman with a pretty face; she looked smart and competent, the sort of doctor whose picture hospitals put in advertisements. "The surgery went very well. She's a healthy woman, your mother."
"So she's gonna be fine?" her dad asked.
"Yes, sir," the doctor answered, nodding her head. "The surgery went very well. She's sleeping now but she'll wake. It may be a little while; her body needs to rest. But she should be fine." Marlie felt relief flood her. It was all going to work out.
"You know," Marlie told the doctor, "I never really liked doctors, but I totally love you now."
The woman grinned. "Good to know. Now, Mr. Echolls, if you could come with me, I need you to sign a few things. . . ."
"Yeah, yeah, sure," he said, and he left with the woman. Marlie looked over at her grandpa, who was smiling widely now.
"I knew she would pull through," he said. "She's too stubborn not to."
"So, that's it?" Marlie asked. "It's all over?"
"Looks like it," Grandpa replied, coming towards her. "It was a placental abruption, as they thought, but they got her into surgery right away and were able to get the baby out without a problem. She swallowed a little blood, like your father said, but she's going to be fine, too." He let out a soft chuckle, glancing down at his tiny granddaughter, and Marlie could see tears gleaming in his eyes.
She glanced at her sister. All the time that she had been fighting with her parents, all the time she'd been living with Lianne, all the time she had thought her world was coming apart, this little girl was safely inside her mother. She thought suddenly of the movie Look Who's Talking. If babies were really like that, could really think and understand what was going on around them, what did her little sister think of her, the girl who was so mean to the woman who served so kindly as a warm, squishy incubator?
"I'll make it up to you and to her," Marlie whispered, touching the glass as if to touch her sister, just as her father had been doing earlier.
She visited her sleeping mother, whispering words to the pale, small woman she loved so much, but her grandpa had finally prodded her into going home with him and grandma. Her father stayed at the hospital, telling them he would follow in a few hours. On the car ride home Marlie thought of her unnamed little sister, of her mother who lay sleeping in the hospital, smelling not like herself but instead like the sterile smell of hospitals.
But it would all be okay. Still, Marlie couldn't sleep. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about it all, about Lianne and her mother and the letters and her father and her grandparents and her sister and everything.
When she heard the front door opening downstairs, she slipped from her bed, hoping it would be who she thought it was. She was right: her father was popping open a beer when she came downstairs. The kitchen clock said it was past four in the morning. "Is everything still okay?" she asked.
He glanced over at her. "Everything's still fine," he assured. He looked tired but he gave her a small smile. "You can't sleep?" She shook her head. "I don't think I could either. Want something to drink?"
"Beer?" she asked, raising her eyebrows.
"I was going to suggest orange juice."
She only smiled. 'I'll get it." He sat down at the table and it was silent as she poured herself the juice, glancing back at him to see him staring off into space as he drank his beer. It was light beer, something her mother had begun insisting he drink a few years ago, along with adding salads to his dinner. "Don't think I haven't noticed what might be a gut starting to form," her mother told him. It occurred to Marlie suddenly that her dad put up with a lot from her mom and still loved her so much.
She wanted someone like that someday, to put up with her that way, to love her that way.
"How'd your talk with Lianne go?" he asked her at last.
"Okay. She showed me a box of stuff, pictures and a baby blanket. I think she really does love me."
"Nobody ever doubted that. Okay, well, maybe we did, but it's not like we're mad that she does." He smiled a little, as though to lighten the mood. She didn't need it lightened.
"But I'm coming home," she told him, not letting her gaze waver and making sure her voice held all the finality her statement containted. She meant it. And she was happy to see the slight curve of a smile on her father's face as he took another swallow of beer. When he put the beer back down, though, he looked as if he were preparing himself for something.
"Did she . . . did she tell you about your father?" he asked.
"She told me he was her college sweetheart Craig," Marlie answered. "She said that he . . . he wasn't exactly the greatest guy in the world."
He sighed. "There's kind of more to the story. I don't know if she was telling the truth when she talked to me — I don't know why she would lie — but —"
"It doesn't matter," she cut him off. "I don't need to know. If he doesn't want to be a part of my life or can't or whatever it doesn't matter. I have Grandpa and Uncle Wallace and Uncle Dick and I . . . I have you. That's the best part. I've always had you." She smiled.
"You want to know a secret?" he asked, grinning a little. She nodded. "When you were really little and I would take care of you, I tried to teach you to call me Dad. I never told anybody. They were all so shocked when it worked."
"Really?" she laughed.
"Yeah," he said. "I was sneaky like that."
"Oh, I'm sure." They smiled at each other for a moment, but she couldn't help asking, "Why did you . . . why did you want me to call you Dad? Why were you willing to raise me and stuff?"
"It's complicated," he answered. "For starters, I loved your mom . . . a lot. For a while there she was really the only family I had. And I — I would look at you and think about how my mom dove off a bridge instead of sticking by me and I . . . I felt like maybe I could make up for how bad my family was by being good to you. And . . . I never thought I would have kids. I thought I would just screw 'em up if I did. But for a wealthy, privileged kid who never went by the rules and never wanted kids, I got attached to little baby you pretty damn fast."
He smiled. "That sort of the stuff . . . it's not what you plan. Most of life isn't. But if you can take the hits, take the bad stuff in stride, then the good stuff will be all the better. You'll be able to appreciate it and . . . and realize it's good when other people wouldn't."
"That's very . . . poetic," she said slowly.
"You say that as if I'm not a poetic person."
She grinned. "Oh, no, Dad, you're an amazing poet, really." She looked down at her orange juice. "You know what I was thinking about in the hospital?" she asked. He looked at her curiously, waiting for her to go on. "I think . . . and get ready, 'cause this is real poetic — I think the best things in life are also the worst."
"That is very poetic," he replied.
"No, I mean think about it. Like, take food, for example. The best food in the world is also really unhealthy. Popcorn with melted chocolate on top is so good but its also a gazzilion calories. And also . . . family. Families are . . ."
"Messy?" he suggested.
"Yeah. Families are messy. But they're pretty cool, too."
He laughed a little. "Cool, huh?"
"Is there a problem with that?"
"No, no, of course not."
She finished the rest of her orange juice. "I think I'm going to try and get some more sleep," she told him, setting the glass on the counter. "As soon as I wake up, though, we're going to see Mom."
He nodded. "Before you go to bed, though," he said, turning towards her. "Your grandpa told me about the letters. Do you want to, ah, talk about them or something?"
"It's okay. I'll want to eventually, I guess, but . . . it was probably Grandma Keith or Grandma Alicia who sent them back, right? Probably doing it in my best interest or something. And I guess it was, but still. . . ."
"Actually, I was talking with your grandpa and he claims it wasn't them."
"Then who was it?"
He sighed. "Do you remember your nanny very well?"
She frowned. "I had a nanny?"
"Sort of," he answered hesitantly. "She was also a kind of maid."
"A maid?" Marlie repeated in disbelief. "Mom allowed you to employ a maid? Does Uncle Dick know about this? Because he would definitely rip Mom a new one if he did."
"He knew. You really don't remember her at all?" She thought back. She did remember someone, an older woman who smelled the way you imagined little old ladies were supposed to smell. Not really a bad smell, just a little old lady smell. She used to sing to her in Spanish, Marlie thought.
"I sort of remember," she said. "She was . . . she was related to us somehow, right?"
"She was Weevil's grandmother, if that's what you mean. You used to call her Nana."
She did remember. She couldn't believe she had forgotten her. "Where is she now?" The last time she'd seen her was probably right after Jason was born and before they'd moved to Virginia.
"She died a little while ago," her father said. "Years ago, actually, when you were nine or ten. Her name was Lettie Navarro."
"Okay. But what — what does that have to do with anything?" He didn't say anything at first and it occurred to her suddenly what he was implying. "Wait, you think Nana, my old sort of nanny and sort of maid, sent the letters back? Why would she care?"
"I don't think that; your grandpa does — though I guess it makes sense. Mrs. Navarro was nearly living with your grandpa and your mom when you were really little, and she was still around for a while after you were born. Keith said that even when she was only doing a few chores for him, she always got the mail, but he never really thought much on it. If Lianne was sending the letters to Keith. . . ."
"But that still doesn't make sense," Marlie argued, repeating, "Why would she care?"
"Mrs. Navarro raised Weevil and a lot of his cousins because her own children were incapable. I think she knew a little something about people other than the parents raising kids. We were all pretty sure that you were better off with us — I think that's why your grandpa only tried so much to find Lianne — but while we were pretty sure, Mrs. Navarro was positive."
"That seems so . . . strange to me." He nodded.
"We don't know for sure," he said, "but I think if your grandpa or grandma had done it, they'd admit to it, and if it's not them, who else would it be but her?" Marlie had to admit it made sense.
"I wish I could talk to her," Marlie said softly. "But it doesn't . . . I don't think it really makes a difference. Sending letters doesn't make her any better of a person, right? And besides . . . Nana, Mrs. Navarro, whoever, was right. I am better off with you and Mom. As soon as I get the chance, I'm packing my stuff up and bringing it home. Uncle Wallace was here earlier looking after Jason and Ben and he said he'd help me."
Her dad nodded. "You know that if you want to stay with Lianne, you — you can." He looked as if it pained him to say it, but he said it nonetheless. "Hopefully we'll still see you a lot, but if it's important to you to get to know her, you can live with her. . . . And you'll always have a home here no matter what."
"I know," she replied, coming closer to him. "I know that you'd let me live with her and that you'd always welcome me back. And that's . . . that's why I belong here." She smiled at him, and he ran his knuckles across her check.
"When the monsters under the bed are big and hairy, who do you call?" he asked her. It had been so long since they'd played this game, even though she'd loved it when she was little. She wasn't little any more, but she still loved him.
"My daddy," she answered.
"When the bullies at school are big and bag, who do you call?" he asked.
"My daddy," she repeated.
"When Mrs. Kemp's dog is slobbering all over you, who do you call?" he asked.
She laughed, remembering the large black dog that should have come with a warning on his collar. "My daddy," she told him.
"That's my girl."
"Ah, my first born."
Marlie smiled at the sight of her mother, propped up against fifty pillows and wide awake. The color had returned to her cheeks. She really was okay. "Hey Mom," she greeted. Her father had been by the hospital while Marlie was still asleep and when he came home he told her she could go on in and see her mom if she wanted.
Marlie suspected he wanted to give her a chance to talk with her mom by herself.
"Are you just going to stand there and stare at me?" Veronica asked.
"Does that bother you?"
"Come here," Veronica demanded, not answering her question. "You dad told me about the letters and how you claim it's all okay. Is it . . . all okay?" She could sense the slight wariness behind her mother's words, as if Veronica expected Marlie to start yelling at her again. Guilt flooded her.
"It is. I talked to Lianne on the phone earlier," Marlie told her. "I still want to get to know her, but she'll . . . she'll never be my mom. I already have one."
Veronica grinned. "If I knew all it took to get that out of you was a little blood, I would have been sure to do something about that earlier," she said.
"Okay, it is way too soon for you to be joking about that," Marlie said, sitting down on the edge of her mother's bed.
"Did you see the baby? They brought her in earlier. They said she's really strong and if she keeps it up, she'll be off the oxygen and IV by this time tomorrow. Of course any child of mine would only need a machine to stay alive for so long. The women in this family are stronger than that." Her mother seemed almost proud of her newborn, and Marlie found that rather amusing.
"I know. She's not really very cute, though," Marlie teased. "I give her a 7.5 out of 10."
"Hey! She had a hard entrance into this world. Be nice." Her mom was smiling and she looked so happy, much happier than she had seemed in a long time.
"Mom, can I say something?"
"What happens if I say no?"
"Mom, please. Be serious."
It looked as if her mom were trying hard not to smile. But Marlie had to get this out; she had to, and her mom would just have to hold in her strange, bubbly mood for a moment. "Okay. Go on."
"I love you. And I have a feeling I'm going to be really mean to you again. I'm not the world's greatest kid. But I do love you. And I want you to know that, so the next time I yell at you, you know and . . . and yeah. That's it. I love you."
Her mom reached out to her, and the next thing Marlie knew she was lying curled up beside her Mom, her head on her mother's should and her mother's hand running over her hair. "I love you, too, Marlie. You might not be the world's greatest kid, but you are top ten, at least." Marlie smiled. Her mother smelled like her mother again.
"Good to know." She paused. "And if you get pregnant again, I swear I won't do anything to complicate the pregnancy." Her mother snorted. "What? I won't!"
"No," her mom replied, "you definitely won't because I am not getting pregnant again. Much as I love all my children, none of you were exactly planned and I think four is plenty." A few months ago Marlie would have found some reason to resent that statement. It didn't sound bad at all, now, though.
"So how do you know you won't have another unplanned one?" Marlie questioned, imagining what her mother would do if she got pregnant again. It would be a lucky kid, though. Anyone who had Veronica Echolls for a mom was lucky. Jason and Ben were lucky. The little pink bundle in a glass box was lucky. Marlie was lucky. There was no way to deny that. If there was such a thing as fate, and it honestly thought her mom wasn't meant to be a mother, fate sure got a kick in the ass from Veronica Echolls.
"Because I just spoke to some very nice doctors," her mother replied. "And he doesn't know it yet, but someone is getting a vasectomy this afternoon."
It was good to be Marlie Echolls again.
A/N: That's it! That's the end. I could have dragged it out a little longer but I think it was best ending like this. Please review! While I've written VM before this was the first VM story I really poured myself into -- it's kind of taken over my life, as of late -- and I'd love to know what everything thinks of the story as a whole :) And thanks to all who have reviewed before now!