She loved how he was full of life and enthusiasm for everything. She had always considered herself a positive, open person but she only possessed a fraction of her son's curiosity and pure wonderment. His eyes were constantly growing wide in surprise and his stubby, little fingers pointing everywhere.
He would stop in the street to look at a pebble or an ant and be so fascinated that she hated having to drag him away.
Even though Adrian was barely two years old now, he'd proved to be much better company than his father.
There had been love between April and Neal in the beginning and she believed Neal had wanted to be successful in his second attempt to have a family, but around the time Adrian was six months old she couldn't do it anymore. Neal was miserable, she was miserable and she was damned if her infant son was going to become miserable because a couple of grown-ups were too afraid to be alone.
She didn't break up with Neal, she just let him go. Told him to go and do all the things he obviously felt he needed to do, because only when he could be at peace with himself would he be of any use to her and able to be a good father to Adrian. Needless to say, Neal didn't put up a fight. He surfaced every now and then, mostly to give her money, say hi to Adrian and maybe give him a toy. There was no pretension of fatherhood on his parts. Adrian didn't know him as "Dad".
It made her sad that the only family Adrian really knew was her. Her parents didn't live close by so it was just the two of them.
She hesitated to call it a lonely existence because she was sure her life had never been fuller but she did worry about Adrian and how things would be for him when he grew up.
Most rainy afternoons when Adrian had woken up from his nap, she would sit in the living room with him while he played on the floor. Usually he played with his toys but every now and then he had more interest in the ornaments and other things that decorated the living room. The pictures in the picture frames standing on a small side table seemed to be very fascinating to him. He would point at the pictures of himself and say "Adian". The R was still eluding him. Then he would point to pictures of her and say "Mom." Normally he didn't name the other people in the pictures. He would look at a picture of his grandparents but ignore the others.
One Tuesday afternoon though, he pointed to a small picture in a silver picture frame, depicting a brown-haired teenager with a very forced smile, most likely posing for a school picture.
"This?" he asked, tilting his head a bit.
"This is Carson." April didn't add your brother, since she wasn't sure whether her son grasped the concept of siblings.
"Whes Casson?" Adrian asked.
"He isn't here anymore, sweetheart, he's in heaven."
Adrian seemed to accept her answer that afternoon. But every time he'd look at the pictures now, he would ask about Carson and a strange kind of heaviness would make its home in April's heart every time.
She had hardly known Carson but their brief encounter had left an impression on her, and others as well if the eulogies at his funeral were anything to go by. And she wanted her son to know about his brother.
It was doubtful whether asking Neal about him would be a good idea. She was actually under the impression Neal had never known that much about his firstborn, much like he didn't know much about Adrian.
The person who had probably known Carson the best was the only person in Clover who April was certain hated her guts. Not only for getting involved with her estranged husband, but also for then having a child of her own, only a couple of months after her son had died.
But Adrian was more important than that, and it did make April secretly happy that Adrian's father side of the family was composed of just Neal.
She knew that Sheryl still resided in Clover, though she had stopped going to the local pharmacy. The simplest way to approach her was probably to show up at her doorstep. Most likely Sheryl would slam the door in her face but there was a chance she would hear April out and maybe share something about Carson for her to tell to Adrian.
The screen door to Sheryl's house was broken, though April couldn't know for how long it had been like that. It took a couple of minutes for anyone to answer the door. April had anticipated that Sheryl would be wearing her bathrobe and slippers but she was slightly more dressed-up, wearing non-descriptive dark slacks and a lilac long-sleeved top.
That was all Sheryl was ready to offer as a greeting. The fact that she didn't slam the door closed counted as a victory.
"Yes, hello, Sheryl." April ran her hand down her front to straighten up while she was holding Adrian's hand with the other. "I will get straight to the matter. I have a request and I know it's a lot to ask of you but I had to try."
"What is it you want?" Sheryl had been slowly sizing up April like she expected her to challenge her to a fight but her gaze was turning towards Adrian.
"I wanted... that is, I want Adrian to know something about his brother and I only met Carson once and you are... were his mother and..."
"I'm still Carson's mother," Sheryl said, in a curt tone.
"Sorry, sorry. I'm... I want Adrian to have some positive association with his father's side, I... I'm afraid that Neal is never going to be the father that Adrian deserves."
"Oh, Neal Phillips is never going be anything that anyone deserves."
April couldn't help the smirk that tugged at the corner of her lips.
This was probably the part where she was supposed to dial up the sentimentality and tell them a sob story about how she had always just been appreciated for her looks and how she wanted to strive to show all her old detractors that she could be intellectual and smart and go places.
Becoming a lawyer wasn't her dream at all. In her early twenties she had wanted to become a ballerina but that ship had sailed and all that was left was an entire sea of second choices. Naturally, it had to be said that people who went through the LSAT with some vague notion that being a lawyer couldn't be all that bad were a special kind of a masochist.
She couldn't go with what would be the truest answer; that she thought a career in law would suit her like the latest summer from Prada would suit her.
Back in elementary school she’d had an argumentative streak. Normally she’d sparred with Carson Phillips because he was always so infuriating, especially back in third grade when during recess they had a lively debate on whether Santa Claus existed. Claire had of course believed in her heart that Santa Claus existed because he ate the cookies she left out for him and the Christmas before, he had left her the most perfect Magical Mermaid Barbie, just like she'd wished for. But Carson was ever the skeptic, saying that it had been her parents.
It might have bugged her when she finally figured out the truth, that Carson had been right all along, but she had always been left with a sense of pride that she had stood her ground.
God, she couldn't go with that. While her academic record had obviously been enough for them to grant her an interview, her resume and list of extracurriculars probably didn't endear her much to the board of admission. Maybe her having been Student President but she doubted that the cheerleading or the fact that she had picked the party-girl sorority in college would impress them. The real world wasn't Legally Blonde, unfortunately.
Her answer ended up being a generic spiel about aspirations and lofty goals, peppered with praise for the school.
The stiffs sitting opposite her nodded.
Then a tweed-clad guy who probably looked a decade older than he was because of his bald patch and wire-rimmed glasses, looked down to a sheet of paper in his hands.
"Here it says you were published in a literary magazine. Would you say that you are creatively inclined?"
Shit. Claire had forgot all about that. That stupid "payment" for being blackmailed because once she'd been young, stupid and fitting every inane teenager cliché.
"I'd say moderately."
That was almost followed by an awkward facial shrug but the guy seemed to be satisfied by her answer.
Later, when she walked away from the interview feeling oddly vulnerable, the image of Carson flashed in her mind and how amused he'd be if he knew that him blackmailing her to better his chances at getting to college might actually influence her chances as well.
He'd never been a creative person. Maybe as a child but that had always been discouraged.
"Nicholas, put those crayons away. Come on, let's play Monopoly."
As he got older, he tried to do what his parents wanted, allowing himself to be groomed to take part in the family business.
Actually, Scott was always into him being a future businessman, complimenting him when he suited up. For a while, Nicholas liked that attention but opening himself up enough to be able to be with Scott opened up other parts of himself he'd closed off.
Perhaps it had been Scott's influence, he'd been the artistic sort after all.
Though deep inside Nicholas knew who he should thank for giving him a push towards the more creative side of life. Carson Phillips and his blackmailing.
It all started with that tiny little poem Nicholas had written for the literary magazine and while no one had ever read it, the pride Nicholas had in writing it lived like a spark inside him. Through business school in Los Angeles and through those times he was building up his career. A career his parents had been most disapproving of, even more than him being gay.
He was pretty sure that he made more money than his father because even if the Forbeses did own most of Clover, that wasn't the most profitable place on earth.
His agency was one of the more successful in its genre – counting world famous photographers and even a couple of stylists with their own reality TV shows as clients. And while he was peering into the numbers most of the time, he needed to have an eye for the talent.
Then came the itch that made him restless and it grew like that feeling you have when you feel you've left the kettle on.
Driving from a photo shoot that promised to be his newest client's big break, he went past the Griffin observatory and there was something about the dusk falling on the city that had him stop there and get out of his car.
Standing there, looking over the busy city, he realized the cure of his itch. He took out his phone and found a note app and began to write, the words flowing to him like they had when he'd been a teenager in love. Within the hour, he'd written drafts for three poems.
And now he had a book coming out and tonight he's going to be attending his own book launch party. He's not nervous about how his poetry will be received; he knew they were good. The handful of people who had read them had said so, and every single one of them was a judgmental bitch who would take great pleasure in telling him to his face if his poetry was subpar.
He picked up a copy from the desk, opened it and read over the dedication.
"To Carson, a turning point, a point in the right direction, a lodestar, the biggest damn inspiration and a pain in the ass. Wherever you are, feel free to laugh at me now."
Sheryl was done raging about the unfairness of this. Now she tried to enjoy the help or at least endure it.
Each day was much like the next and the one that had gone before and she had accepted the gray mass her life had become. It had been a gray mass for years but all the pills had desensitized her to it.
There were rare spots of color in the gloom, though. Very rare, because everyone she'd ever loved had died. Even Neal, who hadn't had the decency to die a slow and painful death. He'd just dropped dead in some college bar in Berkley. Heart attack, they say. Deep inside, Sheryl hoped it had been divine retribution for him ogling college girls in his sixties.
But there was Adrian. She cared about him but he wasn't hers to love. That would be greedy of her.
His infrequent visits were her brightest spots, though, and she knew she would soon see even less of him because he was 18 now and would be going away to college. She remembered how she hadn't been able to handle the idea of Carson leaving her, leaving the state, making her alone. And still, she hadn't been able to prevent him from leaving. It still stung to think about how much easier it would have been if he'd only left the state.
Adrian wasn't hers to hold onto. That was April's lot now. She was probably a better mother, a better person, a less selfish one, who could handle her little boy leaving. Sheryl knew that she couldn't herself; she'd be holding tighter than ever.
In late spring Adrian came to visit with a bunch of wildflowers he'd picked. Sheryl knew they would be withered the next morning but enjoyed them even more because of that.
He sat down in one of the plastic chairs in her room. As much as it was supposed to feel like a real home, plastic chairs and beds on wheels were part of the milieu.
"How are you, Sheryl?" He asked, so polite, though never with that cloying sweetness she thought she felt with his mother.
"Oh, just like I'm always. Cranky and ailing but that's nothing new. How about you, Adrian? How are you?"
He smiled, toying with his fingers in his lap.
"I got into Emory."
A memory flashes before Sheryl's eyes. An envelope with a blue circular logo that had made her feel so lost and lonely.
"Really? Congratulations!" She said. "How does your mother feel about that?"
"She's happy, though we need to figure out the numbers, they are offering me a scholarship but only a partial one so yeah, there's that. I got into USC as well and that's going to be a little more affordable, though."
Sheryl pursed her lips. Adrian, much like his brother, loved to write. While Carson had been imagining a Pulitzer in his future, Adrian's ambitions weren't as literal. Once he’d visited Sheryl, carrying print-outs with short stories he'd written and he'd told her that all he wanted was to move people with his words.
"I just want people to feel like I feel when I read a good book."
She hadn't told him that his words had clutched at her heart, both caressing it in a warm embrace and clawing at it with their sharp talons. Instead she'd offered him general encouragement. Being who he was, he seemed mighty pleased with that at the time.
A week later Adrian returned, this time with a box of chocolates. Sheryl accepted them with a smile.
"So, made any decisions about college?" She asked him
A frown appeared on his lips.
"Yeah, Mom and I did the numbers game. Emory would mean me drowning in student loans. USC is still a possibility. I don't know, maybe I can go to community college for now, USC was always a distant second choice." Adrian sounded defeated and much smaller than he was.
Sheryl knew what she had to do. It wasn't going to rectify where she'd gone wrong with Carson but it was the right thing to do. Adrian needed his wings and she could help him get them.
"Adrian, I can help. Tell me you haven't declined the offer from Emory."
"No, but... Sheryl, I can't possibly..."
"Listen, son. I've a lot of money that isn't doing much but collecting dust and interest. I inherited it from my parents and it was supposed to go to Carson, but now, after my day, they are supposed to go to my third cousin or something like that. I want to give you money for college. I want you to become all that you can be, Adrian." She took his hands in hers. It felt familiar and not just because she’d held his hands many times. There was an distinct echo of Carson's touch there.
He didn't say anything right away.
"I can't... Sheryl, I'm not your family."
"Oh, honey. You are. I want to be your family, I want to try to make it up to you that you had an absolute shit for a father, excuse me for speaking so ill of the dead. Getting to see you grow up has help me to come to terms with losing Carson. Please accept this."
She was pulled into a tight hug, the wind pressed out of her lungs, and at that moment, she knew that boys who wanted to fly, could fly.