The social services people who picked him up bought him a Happy Meal. Marlon remembers the toy inside; he remembers, too, being told by his grandmother years later that his grandfather had refused to let him come live with the family in Richmond because he was half black. "My father just had a bad problem with that," Peggy says. So Marlon began the pinball life of an institutional orphan, first at Child Haven in Vegas, then at the Children's Home in Boulder City, Nev. Within months of his arrival there in 1984, he and another boy went chasing the caretaker as he rode his rotary mower; Marlon slipped, and his foot got pulped.
"It was disgusting," he says. "They stitched most of it up, but that night nobody was there to tell me I didn't really have a foot, and I jumped out of the bed and reruptured it. That's when they amputated it."
His mother visited him once in the hospital. She didn't talk, just set down a Snoopy doll as he slept. Marlon awoke as she left. His final sight of his mother was of her back going out the door. Not long after, he was taken to get his prosthesis. "My mom must've died," he said to a caseworker at the Children's Home. "Because, why hasn't she come to see me?"
He bounced among foster homes. When he was seven, Marlon got his first good shot at adoption with a military couple. They dubbed him Michael and gave him the family name, but Marlon couldn't settle down, couldn't stay out of trouble. The father picked him up by his legs once and banged his face against a headboard. After getting caught sneaking into his Halloween candy, Marlon was ordered to eat it all; when he vomited, the parents gave him a spoon and told him to eat that too. After 18 months eight-year-old Marlon came home from school one day to find his bags packed and his bed standing against a wall. Shipped back to the Children's Home, he didn't complain. It wasn't his way.
"In our business everyone's a victim," says John Sprouse, then the social work supervisor at the Children's Home. "You hope that down the road the kids will go from victim to survivor. What distinguished Marlon? Not once did I see him use his foot to get something, to get pity. He just got on with life."
After all, Marlon figured he was alone. He didn't know there was someone else in the dark, searching too. In the late '80s Marlene Shirley, a Mormon living in the tiny farming community of Thatcher, Utah, with her husband, Kerry, and three children, wanted a fourth. Difficulties in her previous pregnancies didn't deter her: Marlene saw a TV news segment about orphans and took home a box full of files and pictures from Child and Family Services. Marlon's photo struck her instantly. At first it made little sense to adopt him--nine years old, needing thousands of dollars of prosthetic work--and even less when she learned about his brutal past, his mixed-race background. How would that go over in white-bread Utah? Her parents expressed reservations, files were not sent on time, red tape built up. Marlene bulled ahead. As the Shirleys' application progressed, Lindy broke four years of silence and asked to meet with Marlon. Sprouse told her to call back in a week; she never did. "Marlon was supposed to be part of our family," Marlene says.
But there's a reason it gets difficult to place orphans as they age: Each year the baggage is heavier, harder to handle. "We tell every adoptive family of an older child: When that kid comes into your home, there will be a crisis," Sprouse says. "Your home will be turned upside down." Marlon arrived at the Shirleys' the day after Christmas 1987, and the crises began. He had no idea how to be part of a family; he got along well enough with his new siblings--Keri Beth, Tim and Mary--but things kept disappearing, odd items like peanut butter and small tools. Marlon got caught stealing money from a teacher's purse. Marlene escorted him to juvenile court more than once. Kerry's long shifts at the fire department didn't help, but Marlon had been Marlene's idea. He lashed out at the only mother at hand.
Marlene prayed, but nothing changed. In her journal she admitted, I sometimes dream of having back the simple days before Marlon came. He had always been fast, and he tried playing tailback and running track at Bear River High despite his walking prosthesis. He dropped both to take a job changing tires and repairing brakes at an auto mechanic's, playing softball and basketball in the church league. When he was a junior, Marlene heard hints from Marlon about suicide--Marlon insists she was overreacting--and the Shirleys drove him to a Salt Lake City treatment center for a month of observation. That drive was the only time in his life he remembers crying.
Midway through his senior year, close to flunking out and humiliated, Marlon let Marlene have it. For two hours he detailed what a terrible mother she'd been. His girlfriend, his buddies, everyone in school knew he'd been put in a place with padded walls. "I'm going to leave home," he said, "and never come back." She admitted mistakes. He didn't care. The tirade broke her. Marlene went to her room and whispered, Heavenly Father, I'm not sure why you wanted me to adopt him, but I've done all I know how to do. I'm at the end of my rope. I'm basically turning him back over to you because I don't know what to do.
The end of high school loomed. Life's great crossroads, and a young man was about to hit it with no diploma, half a leg and a headful of ghosts. "And I was heartbroken inside," Marlene says.