When Cooper Abbott was alive, he walked in his sleep. It was not unusual to hear knocking on the Abbotts’ door in the middle of the night. Almost once a month, policemen found him wandering on the side of the road, muttering incomprehensibly to himself. They would return him to Mrs. Abbott, who’d swear that she’d locked all of the doors, and that No, officer, this sort of thing won’t happen again.
Marley once overheard her mother tell a friend that her father’s sleepwalking had started during her pregnancy. He’d always been a sound sleeper, but something changed in him after he discovered he was going to be a dad. He spoke in his sleep, mumbling in a language that did not exist on this earth. He even laughed on occasion, though Mrs. Abbott did not recognize the laugh as his. After Marley was born, the sleepwalking—and talking—subsided for roughly 13 years. Then it started up again. Mr. Abbott claimed to have no memory of leaving home at night, and refused to listen to “hogwash” regarding his nightly conversations. Mrs. Abbott, becoming desperate, started to lay down wet towels outside the front door because she’d read that getting a sleepwalker to walk on wet towels was a gentle way to wake them. Mr. Abbott would find them in the morning, half-dried and scattered around the yard, and throw fits at the “wastefulness of the endeavor.”
“It’s only sleeping,” he’d say, brushing aside Mrs. Abbott’s fears. “It’s what people do.”
After the fifth time the Marrow Falls police department had to return him to his bed, however, Mr. Abbott finally agreed to seek treatment for what his wife had deemed his “sleep dramatics.” A doctor told him that all he needed to do was limit his sugar intake three hours before bedtime.
“There is nothing to be concerned about,” he said.
The police arrived at the Abbott home only eight days later, the morning after Mr. Abbott had somehow opened a locked first-floor window, climbed out, and wandered down to Mirror Lake. This time, Mr. Abbott was not with them.
When the police broke the news, Mrs. Abbott slumped in the doorway, her feet pressed against the cold pavement, and looked toward the lake. “I forgot the towels,” she said.
Grief came easily to Marguerite Charron Abbott. She’d lost her first love—Theo Wells—when she was 17. He’d found a way to weasel out of school and into a job at Bournier Silver, hoping to make enough money so that he and Marguerite could marry and leave town together. Her father had given her the news when he returned home from work that day.
“There’s been an accident” was all he said and was all he had to say. Not everyone walks away from a factory job with an “IMPECCABLE SAFTEY” record. Marguerite never asked for specifics when it came to Theo’s death.
The Charrons tried clumsily to soothe their daughter, allowing her to mourn while simultaneously sputtering meaningless platitudes about love and second chances and moving on. The family was convinced that Marguerite simply needed to fill the void with another beau. She showed no interest, refusing to even consider suitors. After many years, her parents relented and began to view their daughter, who was still quite young, as a dutiful nursemaid, someone to care for them when they could no longer care for each other. Marguerite even started to enjoy the role. She felt a sense of purpose, a reason to exist, a need to stay—not just in Marrow Falls, but also on earth itself.
A bad winter hit the Charron home particularly hard; bouts of pneumonia and influenza, respectively, ravaged her parents’ already-weakened immune systems, and they died three weeks apart. Her brothers came to help with the funerals, naturally. When the arrangements and ceremonies were complete, they returned to their lives in the city, far away from Marguerite, Marrow Falls, and the lives they refused to live.
“What do you see when you’re staring?” The psychiatrist asked.
“It depends. Usually my eyes just fall on something, and I like to look at it for a while.”
The psychiatrist wrote something down. Marley noticed that the skin around his thumb was peeling. She quickly searched for something else to stare at, landing on a round, gold-plated paperweight atop the psychiatrist’s desk.
“And does the staring interfere with your schoolwork?”
Schoolwork? No. There was no schoolwork. She’d been out of school since the day her father died. Her mother, according to county records, was instructing her at home, but she’d given up on doing so after Marley stared at the wall during all of her attempts at giving lessons. Mrs. Abbott had successfully taught Marley one thing, however: If anyone asked, Marley was to insist that, yes, her mother was educating her, and was doing a fine job at that.
“I do well in my studies,” Marley replied. Not a total lie: She studied many things, and intently.
The psychiatrist, now frustrated, decided on a new approach. He would say a word, he explained, and Marley would reply with the first thing that came to mind.
“Happy,” the psychiatrist began.
“Leaves.” She’d seen too many dead ones floating by her window on their way down.
“Don’t think, just say,” the psychiatrist said. “Mother.”
“Scared,” she said.
“Does your mother scare you? Or is your mother scared?” the psychiatrist asked. Marley’s eyes returned to the mysteriously worn spot of fabric on the floor, half-ruined and clearly loved. “Let’s try one more,” he said. “Water.”
Water. How to respond to water? Water was death and life and towels. Water took her father. Water, in a way, had taken her mother. Marley took a breath.
“Everything,” she said.
Mrs. Abbott was appalled at the psychiatrist’s suggestion that her own daughter was afraid of her.
“Well, she’s not necessarily afraid of you, Mrs. Abbott,” he explained. “But perhaps of losing you. Or maybe she can’t handle your grief alongside her own, causing her to dissociate, in a way, to stare off into her own world, because this one hurts too much.”
Mrs. Abbott glared at the wall behind the psychiatrist, filled with diplomas from big schools in big cities.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” The psychiatrist was not accustomed to being interrogated.
“Why did you come to Marrow Falls to practice? You could have gone anywhere.”
The psychiatrist stood up and opened the door for Mrs. Abbott, motioning for her to go. “I came here because I wanted to live someplace where I was needed,” he said.
Mrs. Abbott looked toward the door. “That’s the only reason to live anywhere,” she said.