The numerous locks and accompanying chains that Mrs. Abbott had installed during Mr. Abbott’s final bouts of sleepwalking were dismantled and discarded soon after his death. She was able to win a small settlement from the company who made them, successfully arguing that said company had promised 100 percent satisfaction and then failed to protect her husband from sleepwalking to his death. Some of the money was used to put even stronger locks on the windows and doors; it was nearly impossible to exit the Abbott home without a working knowledge of a complex combination system. This did nothing to appease Mrs. Abbott. She insisted that bars be placed outside every window and over the front door, too.
“It’s the only way to stay safe,” she argued. Because she was a grieving widow at the time, no one in the community argued back.
In the years following Mr. Abbott’s death, several stern-looking case workers stopped by the home, citing complaints and concerns from neighbors who were worried about Marley’s wellbeing. Of course, they insisted, they were concerned about Mrs. Abbott, as well.
“Just making sure everything’s all right,” they’d say, and Mrs. Abbott would inform them that things were just fine. She’d even tried to persuade a few neighbors to try her wet towel trick, “because you just never know when someone might just sleepwalk right out of your house.” Fear and regret are great motivators for people to do seemingly crazy things.
The last caseworker to arrive, Marilyn Bisbee, was not swayed by Mrs. Abbott’s cheerful all-is-well demeanor. She’d heard stories about the Abbott home: the bars on the windows, the lights that stayed on all night. She’d been told by several people that Mrs. Abbott, when out shopping, was stopping strangers and babbling on and on about her daughter’s staring problem. One concerned citizen reported that Mrs. Abbott talked of her daughter staring “for hours at a time.” Marilyn Bisbee decided to head to the Abbott home and investigate.
She found the house as advertised: lights on in every room, bars on every window and door. As she walked up the front steps, she noticed they were covered in damp towels, and that a bucket of water—presumably to refresh the towels—sat near the front door. She rang the bell and waited. There was little sound coming from the house—just a buzzing noise, like electricity humming through tired sockets—but the car was in the driveway, and the towels were quite wet. It was a dry evening, so they must have recently been refreshed.
Finally the door opened, and Marilyn Bisbee took a step back.
“M…Marguerite?” she said.
“Can I help you?” Mrs. Abbott’s eyes looked past Marilyn Bisbee, surveying the scene.
“Are you Marguerite Charron?”
Mrs. Abbott hesitated. “I was, once.”
“And you’re now”—Marilyn Bisbee flipped through her case file—“Marguerite Abbott, correct?”
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is Dr. Marilyn Bisbee. The city sent me to check on you and your daughter.” Mrs. Abbott’s face was tired and filled with empty spaces, her cheeks hollow and her lips thin. Poor Marguerite, Marilyn Bisbee thought. She used to be so lovely.
“We’re fine,” Mrs. Abbott said. She began closing the door, but Marilyn Bisbee stopped her.
“No thank you,” Mrs. Abbott said, struggling to close the door.
“Marguerite! It’s me! Marilyn Wells?” She paused, then added: “Troy’s little sister?”
Mrs. Abbott stood back from the door. “Mary Wells?”
“Well, it’s Dr. Marilyn Bisbee now. I’m married. All grown up.”
“I see.” Mrs. Abbott remembered her own advice: It is not polite to stare at people.
“Yes, well, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Dr. Bisbee was struggling to connect. “At least 30 years, I’d say.”
“My brother was very fond of you.”
Mrs. Abbott nodded, then found her grip on the door. “Thank you for stopping by. I have to go.”
“Please don’t address me with such familiarity. We are not family.”
Marilyn Bisbee felt her socks dampening. Cold water from the towels underfoot was also filling her shoes. “Very well, Mrs. Abbott,” she said. “Please stand aside. I have the legal right to enter and check on your daughter. If you refuse, I’ll return with the police.”
“So be it,” Mrs. Abbott said. “They know where we live.”
And with that, she closed the door and turned what sounded from the outside like an endless series of locks. Marilyn Bisbee stood on the steps, feeling like she’d fallen into a bad dream. The squishing of the wet towels reminded her she was awake.
Marley saw the woman from her window. She was wearing a suit and holding some sort of file. She imagined the file was filled with paperwork, covered with handwriting swirling like waves. Water always factored into her staring sessions. In her mind, she was swimming, coming to the surface only to breathe. She thought of oceans and rivers, but she did not think of lakes. When she finally broke her gaze, she saw that the woman holding the file was staring at her.
Later that evening, Marilyn Bisbee knocked on the Abbotts’ door again. Mrs. Abbott opened it carefully.
“I thought you were bringing the police,” she said.
“Do you know what time it is?”
Mrs. Abbott laughed. “That’s quite a question from a person knocking on someone’s door in the middle of the night.”
“It’s 9:30,” said Dr. Bisbee. “And do you know how long your daughter has been staring at me through her bedroom window?”
“What are you doing on my property?” Mrs. Abbott was horrified. “She probably thought you were a robber, or a murderer, or both! You probably scared her half to death!”
“Get away from my house and away from my daughter.”
“If you don’t leave now, I’m going to call the police on you!”
“Marguerite! For god’s sake! She’s been staring at me for an hour! She hasn’t moved! She barely blinks! Marguerite, please! There’s something wrong! Let me help you!”
Mrs. Abbott didn’t respond. Instead, she grabbed the bucket of water by the door and poured it all over the damp towels.
“Oh, Marguerite, no,” Dr. Bisbee said, shaking her head.
“You can never be too careful,” said Mrs. Abbott.
Dr. Bisbee took her hand. “I think maybe it’s time that you let someone take care of you, Marguerite.”
Mrs. Abbott shook her head.
Dr. Bisbee decided to take a different approach. “I know you tried, Marguerite. You couldn’t save my brother, and you couldn’t save your husband. But you can save her. You just have to trust the world enough to let her leave the house.”
“Why should I?” Mrs. Abbott’s eyes began to tear up.
“Because if you don’t let her be part of this world, she’s going to go deeper into her own, and then you’ll lose her, too.”
Two hours and many promises later (Yes, we’ll discuss the towels; yes, there are locks; yes, there are guards at the doors at all times), Mrs. Abbott and her daughter were in the back of Dr. Bisbee’s minivan, headed to the Seascape Psychiatric Clinic. Marley stared out the window, amazed at the movement of the scenery at 65 miles per hour.
“Where do you go?” the psychiatrist asked. This was their eighth session together. It had been a month since Marley and her mother had been admitted to the clinic on Dr. Bisbee’s recommendation, and though Marley was still staring, the doctors assured her mother that she was “making progress.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
The psychiatrist tried again. “Where do you go when you get locked in a daydream?”
“I don’t know. Someplace else, I guess.”
“And how does that make you feel?”
Marley thought for a second. “Well,” she said, “it used to make me feel invincible, like I was safe anywhere.”
And now? And now she wasn’t sure. She had seen things over the past four weeks that made her want to pay attention: her mother smiling, faces of friendly strangers turned friends. “I don’t know,” she said. She glanced over at the psychiatrist, who was scrawling something down on his pad. “I’m getting used to being present, I guess.”
“Is that scary for you?”
Marley smiled. “Yeah,” she said. “But it’s OK.”
“Good. Now let’s do one more word association exercise before our session ends. You remember how this works, right?”
“Time,” the psychiatrist began.
Marley did not hesitate this time. “Better,” she said.
“Hard.” Marley dropped her head toward the carpet again.
“Come on, now,” said the psychiatrist. “One more: future.”
Marley lifted her eyes from the carpet and looked the psychiatrist in the eye—not through him, or beyond him, but straight at him.
“Possible,” she said. ♦