A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 15

Voyager 1 was closing in on Saturn on the day Annabelle slammed Everett’s hand in the car door. Since they were in Ellsworth when it happened, she took him to the Ellsworth hospital, where Everett’s father had worked and died.

It was October 1980, almost nine years to the day after the doctor’s death. Everett was eight. He’d been lollygagging all afternoon as Annabelle ran her errands. Finally, outside Doug’s Shop and Save, she’d pushed him into the passenger seat and shut the door a little too quickly, and caught three of his trailing fingers.

He screamed. She jerked open the door. “Oh, Everett, I’m so sorry.” He held up his bloody hand. The pinky hung at an unnatural angle, and the ring finger didn’t look so good, either. She found some paper towels among the grocery bags, ripped off the cellophane, and wrapped his hand while he cried. Then she drove him to the emergency room.

She recognized the nurse at the desk, a small woman of about thirty-five with dark hair that hung in a single thick braid halfway down her back. “Laura, I shut his hand in the car door. I think his finger’s broken. I feel terrible.”

The nurse looked at Everett’s teary face and the bloody bundle of paper towels around his hand. She tried a smile, exuded practiced empathy, and said, “Hurts, huh? Well, don’t worry, Elliott. I’m going to get someone to take of you right away.” Her eyes returned to Everett’s mother. “I’ll alert Doctor Chisholm,” she said. “You just have a seat, Annabelle. It won’t be but a minute.”

“Thanks, Laura. But, it’s Everett. His name is Everett. Make sure you get it right on the paperwork.”

Laura’s face briefly flushed. “Oh, Annabelle, I’m sorry. Of course it is. Forgive me. I’m so embarrassed.”

“Don’t be. It’s an easy mistake to make.”

“I’ll go get the doctor.” She disappeared down the hall.

Though several people had been waiting ahead of them, Everett and Annabelle were ushered into a room almost immediately. The nurse told Everett to sit on the examining table and Annabelle helped him up. Doctor Stuart Chisholm entered moments later, sweeping his dark hair from his forehead with one hand and offering Annabelle a meaty handshake with the other. “It’s been a long time,” he said.

“Indeed it has. How are you, Stuart? You look well.” In fact, he had put on a good 40 pounds since she’d last seen him. She knew him from hospital parties in the days gone by, which she had stopped attending after her husband’s death; he’d been the hotshot young doctor in town during Elliott’s last few years and the most eligible bachelor in Ellsworth. Now he was in his late thirties, married with two kids, and girding his midsection with the fruits of his success.

He turned to Everett. “What have we here?”

Everett held up his injured hand. Annabelle watched as the doctor gently manipulated his fingers. One movement caused Everett to cry out in pain; Annabelle tensed, and the doctor quickly murmured his apologies. “I’m going to get an x-ray of this,” he said to her. “But it looks like the fourth and fifth fingers are broken.”

“Oh dear,” Annabelle said softly. “Everett, I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

The way her son looked back at her melted her heart. “It’s alright, Mom. I know you didn’t mean to.”

He would probably fling this day back in her face when he was a teenager, she thought. They all did. He might forgive her now, but there would come a time in his life when forgiveness shifted to blame. Every one of her offspring had gone through it.

She tousled his hair and told him he was being a very brave young man, and that his fingers would be as good as new once they healed. The injury was to his right hand, and he was left-handed, and wasn’t that lucky? It could have been worse.

The x-ray confirmed the two broken fingers. Dr. Chisholm set them in a metal splint reinforced by a modest cast that ended just above his wrist. “Boys move around a lot,” he said to her, with a wink at Everett. “He’ll want to keep it immobile for a while.”

Annabelle called the house; Paul and Pilar were home, but Joanie was at basketball practice. She told them they were on their own for dinner and why. Paul, bless his heart, didn’t say a word beyond assuring her that Everett would be fine and telling her to take her time. Elliott Sprauling would have wanted to know every detail. Then he could explain to her what she had done wrong. But Elliott Sprauling had never known this boy. Paul Bremerton, in every sense but the biological, was his real father.

When the doctor finished, he sent Annabelle and Everett to the pharmacy with prescriptions to ward off pain and infection. Annabelle didn’t know where the pharmacy was. “I haven’t been in here since they remodeled,” she explained.

“It’s on the second floor,” the doctor said. “Easiest way is to go to the lobby and take the elevator one floor up, turn left, and it’s right at the end of the hall.”

He had fashioned a sling for Everett, which Annabelle noted made the boy feel better, though it was probably unnecessary. But Everett jumped off the table, sling and all, smiled up at the older man, and said, “Thanks, Doc.” She stifled laughter. What TV show had he picked that up on?

“You’re very welcome, young man,” Dr. Chisholm said. “Now go home and take it easy for the next few days. Don’t be swinging that arm around. I’ll see you in a few weeks, and you’ll be good as new.”

“Thanks again, Stuart,” Annabelle said as they left the room.

“Don’t mention it,” the doctor said.

At the checkout window, a young woman she didn’t recognize told her there would be no charge. “I must owe you something,” Annabelle said.

The blue-eyed blonde shook her head and smiled. Her silver hoop earrings twirled in opposite directions. “Nope. It’s all taken care of.”

“Oh. Well, we need to go to the pharmacy.”

“Sure. The easiest way is to…”

“…take the elevator.” Annabelle finished for her. “But the hospital’s changed since the last time I was here. I’m all turned around. Which way is the lobby?”

The blonde described a route through a set of double doors and down a hall; Annabelle tried to follow. Everett, who had understood the directions perfectly, led them to the lobby. She let him push the “up” button, and they waited.

Annabelle became aware of a vague uneasiness. Though this wing of the hospital was less than four years old, the space felt familiar. She tried to remember what it had looked like before the remodeling. Everett stared at the closed elevator doors, but Annabelle took a look around the new, modern lobby. At a large reception desk, facing the glass doors to the outside, sat two elderly women who at the moment were not talking to each other. A clock carved out of dark wood in the shape of the state of Maine, with gold hands and Roman numerals, adorned one wall; a Japanese bonsai tree in an urn stood in the opposite corner. Sunlight slanted through the glass doors and accentuated the lobby’s minimalist décor. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Sprauling,” said one of the ladies behind the desk.

Annabelle took a second look. “Mrs. Spruce?” she guessed.

The woman nodded, like a proud schoolmistress, pleased that the rote learning had stuck. She had volunteered at the hospital forever, and had to be at least in her late eighties.

“It’s Mrs. Bremerton now,” she said. “But please call me Annabelle.”

“Oh, Mrs. Bremerton, is it? Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Annabelle said. “But it’s been…”

Just then the elevator arrived. Everett stepped in.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Annabelle said.

“Second floor, right, Mom?”

“Right, sweetheart,” she said. He pushed the button.

“Annabelle, wait!”

Dr. Chisholm, slightly out of breath, materialized next to her, holding the yellow sunglasses case. “You left these,” he said.

Annabelle started to say “thank you,” but before she could get the words out, the door closed and the elevator ascended with Everett inside. Startled, Annabelle said, “That was quick.”

“Well, it’s a new elevator,” the doctor replied. “Here.” He handed her the glasses case. She pressed the button. They stood there for an awkward moment until elevator returned. The door opened. Everett was not inside.

“”I’m sure he’s waiting for you on the second floor,” Dr. Chisholm said. “Have a pleasant afternoon, Annabelle.”

“You too,” she said, as the door slid closed between them. She pushed the “2” button, and the elevator surged upward. It was almost instantaneous, and Annabelle stumbled, surprised by the suddenness of it. This was a fast elevator. The “2” light blinked on and off, and the “3” light did the same a moment later.

“Hey!” Annabelle said, with some alarm. “Stop this thing.” She pressed the “2” button. Nothing happened. She pressed it again. The elevator stopped as suddenly as it had started. Annabelle gripped the waist-high bar to steady herself. But the door did not open. Was it stuck between floors? “Hey!” she yelled. “Can anybody hear me?”

Nothing. She pressed the “2” button again, and the lights went out.

Really scared now, Annabelle called out, “Hey! Help me! Can anybody hear me out there? I’m stuck in the elevator. Help!” She banged the inside of the door with her fist, then stopped to listen. Aside from a few faint metallic sounds from down the shaft, she heard nothing but silence.

Total darkness is unnerving. Not even a cat can see in total darkness; any eye needs a light source, however faint. Annabelle felt for the walls, moved along until she found the control panel. She pressed buttons at random, blindly, hoping to make the elevator do something. She tried to calm herself. Sooner or later, long before she succumbed to thirst and hunger, she would be rescued, and then the elevator would be serviced, and that would be that. But she was alone in the dark. And Everett was out there somewhere in the hospital by himself. Annabelle fought down the rising taste of panic.

Many people at the hospital still knew her; surely one of them would find the boy and connect him with the incapacitated elevator and realize she must be stuck in here. Meanwhile, how long would she have to wait? She pounded the wall. “Can anybody hear me?” she cried, in as loud a voice as she could muster. “Help!”

And then her eyes caught a faint pinprick of light, down by the panel. Was it a light in behind the buttons, like a pilot light on a stove? Her eyes fixated on it, and it seemed to grow brighter, though she attributed this at first to her imagination and the deprivation of light from anywhere else. But no, it was brightening, and she saw that it was not a light behind the panel, but a lone button on the panel itself. It grew into a small rectangle, and soon became bright enough that Annabelle could read the single number on it, the number 5. The light from the small, glowing button was too faint to reach the other walls of the elevator. It hung there in the darkness, filling Annabelle’s world. Five what? This new wing of the hospital had only four floors, did it not? Even at that it seemed huge. But Annabelle was past caring. She only wanted to get out. She reached out with her index finger and pushed the button.

For several seconds, nothing happened. Then she felt the floor of the elevator vibrate, and it nudged slowly upward, almost reluctantly, nothing like the efficient way it had whisked Everett and then her away from the lobby. In the same manner the interior lights of the elevator came on – not suddenly as they had gone out, but up from black slowly, until they resumed their full brightness. The elevator eased to a stop and the door opened.

Annabelle gasped, and stepped back from what looked and felt like a precipice shrouded in fog. The elevator had opened on air. She felt for the solid walls behind her, trying to breathe normally. She had truly feared falling into the mist in that first moment. “I must be dreaming,” she said aloud. “I must have hit my head, and I’m having a hallucination.” The hand on her chest moved to her scalp, probing for bumps.

But the mist was cool, and raised gooseflesh on her arms. And there – it parted a bit in the distance, and it seemed she could see the treetops of islands in the Maine fog, just as she sometimes could looking out over the bay. Where was this? What was going on? There was no fifth floor of the hospital – of, that, she was now certain – and this wasn’t the fifth floor of anywhere.

The mist thickened and swirled, obscuring the ghostly images she thought she had seen in the distance. She imagined that she saw a wisp of mist inside the elevator. Some mornings at the point were like this: so socked-in that you could reach out and touch the fog. But on those mornings – which she loved – the fog only shrouded familiar surroundings and gave you a cozy feeling of being cocooned in your own world. Whereas here all surroundings had been eliminated. Annabelle had retreated to the back wall of the elevator. With an effort, she willed herself toward the panel and pushed the button for the second floor.

Nothing happened. Then the gray-white mist began to thin below her, until, through the grayness, she could make out a steep stone stairwell that seemed to descend forever. Images from childhood books of castles and dungeons came back to her. Was this real, or some sort of chimera? Could she descend those steps and get back to the main floor of the hospital? Or would they lead her to an even more bizarre place? She saw that the steps were interrupted here and there by landings, like those on a fire escape. But she could not see what, if anything, this stairwell was attached to, and she could not make out any doors.

Then the mist parted, and she saw something on one of the stone landings far below. She squinted and tried to bring the small dark shape into focus. With mounting horror, she saw that it was a single shoe, a man’s dress shoe, black leather, with its laces undone and splayed out over the stone.

She screamed, and flung herself back into the elevator. Her fingers stabbed at the panel. Her eyes fell on the red emergency button, and she pounded it again and again.

The door closed. The lights went out. “Oh, God, now what?” Annabelle cried. The elevator surged downward. Annabelle lurched against the wall in the darkness. The lights came suddenly on again. Annabelle caught her haggard reflection in the metal. The elevator eased to a stop, and the door opened. The light above the door read “2.” A sign on the wall pointed the way to the pharmacy.

Apparently, she had set off no alarm. The hallway was deserted. How long had she been stuck? She wore no watch, but she had kept her small black purse with her the whole time. Everett’s two prescription slips were tucked inside. Two people walked out of one room into another down the hall. Everything appeared normal. She saw the “Pharmacy” sign hanging from the ceiling and heard the murmuring of voices from other rooms. No one seemed to have noticed that the elevator was out of order. Had she possibly imagined the whole thing?

She ducked into a restroom and splashed cold water on her face. Her hair was in disarray. She brushed it out and applied new lipstick and makeup, then took several deep breaths and examined her features for signs of madness. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, she figured, or someone would have been hung up waiting for the elevator. She was already having trouble believing it had happened at all. Yet she could taste the fog, feel the depth of the vertical drop at the edge, see the shoe on the landing with complete clarity. It had been as real as the solid, gleaming white sink in which she washed her hands, and the mirror into which she stared. As real as that terrible day, now nine years behind her but still alive in her dreams. She knew what had just happened had to be a dream, or at the least some sort of out-of-body experience. Maybe she was drinking too much. Smoothing her clothes and composing herself, Annabelle checked the mirror one more time, and left the restroom to find her son.

He was in the first place she looked – the pharmacy – sitting in a chair in the waiting area, next to a young, strawberry-blonde nurse she recognized immediately. The nurse was reading a book to him, and he was absorbed. Everett looked up when he saw her. “Hi Mom,” he said, always with that ingratiating smile. Somehow he had inherited his father’s charm without learning it. Everyone wanted to be Everett’s friend. “This is a great book,” he said, turning back to the nurse. “Keep reading.”

She knew the nurse, and she knew the book: The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. She tried to show no reaction. Elliott Sprauling had given that book to Jeremy on his sixth birthday, and the boy had fallen in love with it. The story was full of puns and goofy metaphors and mathematical puzzles and wordplay, a perfect gift to a precocious child. She had read it aloud to her children more times than she could count. Gretchen had found parts of it scary, but Jeremy read it over and over again, and Madison, Joan and Pilar had liked it, too. By the time Everett came along, Annabelle had been too sick of it to share it with him. And what was she doing here?

Annabelle remembered that the book was full of staircases. Milo and Tock were marched down a long set of steps to the dungeon where Faintly Macabre was imprisoned in Dictionopolis. There was the stairway to infinity in Digitopolis, which, upon asking where he could find the biggest number in the world, Milo was told to climb forever and then turn left. And finally, there was the windswept staircase to the Castle in the Air, which the heroes had to ascend to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, and which the demons lurking in the Mountains of Ignorance chopped away from underneath them.

The nurse had aged a little but was still pretty. Annabelle noted the large ruby ring and gold band on her left ring finger. “Hello, Annabelle,” she said. Her smile seemed only partially forced.

“Bernadette,” Annabelle answered, keeping her voice neutral. “I see you’ve met my son.”

“Can we get this book, Mom? Can we?” Everett asked.

“I think we probably have a copy around the house somewhere,” she said. In truth, she might have given it to someone, maybe Madison, for Christmas during one of her periodic purges. She wasn’t good at keeping track of these things.

“He’s a good reader,” Bernadette said.

“I hope he hasn’t been keeping you from your work,” Annabelle replied. “I got… sidetracked. Have you been waiting here long?”

“Oh, no. It’s been no trouble at all. His prescriptions are ready.”

“Really? But I’ve still got the slips in my purse.”

A young man appeared at the pharmacy window. “Mrs. Bremerton?” he said. He wore a conservative blue tie over a white shirt; his dark hair was slicked back with too much gel, and he wasn’t a day over thirty but would likely look the same at fifty-five. He held out two small white paper bags.

“But I don’t understand,” Annabelle said. “Doctor Chisholm told me to bring these up here.” She pulled the prescription forms from her purse and held them out to him.

“Oh, he already called it up,” the young man said, with a chuckle that annoyed her. How long had her little side excursion in the elevator taken, anyway?

Annabelle accepted the bags and looked at the directions stapled to them. Antibiotics and painkillers. It seemed straightforward enough.

“Do you have any questions?” he asked.

Yes, she thought. But I doubt that you can answer them.

“What do I owe you?” she asked.

“No charge.” The young man smiled. “It’s all taken care of.”

“I wanna see how this chapter ends,” Everett said to Bernadette. He moved closer to her, his sling draped casually over the arm of the chair. His fingers didn’t seem to be bothering him at all.

“Everett, we have to go,” Annabelle said. “The car’s full of groceries, and your sisters are probably wondering where we are.”

“But I want to read this book.”

She fought down exasperation. Her impatience with him was what had landed him in the hospital in the first place. Now his fingers were broken and he would spend the next few weeks in a splint, all because of her carelessness. At least he wasn’t crying and carrying on. She supposed she had to give Bernadette points for that. But what was she doing here? After her experience in the elevator, Annabelle had a hard time believing it was a coincidence.

“If we can’t find a copy at home, I’m sure we can get one at the library,” she told him. She wondered why the hospital would have a full-length book in an area where the wait time averaged only a few minutes. Waiting rooms were full of Time and People magazines for a reason. You could leaf through them and get the gist of a story without missing much when your name was called. A book was a tease, though. Who had left it here, and why?

“Is the library open?” Everett asked.

“Probably not this evening. But we can go on Saturday.”

“But I want to read the book now,” Everett insisted, hunching still closer to Bernadette. “We were just getting to a really good part.”

“Everett, do what your mother says,” Bernadette told him gently. “The good thing about a book is that the story will still be there when you pick it up again.”

“Can’t I take it with me?”

Annabelle saw Bernadette begin to consider the question, and quickly said, “The book belongs to the hospital, Everett. It’s here for everyone to enjoy. Let’s not be selfish.”

His face twisted into a pout, but he reluctantly got up. “Thanks for reading to me,” he said to Bernadette. “You’re nice.”

“And so are you,” Bernadette said, avoiding Annabelle’s eyes. “Take care of those fingers, now.”

“Come on, Everett.” Annabelle turned and opened the door onto the hall, holding it for him. With exasperating slowness, he set down the book and followed her.

Annabelle had no intention of taking the elevator. She led Everett down a concrete stairway, which came out on the opposite end of the first floor from the emergency entrance, where Annabelle had parked. Not until she was out the door did she wish she’d checked the elevator to see if there really was a “5” button.

Darkness was gathering when they left the hospital parking lot and she pointed the car into the red and purple sunset. Night fell quickly in the fall. Soon it would be November and the time change; it would be dark at five, and then the cold weather would set in. Everett stared out the window all the way back to Blue Hill, saying nothing.

Paul had made macaroni and cheese and cut some cold roast beef. Everett displayed his cast around the kitchen table. His sisters wanted to sign it. Paul helped Annabelle bring in the groceries. “What a day,” she said, piling the last of the bags on the counter.

“Make you a drink?” He had the whiskey bottle out already.

Annabelle nodded. “A strong one,” she said.

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