A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 25

To find Matthew Richardson, former English professor at the University of Maine at Machias and author of the locally-published non-fiction paperback Haunted Places of Downeast Maine, Pilar drove first through Bangor, across the northernmost bridge into Brewer, and then turned left onto what in her youth had been commonly called the Airline, a swath of highway cut through the woods to Calais that had been famed for its desolation and sometimes spectacular accidents. She drove for an hour over forested hills broken by lakes and streams but few settlements, then took a right at an intersection in the middle of nowhere. This road plunged southward and the trees gave way to blueberry barrens, dotted with small shacks and porta-potties. She passed a processing plant with bright blue aluminum siding. There were few people in the fields; the bloom was past but the harvest was still more than a month away. This road, too, seemed to go on forever. The day had been overcast, but now turned dank and foggy as she neared the coast. “Jesus God, where is this place?” she said aloud, as she turned on the windshield wipers. When she hit U.S. Route One, she took a left and continued east, as per the professor’s directions. On the seat beside her, underneath her hasty sketch, lay a Triple-A road map of Maine and her copy of the professor’s book.

When she crossed the town line into Jonesboro, not yet having seen the ocean, she started to look for the small green sign that would indicate the road that led down the shore of the tidal inlet on which the professor and his wife lived. His wife raised horses, he had told her on the phone; she would see the barns on the left side of the road before she saw their driveway, marked by a big red mailbox with a sailboat painted on it.

She almost missed the turnoff, at the bottom of a curve hard against the end of a small stone bridge over a trickle of a creek. She hit the brakes halfway across the bridge and backed up, checked the sign to be sure, and headed down West Shore Road, flanked on both sides by spruce trees. Driveways marked by mailboxes sprang into view occasionally, but no houses were visible from the road. “Jesus God,” she said again, wondering where she’d picked up that phrase. “Who lives in a place like this?” Then she laughed, and thought of her mother’s home on the point, and her sister Madison’s farm. All her life she had had the virtues of rural isolation preached to her, modeled for her. That was the history of her family, was it not? That was why they had all stayed in Maine, or kept coming back: to honor the country life to which their parents had committed when they had uprooted them from Philadelphia. Only Jeremy had returned to a life in a city. Even Everett had strayed no farther than Bangor, a glorified small town. She had no memory of Philadelphia, and she was certain that her mother and father had thought that a good thing.

But now there was the barn, and beyond it a cleared field and a house, and then she spotted the red mailbox and turned gratefully into the driveway. Pilar looked at her watch, looped around the rearview mirror, and saw that she was only fifteen minutes late. That had to count as on time, way the fuck out here.

The driveway ended at a wide dirt turnaround between house and barn. In front of the barn stood a horse trailer, propped up by two bales of hay and a couple of two-by-fours. Next to it sat the large silver pickup truck that presumably hauled it. The other vehicle in the driveway was a rusting maroon Subaru with an “I’d Rather Be Sailing” bumper sticker. A barbed-wire fence extended from the back of the barn, but Pilar could see no horses.

She parked next to the Subaru. A screen door to the house opened, and a small, bearded man emerged. He’d had the beard on the book jacket photo, but it had not been entirely gray then, as it was now. She opened the car door and got out. The man wore a plaid flannel shirt that was mostly green. Though the sun shone fuzzily through the clouds, the air around them retained a hint of a chill – this was Downeast Maine, after all, where summer did not really arrive until July and even then seemed loath to linger long.

“Professor Richardson?”

He smiled at her through the gray beard. In one hand he held a ceramic mug that she guessed had once been white but was now the color of old canvas. “I’ve just made some coffee,” he said. “And please, let’s dispense with the professor business. I’m Matt, and you must be Pilar.”

She clasped his outstretched hand, noticing that his fingers were long and bony and rough with physical work. “It’s nice of you to see me on such short notice,” she said.

“I’m always happy to talk to anyone who’s read my book,” he replied. “It’s a fairly small club, I’m afraid.”

“I brought a copy. I hope you’ll sign it for me.”

“I’d be happy to.” He smiled again. “But please, come in. My wife’s off riding with a friend, so we’ll have some time to talk by ourselves.”

The house was bigger inside than it looked from the driveway. A short hallway led from a mudroom cluttered with jackets and shoes into a kitchen that opened up onto a spacious living area with exposed wooden beams and a central fireplace. A spiral staircase led to an open second floor. Large windows dominated the far side of the house, and Pilar at last saw the water. She guessed it was the same stream that trickled under the bridge up by where she had turned, but here it looked more like a cove, about the width of Blue Hill’s inner harbor. She could see wisps of fog against the trees on the other side.

“Cream or sugar?” the professor called from the kitchen.

“Just cream, thanks,” Pilar answered. “This is a beautiful place you have.”

“Thank you. It’s off the beaten path, but that’s part of its charm, wouldn’t you say? We’ve been here for sixteen years, so I guess we like it.” He produced two cups of coffee in two colorful mugs and handed her one.

She murmured her thanks. “I understand the appeal of remote places,” she said. “My mother lives out on the end of a peninsula. It’s almost easier to get there by boat than by car.”

“Same with this place. See that little sailboat, in front of the big pine tree on the other side? Next to the red house?”

Pilar looked along the opposite bank. She saw the red house, and then, a moment later, spotted the small sloop on the mooring, close to the far shore but within easy rowing distance of where they stood. “I see it,” she said.

“That’s mine,” he said. “The tide’s in now, but at low tide it’s all mudflats in front of here. The channel’s over there. I keep my dinghy right under that pine tree.”

“How do you get there? Do you drive?”

“Yeah. The lady who lives in the red house lets me park in her driveway. Believe it or not, it’s almost five miles to get there from here in a car. It’s worth it, though, to live up here and keep a boat. Do you sail?”

“I have, a little. Not much. My older brother’s the sailor. My dad had a boat. But of course he’s been dead for forty years.”

She waited for a reaction. How much did he know about her father? But he continued to gaze out the window at the far side of the cove.

“I just bought her a few years ago,” he said. “She’s only nineteen feet, but she’s got a full keel and a little cabin. Perfect for single-handing.”

“Your wife doesn’t sail with you?”

He showed her a thin smile. “She’ll go out with me once or twice a year, for a day sail,” he said. “But she’s not really into it. She has the horses. We were in the horse business together for years. We’re down to our last two.” He nodded toward the distant boat. “That’s a lot less work than a horse, believe me.”

“Well, it probably doesn’t eat as much,” Pilar said.

“But that’s not what you came to talk about, is it?” He nodded to a stout wooden table with a view out the window. “Shall we sit?”

Only after she had taken the first sip of the excellent coffee did she look closely at the mug he had handed her. It bore the likeness of Bella Lugosi as Dracula. His mug, she saw now, displayed the image of the Wolf Man, as played by Lon Chaney Jr.

“I’ve got a whole set of ’em,” he said. “I guess you could call me an old horror film buff. I taught a course in the history of horror literature a few times. It was quite popular with the students, though they laughed at most of the films.”

“There’s a thin line between horror and humor, don’t you think?” she said.

“Absolutely. It’s what made Stephen King a millionaire. But there’s also a deeper chord, in the best horror fiction and film, which speaks to something eternal, and eternally beyond our understanding. All good literature does that, actually.”

“Mmm.” She sipped her coffee. “Do you believe in ghosts, Matt?”

He touched the tips of his ten fingers together, and flexed them a couple of times – a spider doing pushups on a mirror, she thought absurdly – and said, “I don’t disbelieve in them. I’ve never seen one, but I do believe I’ve felt their presence once or twice. And many of the people I talked to in the course of researching my book were absolutely convinced of their existence.”

“What made you decide to write the book?”

“It started out as a historical research project, believe it or not,” he said. “A lot of the small towns around here are eager to have histories written, and it’s a good way for an impoverished adjunct English professor to pick up a little extra cash. So I got a gig with the town of Cherryfield, a little to the west of here, and in the course of my research I heard about this old dance hall that burned down out in the woods. Now Cherryfield’s the first town you come to on the shortcut between Ellsworth and here. You drive through a couple towns so small they have numbers instead of names. The dance hall was out on that godforsaken stretch of road. A young girl was killed in the fire. And people swear they’ve seen her out there at night, near where the dance hall stood, in a long flowing white gown.”

“That’s in the book,” she said.

“That’s the first story I tracked down.”

“And the others?”

“Some are well known,” he said. “Like the boot on the grave in Bucksport. Others seemed a little farfetched, but if I could find at least a semi-reliable source, I included them anyway.” He took a sip of his coffee, set it down, and laid his hands on the table and looked at her. “Pilar, I wrote the book primarily for entertainment. And, of course, money, though I haven’t seen much of that. But I can’t vouch for the truth of any of these stories. It’s mostly hearsay and conjecture, sprinkled with a smidgen of historical veracity. I didn’t write anything that’s demonstrably untrue, but I never intended the book to stand as any sort of historical document. I finished writing a straight history of Cherryfield – you can buy a copy at the town office for $16.95, thank you very much – and then I wrote Haunted Places.”

“What about the hospital?” she said softly. It was the question she had come to ask. “Where did you come across that story?”

“Well, now, that’s an interesting one,” he said. “At the time I was writing the book, there was a second newspaper in Ellsworth, a competitor to the American. It didn’t last long. Some out-of-state outfit bought up most of the local weekly newspapers up and down the coast, and they wanted to have a paper in Ellsworth. The Ellsworth Weekly News, they called it. I mean, how imaginative can you be, right? There’s the Bangor Daily News, so I guess they figured that locals would gravitate toward a paper called the Weekly News. Only nobody read it. The American had about a hundred-year head start, and a reputation that this outfit, being from out of state, knew nothing about. But the Weekly News had an unusual editor – and he was also from away – who realized that the only way the paper was ever going to make its mark was to be different, and I mean radically different, from the Ellsworth American. So this editor started covering stories about offbeat stuff, like animal news, local music, alternative energy. He convinced his bosses to publish the paper on Friday, since the American went to press Wednesday afternoon, and he could scoop them on anything that happened Thursday or Thursday night. Nothing worked, but at least he tried. And one October he ran a whole series about haunted places in Hancock County. Someone who knew I was writing the book showed me an issue, and it happened to be the issue that had a small story about the doctor who died in the hospital and is allegedly still there.”

“My father,” Pilar murmured.

“Yes. So you told me on the phone. I didn’t research the story, other than to verify that the doctor was real. But you know that already, don’t you?” He smiled at her over his coffee. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For you it’s personal. For me it was just an interesting story.”

“I was six when he died,” she said. “What I know about my father is mostly what I’ve been told. And no one ever told me they’d seen his ghost.”

“For all I know, no one ever has,” the professor said. “Like I said, if someone hadn’t handed me that newspaper, I never would have heard about it.”

“But why didn’t you look into it more?” she asked. “Did you talk to anyone at the hospital, anyone who claimed to have seen him? Or the ghost, or whatever it is?”

He shook his head. “One, the book was almost done at that point. I had more than enough material. Two, the reporter who wrote the piece said that nobody at the hospital would tell him anything, that as soon as he mentioned a possible ghost everybody clammed up tighter than… well, a clam.”

“Everett’s girlfriend said the same thing,” she said.

“I’m sorry?”

“My brother’s girlfriend. She’s a nurse. Says the one thing hospitals won’t talk about is anything to do with the supernatural.”

“From what I’ve learned during the course of my research, ghosts tend to hang around when there’s something unresolved from their lives,” the professor said. “Sometimes they’re waiting for a loved one to join them. Is your mother still alive?”

Pilar nodded. “In fact, she’s a patient at the hospital right now. She’s been in there for several weeks. She’s due to go home this Saturday, though.”

“Do you think it’s possible your father is trying to communicate with her?”

“I don’t know,” Pilar said, letting some of the frustration with this interview seep into her voice. “You’re the expert. I was hoping you could tell me.”

He shook his head. “I’m no expert, just a writer, with an academic interest. I don’t know much more about any of this than you do. You probably know more, at least where the dead doctor is concerned. He was your father, after all.”

Pilar drank off the last of her coffee and set down the empty mug. Dracula stared back as if to mock her. “Well, what about this editor? Maybe he can tell me more. How can I get in touch with him?”

“You can’t,” Matthew Richardson said.

“Why not? Did he move away?”

The professor shook his head, and looked down into his coffee. “He died,” he said. “Just dropped, all of a sudden, from a heart attack, about a year after they shut down the Ellsworth Weekly News. His wife rushed him to the hospital, but there was nothing they could do.”

“Wait… the same hospital… where my father…?”

“Only one hospital in Ellsworth,” he said.

“Was there… anything suspicious about his death?”

He shook his head again. “Not that I’m aware of. It was a heart attack. But he wasn’t old – in his late fifties, I think. It was shocking in its suddenness, that’s all.”

“And inconvenient for me,” Pilar said. “I mean, I’m sorry he died,” she added quickly, “but I didn’t know the man. Is there anyone else I can talk to?”

Matt Richardson stroked his beard. “The reporter who wrote the story, if you can find him,” he said. “His name’s Cyrus Nash. Strange guy. Keeps to himself a lot. Last I knew he was working as a caretaker on one of the islands off Stonington. I don’t think he’s got phone or internet, but he did have a pickup truck, and that was how he got around to cover his stories. You might go down to Stonington and ask around the docks – you know where Stonington is, don’t you?”

“I grew up in Blue Hill.”

“Well, good then. Though I don’t know if Cyrus knows any more than I do. Be worth a shot, if you really want to follow this thing up. But Pilar…”

He looked into her eyes for such a long time that she felt uncomfortable. “What?” she asked.

“What do you hope to accomplish by all this? Your father’s been dead for what, more than forty years?”

“Forty-one years this October.”

“That’s a long time, even for a ghost.” He smiled gently. “I’m sorry. I wish I could be more help. But even if you find out that it’s your father’s spirit that’s making the elevator act strangely, what do you plan to do about it? No one’s been hurt, or even more than mildly inconvenienced.”

“Perhaps the Hippocratic Oath remains in force even after you’re dead,” she said, and they both laughed. “Seriously, though, I’d like to find out what he wants, why he’s haunting the hospital, if it’s really him. Maybe I can help his soul find rest. You said yourself that most ghosts hang around because of something unfinished from their mortal lives. Maybe I can find out what that it.”

She heard the door to the mudroom open, and, a moment later, female voices in the kitchen. One asked the other if she wanted tea. A thin woman dressed in jeans and high riding boots, her loose dark hair streaked with gray, appeared around the corner. “How was your ride, honey?” the professor asked.

“It’s starting to rain,” she said, shaking out her hair. A few droplets flew in all directions. She looked at Pilar.

“My wife, Andrea,” Matthew Richardson said.

She and Pilar exchanged hellos. The woman was tall but underweight; if she turned sideways, Pilar might mistake her for a coat rack. In contrast to the rumpled, rounded writer, Andrea was all sharp angles: prominent cheekbones, toothpick legs, arms like undernourished tree branches connecting shoulders to elbows to wrists. Her friend was shorter, thicker and younger, with lighter hair and less of it. “This is Mary Elizabeth,” Andrea said to Pilar. She turned to her husband. “Annabelle doesn’t seem like herself,” she said. “She was reluctant to run, and on the way home she seemed to be limping a little. I’m thinking there might be something wrong with her foot.”

“Annabelle?” Pilar said.

The woman gave her a strange look.

“Her horse,” the professor explained.

“Something wrong?” Andrea asked her.

“No, I was just confused for a moment. Annabelle is my mother’s name.”

“I’m thinking maybe we should call Doctor Stevens,” Andrea said.

“Let me check her out first,” Matt said to his wife. “No sense spending good money if it’s something we can take care of ourselves.” He turned to Pilar. “We made a pretty good living for a number of years shoeing other people’s horses,” he said. “I gave it up after I got kicked one too many times. It’s physical work, and I’m getting on. But I still do what I can for our own two animals.”

“Check her out, but do it today or tomorrow,” Andrea said. “If it’s an infection, I don’t want it getting any worse.” She looked at Pilar. “When you live with a writer, you get accustomed to procrastination as a way of life.”

Mary Elizabeth snickered, but the professor stiffened. “As a matter of fact, Pilar came here to talk to me about my book,” he said.

“Yes, the book,” Pilar said. “It’s in the car. You have to sign it before I go. Excuse me.”

Outside, she took in a big breath of fresh air and paused by the car. A fine gray mist surrounded the house, horse field and barn. The two horses, one chestnut brown, the other the color of dirty canvas, were outside. She felt a few droplets in her hair.

When she returned with the book, the two women were deep in conversation at the kitchen table, and the professor sat where she had left him, gazing out at his boat. She set the book in front of him. “Your wife doesn’t share your enthusiasm for the supernatural, I take it,” she said.

“We have our separate areas of expertise.” He smiled thinly beneath his beard. “Mine are ghosts and small-press publishing. Hers are horses and anything practical. She regards me as something of an eccentric, I’m afraid.” He paused. “Not that I’m averse to cultivating the image. More coffee?”

She shook her head. “I should get going. It’s a long drive home.”

“Where do you live?” he asked her. “You said you grew up in Blue Hill, but…”

“Right now, I’m staying with my sister Madison, in Madison,” she said. She saw him raise a bushy eyebrow. “I know. But her name really is Madison, and she really does live there.”

“Madison, Maine, I presume.”

“Uh, huh. It’s near Skowhegan.”

“I know where it is,” he said. He picked up the book and turned it over in his hands. Pilar had been wondering when he was going to touch it. “Anything particular you want me to write?” he said. “I always feel awkward doing this.”

“Anything you want,” she said. “Oh gosh, I didn’t bring a pen.”

He reached for the ceramic mug she had not noticed at the center of the table and selected a shiny blue ballpoint. He asked the spelling of her name. She watched as he thought for a moment, then scribbled something brief. He closed the book and handed it to her.

“Thank you.”

“Aren’t you going to read it?”

“Nope. Not till later.” She rose to go; he stood as well, and they clasped hands. “I’m going to try to find this Cyrus Nash, see what he can tell me. It might all come to nothing, but I’ve got to know if it’s true. If my father’s a ghost, I mean.”

“One thing about ghosts,” he said, with the same half-smile. “They’re awfully hard to pin down. So is Cyrus. But good luck all the same. I wish I could have been more help.”

“You have been,” she assured him.

He walked her to the door. On her way through the kitchen she said perfunctory goodbyes to the professor’s wife and her friend. Outside, he stopped her. “Pilar, have you considered talking to your mother about this? She might be who he’s waiting for, after all.”

Of course she had considered it. But her mother was recovering nicely, was she not? She would be leaving the hospital in a couple of days. If the doctor’s ghost had wanted a reunion, when would he ever have a better opportunity? Did a ghost have the power to affect human behavior, to cause, say, a nurse to possibly administer the wrong medication, with deadly results? Or did he have to convince her to cross over and be with him, of her own free will?

“Can I call you again?” she asked Matthew Richardson. “If I have more questions?”

“By all means,” he said. “Though I can’t guarantee I’ll have any more answers.”

“No, but you won’t dismiss me as a lunatic, either.”

He smiled. “We lunatics have to stick together,” he said. “In the meantime, take good care of your mother.”

“I will,” she said, opening the car door. She took one last look at the horses. “Which one’s Annabelle?” she asked.

“The brown one. She’s my wife’s favorite. I hope she’s okay, because Andrea would be distraught if anything happened to her.”

“I hope so, too,” she said in parting. “You take care of your Annabelle, and I’ll take care of mine.”

She had traveled barely five miles on Route One when she came upon an assemblage of ambulances and police cars. Pilar stopped behind a silver Aerostar van with California plates. “Gonna be about a fifteen minute wait,” said the cop who approached her window. “They’re clearing up an accident up ahead.”

“Anybody hurt?” Pilar asked.

“Nothing bad,” the cop said. He was a young kid, she saw, perhaps half her age, with hard blue eyes and a cleft chin. “A few scrapes and bruises. But one of the cars is totaled. They got a tow truck up there now.” He nodded toward the flashing lights.

Fifteen minutes later, the van in front of her had not budged. Pilar glanced down at the seat beside her and saw the professor’s book. On impulse, she picked it up and read the inscription.

“Pilar: I hope you find what you’re looking for. Matthew Richardson.”

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