Though they had been together only a handful of times over the past thirty years, the next gathering of the six Sprauling siblings took place just two days later, at Joanie’s house on Mount Desert Island. She had invited them all over following Paul’s blowup at the point. It had taken some doing, because the evening had ended with everybody squabbling, and driving off angry in cars. But someone in the family had to be practical. Usually that would have been Gretchen, the oldest and most responsible of the sisters, but Pilar’s pursuit of a paranormal explanation for their father’s death had apparently caught her up as well. She had conversed with Cyrus Nash, and had come away, if not convinced, then at least partially persuaded.
The other surprise was Jeremy. Her hard-headed scientist brother had been badly shaken by his illusory journey, if that’s what it was, to the nonexistent fourth floor of the hospital. He had been the one to argue most vociferously against the existence of the ghost in the elevator. But the extrasensory experience had left him re-evaluating his most cherished belief: that the Universe was rational and could be understood using the tools of science. He could not explain the elevator’s behavior. Neither could any of his sisters. But they had all felt it.
Joanie and Carol lived in Bar Harbor, near the College of the Atlantic campus. From their front porch they could see the old ferry landing once used by the Bluenose and then the high-speed Cat to connect Bat Harbor with Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. But the international ferry didn’t run any more. Joanie and Carol had wanted to take a trip to Newfoundland, in some future summer where they could both get a week off at the same time, and the ferry would have saved hundreds of miles of driving. But now it wasn’t likely to happen, unless someone started up another boat.
Carol was back ashore, busy preparing for her fall classes, but that hadn’t stopped her from making one of her famous seafood casseroles, enough to feed seven. Joanie had laid in several bottles of white wine and some good bread from a local bakery. They’d made a salad, and Madison brought cookies for dessert, though not the magic kind.
Everett rode down with Pilar and of course complained about the traffic. “They really need a train between Bangor and Bar Harbor,” he said, when they came through the door. “We must have gotten stuck behind six RVs. I don’t think we went over thirty-five anywhere between Ellsworth and here.”
“That must have been grim for you,” Madison said to Pilar. Joanie noted that no one had brought along a spouse or significant other. Jeremy and Gretchen were single, Madison’s marriage was on the rocks, Pilar’s status seemed to be in perpetual flux, and Everett was reportedly not getting along with his girlfriend. She watched Carol take the casserole out of the oven and felt lucky.
It was Carol’s house. She’d bought it from one of the founders of the college, back when ordinary people could afford such places. They were close to town, yet had room for their hobbies and for each other; they could see and walk to the shore in all seasons. Joanie had moved in fifteen years ago, and together they had added a deck, two rooms off the basement, and a small heated outbuilding. Carol liked artwork and nice furniture and a well-appointed kitchen; Joanie had an eye for functional design. She worried that the small house might seem almost painfully neat to her siblings, though Gretchen ran a fairly tight ship. But Madison lived on a farm and Everett lived alone. She wondered if she shouldn’t have at least left a magazine on the floor or a stray shoe in a corner.
Carol’s casserole – made with lobster, crab, scallops, haddock and shrimp, but no clams – was otherworldly. Jeremy and Everett had second helpings. Even Pilar ate a healthy plateful. Joanie waited until they were almost done before she steered the conversation to the topic she had invited them all here to discuss.
“How do we patch things up with Mom and Paul?”
“Time,” Gretchen said. “We hit them with a lot of stuff at once.”
“They’’ll get over it,” Jeremy said.
“Easy for you to say,” Pilar said. “You’re going back to California.”
“When are you leaving, Jeremy?” Joanie asked.
“Next Tuesday. Four days from now. I fly out at eight in the morning.”
“Are you going to see them before you go?” Gretchen asked him.
“I thought I’d go down, yeah. All Paul can do is kick me off the property again.”
“Paul usually comes back to Earth after his tirades,” Pilar said. “That’s always been his pattern.”
“Are you sure, Pilar?” Everett put in. “It was you, in particular, he said he never wanted to see again.”
“That’s because you wouldn’t let go of that haunted stuff,” Jeremy said. “I mean, Ma was blocking her ears and yelling at you to stop, and you still kept talking about it, asking her where she was. No wonder Paul got pissed.”
“But Jeremy, you know there’s something to it,” Pilar insisted. “You’ve been in that elevator. You’ve experienced it.”
“All right,” Joanie said, jumping in to preclude an argument. “Maybe we should start with the elevator. We all seem to have had weird experiences in it. And now we find out from this Cyrus guy that the elevator was installed in the exact spot where Dad fell to his death. Coincidence? I don’t know.”
She looked around the table at her siblings, waiting for one of them to add something, anything.
“We went to the hospital today,” Pilar volunteered, finally. “Everett and me.”
Everybody at the table looked at them. “What happened?” Joanie asked.
“Nothing,” Everett said. “At least as far as we could tell.”
“But psi phenomena are like that,” Pilar said. “They can’t be corralled and observed in a controlled setting, because – I know, Jeremy, it isn’t scientific – they don’t obey the rules. They don’t always show up when you want them to.”
“Which makes it convenient,” Jeremy said. “The spirit disappears as soon as a skeptic enters the room.”
“What did you do, ride up and down the elevator?” Madison asked.
“A couple of times,” Pilar said.
“We had to stop when people started looking at us,” Everett added.
“No one looked at us. A couple people got on and off. We could have been anyone. One of the nurses recognized me, I think.”
“Did you talk to anyone?” Jeremy asked.
“Uh-uh. Cyrus said I shouldn’t. He said it would arouse suspicion. The best thing to do is go there, unnoticed, and see if the old man in the elevator has anything to say that day.”
“And how would you know?” Madison said. “I got stuck in the elevator, with that girl, but that doesn’t mean Dad had anything to do with it. Even if you believe all of this, Pilar, what does it accomplish? What does it change? Like Mom said, he won’t be any less dead.”
“I just want to know,” Pilar insisted. “Let me ask you all something. How did our parents meet?”
Joanie looked around the table. “At the Country Club, I think,” Gretchen said. “She was a waitress.”
“But do you remember any specifics, like when they first noticed each other, or spoke, or who said what to whom?” Pilar said.
The Spraulings all looked at one another.
“I never thought to ask,” Joanie said.
“Exactly. We’re a family who doesn’t know how their parents met.” Pilar paused to let this sink in. “Or how our father died,” she added.
“Pilar, this is preposterous,” Jeremy protested. “He fell down the stairs.”
“So we’ve all been told,” Pilar said. “But what if all we got was the generic version, like Mom and Dad meeting at the Country Club? How genteel. How easy to gloss over details, or even invent new ones. None of us were there. How do we know what really happened?”
“You think Mom’s been lying to us all these years?” Gretchen asked.
“Not lying, necessarily,” Pilar said. “But maybe not telling us the whole truth.”
“Why would she do that?” Madison asked.
“I don’t know,” Pilar replied. “But Cyrus is the second person who told me that there were two women involved in Dad’s death. The first was a fortune-teller out in Arizona that I dismissed as a spook. But Cyrus went to the hospital as an investigative reporter. He talked to people – those who would talk to him, anyway. He tried to piece together what really happened. And his story jibes uncannily with what that woman told me, all those years ago.”
“A self-proclaimed psychic and a newspaper reporter writing years after the fact,” Jeremy said. “It’s all speculation. Who did he talk to at the hospital?”
“Anybody he could,” Pilar said. She looked at Everett. “Like Corinne said, hospitals don’t like to deal with anything involving the supernatural. The higher-ups wouldn’t talk to him at all. But some of the nurses and scrubs told him there was something fishy about Dad’s death, and that there had been a major effort to cover it up.”
“Did he talk to Bernadette?” Jeremy asked her.
“He tried to,” Pilar said. “He said she wouldn’t give him an interview.”
Jeremy frowned. “That’s funny,” he said.
“Why?” Joanie asked.
“Because when I mentioned Cyrus Nash to her, she said she’d never heard of him. Why would she lie to me?”
“How long ago did he do this story?” Madison asked.
“About ten years ago. Before Professor Richardson published his book.”
“Maybe she just forgot,” Joanie offered. “Hospital administrators are busy people. Would she remember some journalist poking around ten years ago, asking about something that happened thirty years before that? Maybe it wasn’t important to her.”
“Or maybe she’s covering something up,” Everett said. “Maybe she knows more about Dad’s death than she’s letting on.”
“She was there,” Gretchen said. “She was the one who found him.”
` “At least that’s the official version,” Pilar said. “The one we’ve been told.”
“Why would she lie?” Jeremy asked again. “Unless you think she…”
There was an uncomfortable pause around the table. “She likes you, Jeremy,” Everett said. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“I don’t think I’ll see her before I go,” he said. “She’s on vacation.”
“Talk about convenient,” Gretchen murmured.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jeremy snapped at her.
“Nothing,” Gretchen shot back. “Only I’ve seen her a few times over the years. She doesn’t seem like someone who forgets things easily. She’s an attractive woman, and we all know Dad had a weakness for those.”
“Like any other normal man,” Everett said. “It’s good to know he was human, at least. Whatever he is now.”
“You don’t know any of this,” Jeremy said to Pilar. “You’re just speculating, based on what some dude on an island and a voodoo lady in Arizona told you. Dad’s dead. He isn’t hanging around in a hospital elevator. Has it occurred to you that maybe, instead of our father haunting the hospital where he died, we’re the ones who are haunted by his death? Maybe all this supernatural mumbo jumbo is the work of our imaginations, making every effort possible to keep him alive when our rational minds know otherwise.”
“So now you’re saying you imagined your trip to the fourth floor?” Gretchen said.
“I can’t think of any other explanation that makes sense,” Jeremy said.
“That’s because you’ve closed yourself off to the possibility of anything that doesn’t have a rational, scientific explanation,” Pilar said. “But I saw your face when Gretchen told you the hospital had no fourth floor. It told a different story.”
Carol had been quiet until this point, listening to the six siblings argue around her dinner table, but now she spoke up. “What about your mom?” she said. “You’ve all had to live without your father for forty years, but your mom is still alive. Maybe she’s the one you should focus your energy on. While you still can.”
“Mom doesn’t want to hear about it,” Pilar said. “That’s why we’re talking about it here.”
“But Pilar,” Joanie said, “if Mom has put Dad’s death behind her, maybe we ought to be able to do the same.”
“Aren’t you curious, Joanie?” Pilar said.
“A little, sure. But there are only a few things I can do something about.”
“But Jeremy can’t do anything about whether or not there’s other intelligent life in the Universe,” Pilar pointed out. “That didn’t stop him from studying the stars and planets, and becoming an astronomer, and sending space probes out into space to contact extraterrestrials.”
“That wasn’t the purpose of Voyager,” Jeremy said.
“Then how come they’re carrying messages from Earth?” Pilar said. “I read somewhere that they’ve each got a record on board, and a stylus, and instructions on how to play it, that hopefully an alien could understand.”
“That’s true,” Jeremy conceded. “But their primary mission was to explore the outer planets. And that ended in 1989 with Neptune.”
“But aren’t they still working?” Gretchen put in. “Mom was talking about it that day at the hospital. The helio-something.”
“Heliopause,” Jeremy said. “Where the outgoing radiation from the sun is no longer stronger than the incoming radiation from interstellar space. But that’s gravy. Nobody knew they’d keep working this long.”
“So it’s at least possible aliens could find them,” Pilar said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered with that record. What is it, Jeremy, greetings in a hundred different languages?”
“Fifty-five,” Jeremy said. “Plus whale songs. An intelligent alien species might be interested in speaking with them, not us. Like in that Star Trek movie.”
“But we’ve never been able to translate whale songs,” Carol pointed out. “We have no idea what, if anything, they’re saying to each other.”
“No, but they might,” Jeremy said. “The aliens, I mean, assuming there are any. But the record’s really nothing more than space graffiti. It says, ‘Look. We were here.’ It’ll last for millions of years, like the footprints on the moon. But it’s likely no one will ever find it.”
“Wasn’t there another Star Trek movie, where Voyager came back, with all kinds of new knowledge and power?” Everett said. “Or was that the old TV show?”
“The first movie,” Jeremy said. “And it was ridiculous, because Star Trek takes place in the twenty-third century, and the Voyagers won’t have traveled a fraction of the distance to the nearest star by then.”
“Really?” Everett said.
“Really,” Jeremy told him. “They were launched in 1977, and they’ve covered a little more than three times the distance to Neptune. That’s roughly one hundred astronomical units.”
“What’s an astronomical unit?” Gretchen interrupted.
“The distance between the Earth and the sun,” Jeremy said. He returned his attention to Everett. “The closest star – and neither of the Voyagers is headed in that direction – is four light years away. Do you know how many astronomical units are in a light year?”
“Got to admit I don’t,” Everett said.
“More than sixty-five thousand,” Jeremy said. He paused to let this sink in. “Even the spaces between the stars in our little corner of the galaxy are huge,” he continued. “That’s why aliens will never come across either of the Voyagers, at least within the lifetime of our civilization. It’s literally a shot in the dark.”
“Jeremy, it astounds me that you can so readily accept the possibility of aliens from outer space, and yet dismiss the existence of any kind of after-life spirits,” Pilar said. “There’s no scientific basis for either.”
“I have to agree with Pilar on this one,” Madison said.
“Belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking,” Jeremy muttered.
“And so is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” Gretchen said. “Jeremy, you sat at my kitchen table the other night and acknowledged that there’s no sign of any other intelligent life anywhere. You said that you were beginning to think we are alone in the Universe.”
“And you also agreed that every consciousness was unique,” Pilar said. “Where does that go when you die? It doesn’t stay in the body. I can’t believe it just vanishes, any more than matter and energy vanish. It has to go somewhere. And maybe sometimes it gets trapped.”
“In an elevator,” Jeremy deadpanned.
Pilar shrugged her small shoulders. “Perhaps there’s something he wants us to know.”
“Well, we’re not going to get it out of Mom,” Madison said. “That much seems clear. And badgering her about it is only going to cause more bad feelings. Plus it’ll keep Paul in a bad temper.”
“Which is his fallback position anyway,” Joanie said. She had not forgotten the confrontations of her youth.
“He’s mellowed some,” Jeremy said.
“Not enough,” Joanie said. “I’ll bet he’s smacked Mom around a few times. She probably wouldn’t tell us that, either.”
“It would explain a lot, though,” Gretchen said.
“Now who’s jumping to conclusions without evidence?” Jeremy said. “We all know that Paul has a temper, but if you’re suggesting…” He stopped, and looked hard at his oldest sister. “Is that why you called me, in May, and asked me to come out? To protect her?”
“I called you because I wasn’t sure she was going to make it,” Gretchen retorted. “And I wanted to make sure she got to see you again. She always talks about you, Jeremy. You have no idea. You never have. I don’t think she’s ever gotten over you going to California.”
“Oh, come on,” Jeremy said.
“It’s true,” Everett said. “I’ve hung around here most of my life, and I could never measure up.”
“And the rest of us were girls,” Gretchen added.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Jeremy said.
“Jeremy, you’re not stupid, so don’t pretend to be,” Gretchen said. ’It’s still a man’s world, and it was even more of a man’s world when our parents met and married and started having children. You’re the heir to the Sprauling legacy. Too bad there’s no family fortune left, but you’re her last living link to our father. Remember how you cried when Joanie was born? I do. And I’ll bet Dad was bummed, too. I’ll bet he wanted more sons. He got Everett, but not until he was dead. Sorry, Ev.”
Everett shrugged. “I’m used to second billing.”
They all laughed, but for Joanie the laughter masked sadness. She looked around at her kitchen and living room, at the ocean view out the windows, at the life she and Carol had built together through years of dedication and work – and she knew it would never be enough. Not for Annabelle, and not for her siblings. Yet she would be the one, when things got difficult – and they would – to step in with money and time and middle-child diplomacy and problem-solving skills to ease their mother’s path out of this world. Gretchen would help, but Gretchen didn’t have money, and she had Calvin to consider, too. Joanie couldn’t blame her for putting the needs of her grown but childlike son before those of their aging mother. Maddie and Pilar and Everett would pitch in as much as they could, and Jeremy would once again be summoned from California to play the hero without doing much of anything. She could see it all clearly. What she couldn’t see was the future of the family beyond their mother’s death. However disparate their lives had become over the years, Annabelle had always been the sun at the center of their eccentric orbits. When she was gone, what would hold them together?
Perhaps it happens to all families, she thought. What was holding them together now but this mystery surrounding their father’s long-ago accident? Why else were they all sitting around her table? Jeremy had never been here before, Madison only once. Gretchen lived close by and visited more frequently, and Everett sometimes played out on Mount Desert Island and had occasionally dropped in with one or more of his musical friends. Pilar, the sister she had been closest to growing up, hadn’t been here in years, though she had spent most of one summer with them more than a decade ago during a period between boyfriends. Joanie realized that the tight-knit family she had envisioned and expected to last forever was mostly an illusion. Were they now holding on to something illusory, for fear of flying apart, like the space probes Jeremy still followed, speeding out into the emptiness with their lonely messages that no one would ever hear? She had Carol, and that was good, but how vast the space was between the stars, even neighboring stars in a galaxy. How vast, too, the space between people – even brothers and sisters.
A lull descended over the table. No one seemed to know what to say next. They had not resolved anything, Joanie thought, nor were they likely to. Jeremy was headed back to California, and the rest of them would go on with their lives on this side of the continent. Gretchen was tentatively starting to date again; Joanie wanted to introduce her to a park ranger, a few years younger, who had come East from Glacier National Park following his own divorce. Like Gretchen, he enjoyed running and music and books and beer, and Joanie thought they might hit it off.
Everett was doing okay with his music and had his job at the University to go back to in the fall; Pilar, as far as Joanie knew, still had the adjunct offer from Goddard. Which left Madison, the sibling that Joanie had long thought the most stable of all of them, the most capable of handling adversity. Now she was headed for a third divorce, which would put her one up on Jeremy. If she dreamed of inheriting the point and turning it into a farm, Joanie thought she was delusional. Paul would never stand still for it.
“Did Graham get off all right?” she asked her.
“Oh, sure,” Madison said. “He was nervous about seeing his father, after all these years, but I got an e-mail from him yesterday. I guess they’re getting along swimmingly.”
“Well, that’s nice for him,” Joanie said. “A kid should know his father.”
“Yeah,” Everett said. “It fucks them up if they don’t.”
“So that’s what happened,” Pilar cracked.
“Oh, gosh, Everett, I’m sorry.”
“Forget it,” Everett said. “I was joking.”
Carol rose to clear the dishes, and Joanie got up to help her. They shared a private moment in the small kitchen. “Be happy that you come from a small family,” Joanie told her.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Carol said. “Look at it this way. “You’ve got five friends sitting around that table. You all know each other really, really well. You may have your differences, but you all still talk to one another. Not every family has that.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Joanie said. “Still, we never seem to agree on anything.”
“But you agree to disagree. That’s something.”
“It’s just so complicated,” Joanie complained.
“That it is,” Carol agreed. “But you’re all complicated people. That’s what makes you interesting.”
“She’s not going to let it go,” Joanie said. “Pilar, and this haunted hospital business.”
Carol shrugged. “Maybe she’ll write a book about it.”
Jeremy, bless his heart, ferried more dishes out to the kitchen and asked if he could wash them. Maybe he was changing, after all. Joanie pointed to the dishwasher and said that he could load it. Jeremy remarked that he didn’t have a dishwasher at his place in San Diego, and neither did Everett at his place in Bangor. He had gotten used to washing dishes; the alternative, not washing them until they piled up in the sink, was worse. Living alone, he said, wasn’t so bad once you got used to it. He had come to admire his younger brother’s Spartan lifestyle, and was even thinking about giving up his car when he returned to California.
The siblings began making noises about leaving shortly thereafter. Pilar was going home with Gretchen; Madison was headed back to the farm, where she and her husband were apparently now sleeping in separate rooms. “Do you want a ride back to Bangor?” she asked Everett. “Or are you going with Jeremy?”
The two brothers looked at one another. “Go with Maddie,” Jeremy said. “I might not go straight back. I’ve only got four days left in Maine. I think I’ll check out the night life in Bar Harbor.”
“Suit yourself,” Everett said. “I’ll leave a light on.”
“Be careful,” Carol said. “That road can be dangerous at night.”
“I think I can handle it,” Jeremy said.
“I’ll call Mom,” Gretchen offered. “Try to smooth things out. Jeremy, let me know when you’re going down to say goodbye. Maybe I’ll go with you. Pilar, you should come, too. There’s no sense sitting on hard feelings.”
It was full dark by the time they all left. Mid-August has no more daylight than mid-April. The year was coming around again. Soon it would be autumn. The leaves would fall from the trees and the skies would turn cold and gray, and the taste of dying would be on the lips of the living, including six Sprauling siblings who had lost their father so many autumns ago.