A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 43

Annabelle was playing spider solitaire at the kitchen table when the phone rang. It was a nurse from the Ellsworth hospital. She didn’t recognize the young woman’s name, but they were all so young these days, and nobody seemed to stay in the same job for more than a few years. The girl sounded apologetic, but quickly got to the point. Her son Jeremy had been in a car accident, and his only emergency contact was an ex-wife in California whose unlisted phone number had been changed. She said everyone at the hospital had agreed that his mother would want to know.

“Oh, dear God,” Annabelle cried. “Is he all right?”

“He’s pretty banged up,” the woman said. “His injuries aren’t life-threatening, if that’s what you’re worried about. He broke his ankle. He’s also got a couple broken ribs and a few cuts. The doctors want to keep him at least another day, but then he’s going to need someplace to go. His sister’s here with him now.”

“Which sister? He’s got four of them.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name.”

“How did she find out?” Annabelle wanted to know.

Another pause. “I don’t know. He’s conscious, though he’s still pretty doped up on painkillers.”

Annabelle thought back to the gathering a few nights ago and how badly it had ended. Her grown children seemed increasingly inclined to leave her out of the loop when something happened to one of them. A consequence of age – they didn’t want to worry her or burden her with things they could handle themselves – but it still rankled.

Paul was out on a friend’s boat, helping him locate a mooring block that had separated from its flotation ball near the outer edge the harbor. His friend had needed someone to drive the boat while he dove on the mooring, and Paul had been happy for something to do. He’d left the car here, walking down to the public landing to meet his fellow fisherman. Now Annabelle saw with dismay that he had also left his cell phone. There it was, sitting right on top of the television. He was terrible about remembering it.

Annabelle suspected that he forgot it on purpose. He hated the idea that someone could get in touch with him all the time, especially when he was out on a boat, which he viewed as a sanctuary from telephones and televisions and the inconvenient interconnectedness of life on land. But she could use a little of that inconvenience now. Her son was hurt and needed her.

She saw no choice but to drive to the hospital herself. Her ankle was still tender, though she had made a few solo trips in the car to the store and back and had even begun to walk short distances unassisted. She scribbled a quick note to Paul that omitted most of the details, and then gathered her car keys, her own cell phone and her purse. Her metal walker leaned, folded, against the side table that served as a repository for bills, newspapers and magazines, photographs she hadn’t found a space for on the bulletin board or the refrigerator, books waiting to go back to the library, and the land phone underneath it all. She could probably get the walker out the door and into the car by herself, and it was safer than the cane she used to walk from one side of the house to the other. But then she imagined arriving at her son’s bedside, a near-invalid creeping toward him in a cage. She grabbed the cane from the back of a kitchen chair, and with her purse slung over her other shoulder, she hobbled toward the door.

She did not think of locking it behind her. The house had not been locked since its construction, and neither she nor Paul carried a key. It was one of the many reasons she resisted the periodic suggestions of her kids, Joanie in particular, that she and Paul move to a more populated place with more services. She did not want to live a life of locking doors everywhere she went. She had made it almost to eighty without having to do so, and it was too late to change now

Though her concern for Jeremy might have weighted her foot, she kept to the speed limit all the way to Ellsworth. She felt capable behind the wheel. Paul might worry, but that was his fault for going off without his phone, was it not? There was a bit of traffic in Blue Hill, mostly near the intersection by the grocery store, and one car with Massachusetts plates blew past her by the fairgrounds, but Annabelle kept her hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road and ignored the horn and the dirty look from the man in the suit. Surely he wasn’t on his way to the hospital to see an injured son. Even in an emergency, manners still mattered, she thought – a maxim the world ignored to its detriment and shame.

At the hospital, she eschewed the handicapped parking spaces adjacent to the entrance, and took the nearest available spot six cars away, a distance she easily covered with the help of the cane. She did not think of herself as handicapped. She just moved more slowly than most people. The outer doors slid open for her, then the inner ones. She did not recognize the woman behind the reception desk, who might have been as young as sixty. There was a funny smell in the lobby, like burnt marshmallows. Her eyes fell on the crisscrossed strips of yellow tape across the opened door of the elevator, and a sheet of paper taped over the panel on the wall, on which someone had written in magic marker: CLOSED. PLEASE USE SERVICE ELEVATOR. A hand-drawn arrow pointed to the hall beyond.

One glance into the elevator was enough to tell her that something bad had happened. The inside panel was gone, and a tangle of colored wires spilled from the rectangular hole. The wall around it had been scorched in an irregular pattern roughly three feet in diameter.

“Was there a fire?” Annabelle asked the woman at the desk.

The woman looked up from her magazine as if Annabelle had asked her for directions to the cafeteria. Her hair was cut like her daughter Joan’s and dyed the same shade of brown. “Happened last night,” she said. “Patient pushed a button, and the whole panel exploded. Burned his hand pretty badly, I guess. Service elevator’s down the hall.”

“I know where it is,” Annabelle said. “I’m more interested in what went wrong with this one.”

The woman shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t here.”

“Do you know which room Jeremy Sprauling is in? He was admitted last night.”

“They’ll be able to tell you at Admissions,” the woman said. “The Emergency entrance is around the corner.”

Annabelle knew where that was, too, but the woman’s attitude infuriated her. How hard was it to pick up an internal phone and find out? She realized that the woman was only a volunteer and could not be expected to keep track of patients, but she could have made a show of being helpful. Annabelle thanked her anyway.

Jeremy was on the second floor, two rooms away from where she had spent the bulk of the spring. Gretchen was with him. Annabelle gasped when she saw the cuts on his face, but Jeremy smiled thinly and said, “It’s alright, Ma, it looks worse than it is.”

His left leg was wrapped from foot to knee in beige bandaging and propped up on a stack of pillows. She was more alarmed by the blue wrapping that concealed his right arm and hand. “You broke your arm, too?” she asked him.

He shook his head. “It was fine when they brought me in,” he said. “This happened in that goddamn elevator.”

Annabelle stared at the bandaged hand. After about thirty seconds, she remembered to breathe.

“Third degree burns,” he said. “All because I pressed the button for the fucking fourth floor.” He looked at his sister. “Gretchen doesn’t believe me. But she doesn’t quite disbelieve me, either.”

Gretchen had been standing by the window, looking outward, but turned around upon hearing her mother’s voice. Annabelle saw that she was upset. She started to reprimand Jeremy for his language, but something in her daughter’s face stopped her.

“Jeremy, there is no fourth floor,” she said.

“He knows that,” Gretchen said. “We all know that.”

“There is a fourth floor,” Jeremy insisted. “Only it’s not in this dimension. But it exists. I’ve been there. Twice.”

Annabelle regarded her reliably rational son. She adored him, but there had been times in his childhood and youth when his intensity had scared her. As it was scaring her now. “Jeremy, what are you talking about?”

“This,” he cried, waving his arm at her. “This happened when I pushed the button for the fourth floor.”

“There is no button for the fourth floor. Why would there be a button for a fourth floor in a three-story building?”

Her son narrowed his eyes at her. “How would you know? When was the last time you were in that elevator? Do you even remember?”

His words froze her. For suddenly she did remember, though she did not want to. She had pushed the memory aside for more than thirty years. She, too, had pushed a button for a floor that was not there. Or she had thought she had. A couple of drinks had almost convinced her otherwise, and the passage of time had finished the job of denial. But she remembered her fear of the absolute dark that had enveloped her, and the small panel light that had offered the only way out. And she remembered what she had seen after she pushed it.

She had taken Everett to the hospital that day – eight-year-old Everett, whose finger she had broken in the car door. As though his entrance had been scripted for this very moment, here was the six-foot, forty year old manchild now, accompanied by his sister Pilar. The contrast in their sizes was almost comical. “Dude!” Everett exclaimed, upon seeing his bruised and bandaged older brother. “What happened?”

Jeremy grinned at him and held up his injured arm. “Looks like I’m going to be a lefty for a little while,” he said. “Maybe you can give me some pointers.”

“We came as soon as we could,” Pilar said. “Madison would have come with us, but she said she had to stay on the farm in case Mike tries to move the animals. They’re still fighting over who gets what, including the farm itself.”

“Joanie’s coming in, too, as soon as she gets off work,” Gretchen informed them.

“But I don’t understand this!” Annabelle cried. “Jeremy, did you call everyone except me?”

Jeremy shook his head.

“I did,” Gretchen said.

Annabelle looked at the faces of her grown children, one after the other. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?”

“That’s what we want to know,” Jeremy said.

Then, astonishingly, he swung his legs off the bed and stood up. He limped toward the window. “I remember that Dad had a view from his office,” he said. “He could look out at the trees, and he could see the church spire downtown when the leaves were gone.” He turned to face his mother. “It would have been right in this general area, before they demolished it to build the new wing. Not too far from the stairwell.”

Annabelle stared open-mouthed at her son. “Jeremy, how can you do that? On a broken ankle?”

“It isn’t broken,” he said. “Not any more. They took a new x-ray an hour ago.”

“You mean they made a mistake?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think it was broken, and when this happened…” He waved his bandaged arm at her. “…it started to heal. I think the first x-ray will prove I’m right.”

“Jeremy, that’s impossible.”

“Remember Everett’s car accident, Mom?” Gretchen said softly.

“Bernadette told me she’d never seen anyone heal so fast,” Jeremy said.

“Jeremy, I don’t want you talking to that woman,” Annabelle snapped. The vehemence in her voice surprised her.

“Why not, Ma?”

She fumbled for words. “I just don’t… She’s not honest, Jeremy. She’s out for herself, and herself only. She uses people to get what she wants. I don’t like her.”

“What happened with Dad?” Pilar asked, from the corner of the room. “What really happened? I think we all deserve to know.”

“He fell down the stairs,” Annabelle said. “He fell, and he fractured his skull, and he died.” She couldn’t believe this. Her children were ganging up on her – the kids she had raised, alone, after Elliott Sprauling had abandoned her, for whom she had entered a second, volatile marriage and provided a home that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, they could always return to. And Jeremy – the one offspring who had carved out a successful career which she could boast about to her friends, and had done so by abandoning her in return – Jeremy had put them up to it.

“There’s more to the story, though, isn’t there, Mom?” Everett said.

She turned to face him. He had his father’s height, his boyish good looks, his grin – but he was not grinning now. “How would you know?” she said. “You weren’t even there.”

“But I was,” Gretchen said. “I remember that day. You had gone out and left me in charge. And you came home all agitated, and told us something had happened to Dad. You made us pack our pajamas and a change of clothes. And then the phone rang.”

“I’d been out to the Island,” Annabelle murmured. “To get my hair done.”

“But you knew already,” Gretchen said. “You knew Dad had fallen, even before they called you. And lately I’ve been wondering how. There weren’t any cell phones back then, or e-mail, or any of that stuff. Someone would have had to flag you down on the street. Unless you stopped in at the hospital.”

Annabelle felt the tips of her fingers go numb. She sometimes suffered this when the weather changed. Her knuckles ached, and she frequently lost feeling in one or both hands. Autumn was a particularly bad time for the arthritis she’d been dealing with since her fifties. October, right around the anniversary of Elliot’s death, was the worst. But it was still August. Still warm, though Paul had said at breakfast that a storm was on its way. He needed to help his friend find his mooring, he’d said, before the storm churned up the bottom.

She looked at her offspring arrayed around her: Jeremy, leaning against the windowsill, supported by the ankle he had supposedly broken; Gretchen, awaiting an answer to a question she had likely carried with her all through her adulthood; Pilar, who had been her father’s secret favorite, barely larger than the six-year-old child she had been on the day of his death; and Everett, in his height and his optimistic outlook on life and his faith that nothing could harm him, not really, not in any permanent way, so like the father he had never known – she saw them all in a single glance and wished that the other two were here, so that she could come clean to all of them at once.

And yet she insisted to herself that she had not lied to them. She had not told them anything that wasn’t true. She may not have told them the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help her God – and where was God, anyway, at a time like this, when you needed Him? She was sure he wasn’t in the elevator. She was pretty sure that Elliott Sprauling wasn’t in the elevator, either. It couldn’t be as simple as that.

What happened when you died? She wasn’t far from finding out – a matter of a decade, give or take – and no one knew better than she how fast ten years went. “Death is only hard on the living,” her brother Byron had told her at their father’s funeral. It was a comforting platitude, but that did not make it true. Maybe death, especially untimely death, was hardest on the dead. But she had not lied to her children. She held onto that, as she scanned their faces. She had not lied to them. If they had not asked these questions for forty-one years, well then, she could not be blamed for failing to answer them, could she? But she had not lied.

“I was there,” she said, looking at each of them in turn, her eyes coming to rest, finally, on Gretchen, the only other person in the room who remembered. Pilar had been too young, and Jeremy had been away at school. Everett had been a bundle of cells in her abdomen.

“I was there,” she said again. “When he fell. That’s how I knew.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Gretchen whispered.

“I didn’t know he was going to die!” Annabelle cried. “It was an accident. I’d had my hair done, and I wanted to surprise him. I guess I surprised him.” She buried her face in her hands. She didn’t want to cry in front of her grown children.

Jeremy, bless his heart, limped over and placed a hand on her shoulder. He had the good sense, for once, not to say anything.

“I didn’t know he was going to die,” Annabelle said again, looking out the window. “I didn’t know how badly hurt he was. I thought he’d open his eyes, and see his family around him, and come to his senses. See what he had. See all the people who loved him.”

“I remember that we stayed here, all the time he was unconscious,” Gretchen said. “They made up rooms for us. We sat at his bedside, holding his hand. We talked to him. But we weren’t with him when he died.”

“No,” Annabelle said, her voice hoarse. “None of us were.”

“Why not, Mom?” Pilar asked.

“Because I had to go pick up Jeremy.”

“What?” Jeremy said.

His hand rested gently on her shoulder. But it was dead weight, like the hand of her husband as he slipped deeper into his coma. She placed a hand on his and felt how cold it was. He was slipping away from her, too.

“Your bus,” she said. “I had to go meet your bus.”

“And that was when he died,” Gretchen said. “While you were gone. Only nobody told us, until you got back.”

“I had to pick you up, in Stockton Springs,” Annabelle said.

“Because the bus went up the river, to Bangor,” Everett said. “It still does that. There’s never been a bus that follows Route One, all the way along the coast. They all go to Bangor. Then you have to get on another bus to go to Ellsworth, and if you miss it, you’re out of luck. You have to stay in Bangor overnight. I’ve seen people sleeping on the asphalt in front of the bus station.”

“The Greyhound used to stop in Stockton Springs, late at night,” Jeremy said. “It was the closest stop to Blue Hill. Ma had to drive half an hour to Stockton Springs to pick me up.”

“Nowadays you’d have to drive to Searsport,” Everett said. “Forty years, and public transportation in Maine hasn’t improved one bit. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”

Annabelle suppressed her annoyance. This was not the time for Everett to grind his ax about the evils of cars. “I kept thinking he’d come to,” she said to Jeremy. “I wish I had called you earlier.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference, Ma,” he said gently. “I might have seen him before he died, but he wouldn’t have seen me.”

“They cleared us out of the room,” Gretchen said. “One of the nurses sat with us the whole time you were gone. People kept going in and out of Dad’s room, but no one would tell us what was happening.”

“Can you blame them?” Pilar said.

“Yes,” Gretchen said. “We deserved to know the truth.”

“But put yourself in their place,” Pilar said. “Four girls under the age of twelve. Would you want to tell them that their father’s dead, without their mother there to comfort them?”

“Why didn’t you take us with you?” Gretchen asked.

Annabelle glared at her oldest daughter. Sometimes, she had to admit, she didn’t like Gretchen very much. She was practical and efficient and competent, but cold. Perhaps the challenge of raising Calvin had done that to her. “Gretchen, it didn’t make much sense to pack you all into the car,” she said. “I was only gone a little more than an hour. How could I have known your father would pick that hour to die? You wouldn’t have been with him in either case. It’s pointless to argue about.”

“But maybe that’s why he’s haunting the hospital,” Pilar said. “He never got to say goodbye. And none of got to say goodbye to him.”

Annabelle felt tired. “Pilar, life doesn’t work that way,” she said. “There’s never any closure. There’s no redemption. When we die, we leave a lot of loose ends, and it remains for the living to sort them all out, if they can. Your father and I had some problems we were trying to work out when he died. Needless to say, we never resolved them.”

“Maybe you will,” Pilar said softly, “in the afterlife.”

“I’m not counting on it,” Annabelle answered immediately. “And who wants to spend an eternity hashing out the problems of this life? If there is an afterlife, I’d like to just let the worries of this one go.”

“If you honestly repent your sins, aren’t you supposed to be forgiven for them?” Everett said. “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?”

“Yes,” Pilar said. “But you have to have faith.”

“That always struck me as too easy,” Jeremy said. “Believing something doesn’t make it true.”

“Said the scientist who believes in aliens,” Pilar said.

“To the sister who believes in ghosts,” he shot back.

“Stop it,” Annabelle said. “What difference does it make now? Jeremy, I’m glad your ankle isn’t broken. Everett, I’m glad you didn’t die in that awful accident you had when you were twenty. Pilar, I envy you your faith. But I don’t think your father has anything to do with any of it.”

“Where’d Everett get his musical talent?” Gretchen asked.

“Such as it is,” Everett said.

“Come on, Everett, you’ve always been able to pick up a musical instrument and figure out how to play it within hours,” Pilar said. “Dad wasn’t around to teach you, and none of us did, either.”

“Maybe it’s genetic,” Everett offered.

“Then how come the rest of us didn’t get it?” Gretchen asked.

Annabelle allowed her eyes to close for a moment, overwhelmed by the arguing of her offspring. It seemed a miracle that she could have brought all this energy into the world. She felt her own energy ebbing. How good it would feel to rest, to put all of this behind her. Most of her life had been spent juggling the emotions of others. Elliott Sprauling had left her to raise six children alone, and those six kids had morphed into an extended family of in-laws and grandchildren and girlfriends and great-grandchildren. She suddenly felt tired of it all.

The door opened behind her. “That must be Joanie,” she said, thankful for the interruption. But when she turned to look, her gratitude vanished. Bernadette Steele scanned the room until her eyes found Annabelle’s. For a moment, neither woman said anything.

“Hi,” Jeremy greeted her. “I’m glad you came.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Bernadette said. “I’m sorry, Annabelle.”

“Jeremy, what is she doing here?” Annabelle demanded.

“I called her,” Jeremy said. To Bernadette, he added, “They said you were on vacation, but I took a chance.”

“I just got in last night,” Bernadette replied. “You said it was important.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing Jeremy,” Annabelle sputtered, “but…”

“I wanted to know the truth about Dad,” he said. “We all want to know. And she was there, too.”

Annabelle looked at the faces in the room. Forty-one years fell away. And here it was: the moment of reckoning, the confrontation she had managed to avoid for more than half her life. She had not lied to her children, but she had not told them everything, either. And now they wanted to know.

“He fell,” she said. “He fell down the stairs, and fractured his skull, and three days later he died.”

“But that’s not all, is it, Ma?” Jeremy said.

Damn his scientific doggedness. And Gretchen, with her intact memory and her overdeveloped sense of responsibility – where was her obligation to her mother, and the absolution Annabelle had earned? Pilar, who had set this all in motion with her bizarre belief in the supernatural, had been too young to retain real memories of that awful weekend. Everett, who resembled his father more than any of her other children, was the only true innocent in the room.

“It was an accident – a horrible, horrible accident,” she said. “I’m sorry that you all had to grow up without a father. And maybe if I hadn’t stopped by to surprise him that day, it wouldn’t have happened. But maybe something else would have. Maybe it was fate. There’s no way any of us can ever know. If I could go back and change things, I would. But I can’t.”

She lowered her head. “Pilar, you think the hospital is haunted. Believe me, I’m haunted by it every day.”

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