Bernadette remembered it differently.
October days in Maine can break your heart with their sublime beauty. The low angle of the sun illuminates the leaves in their last gasps of spectacular color. But other days can turn dark and foreboding, pelting windows with slashing rain and plastering dead leaves to pavement and patios, daylight not arriving until after seven, and offering only a few grudging hours of gray. That Saturday was the second kind.
But Bernadette Leighton began the day filled with joy nonetheless, for she was on call, and so was Dr. Elliott Sprauling, and she hoped the hospital would have few patients so that she and the handsome doctor could spend some time together. Their nascent affair was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her in her twenty-two years, and though she felt a twinge of guilt and knew, somewhere in the back of her mind, that it couldn’t last, she looked forward to every stolen moment.
It had begun innocently enough, with a stray compliment here and there about her hair, or her performance in surgery, or a new pair of earrings. He noticed her; he made her feel like more than just another nurse he could boss around or blame for his own carelessness, as so many doctors did. When he asked her to get him a cup of coffee, it didn’t feel like a command. When she fumbled in the operating room he did not berate her, but patiently explained what he wanted done and how she could do it better. From there it had progressed to personal conversations, mostly about her, seldom about his wife and children. He seemed to take a genuine interest in her desire to learn on the job, and maybe to go back to school some day. He told her she was smart. Imagine that – a big city doctor, praising the intelligence of a girl from rural Maine. She had never felt so flattered in all of her short life. The first time he touched her was to guide her gloved hand onto an exposed intestine he wanted her to hold out of the way; the second time was after the surgery, when he placed his ungloved hand on her shoulder and told her she had done just fine. A week later, when they had been momentarily alone in the break room, he had planted a soft kiss on the flesh between her neck and collarbone. She had responded by turning to face him, and he had kissed her on the lips.
The hospital maintained several rooms for nurses who lived more than half an hour away to sleep in while on call. It was in one of these rooms that they first made love, in mid-July – she had put a small star in the corner of the date on her personal calendar and had marked every encounter since, including one glorious night in a Portland hotel when they had both attended the same medical seminar. When other people were around he was completely professional, and she continued to address him as “doctor.” It was all too soap opera-ish, she admitted to herself in honest moments, and she suspected she was not the good-looking doctor’s only conquest. She hadn’t missed the looks her supervisor had been giving her lately. Becky Thibodeau was a stout woman of about forty, with steel-wool hair coiffed halfway down her ears, and Bernadette wondered if she was a lesbian. She didn’t take a lot of guff from the doctors and disapproved of flirtatious banter in the operating room. But she also knew everything that went on the hospital. Bernadette tried not to let her guard down when Becky was anywhere nearby. But it was hard to conceal the thrill she felt whenever she and Dr. Sprauling were in the same room.
On this gray day, the only patient was an emergency appendectomy. Though the man was large and overweight, the surgery was routine. Afterwards, the other two nurses on duty settled in at a table just outside the recovery room, where they could keep an eye on the patient during their cribbage game. Bernadette did not know how to play cribbage, and neither of the two older women had offered to teach her. But the doctor had other ideas. “Come up to my office,” he suggested. “I’ve got an interesting kidney stone case coming up next week, and I want you to take a look at the x-ray. The guy’s got a double ureter on the side we’re going to be operating on. I’ve never seen one before.”
He didn’t have to wink at her to let her know they were going to do more than talk shop. His office was dominated by a large oak desk, from which he had cleared the files and photographs and paperwork that usually sprawled across its expansive surface. He had her up on the edge, her uniform bunched around her waist so that she could feel the cool, hard wood through her underwear, and was running his hands up and down her flanks as they kissed, when the intercom buzzed.
“Doctor Sprauling?” She recognized the voice of one of the cribbage-playing nurses downstairs.
She felt him stiffen and pull away from her. “Yes?” he growled.
“Your wife’s here.”
“What? What does she want?”
“I don’t know,” said the bored voice on the other end of the intercom. “Should I send her up?”
The doctor was fumbling with his belt, which he’d unfastened, and tucking his shirt back into his pants. Bernadette slid off the desk and smoothed down her uniform.
“Give me a minute,” Elliott Sprauling said. “I’ll be right down.” He looked around for his shoes, which he had removed and set on his office chair. They were nice shoes, Bernadette observed, polished black leather with long, thin laces, one of which hung nearly to the floor, dangling like an unfinished sentence. She handed them to him without a word.
“You’d better go,” he said.
She nodded as she did her best to rearrange her hair with her fingers. He didn’t have a mirror in his office, at least one that she could see, and her small hand mirror was in her purse, downstairs in her locker.
“You look fine,” he said, with a soft smile. “We’ll pick this up later.” He set his shoes on the top of his desk and quickly kissed her forehead. He turned her around and gave her a little pat on the bottom before steering her toward the door. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t suspect a thing.”
The doctor’s wife was halfway up the stairs when Bernadette emerged into the hall. The two women stopped, and looked at one another, and in that instant Bernadette knew the doctor was wrong. She had seen Annabelle Sprauling a few times, most recently at a hospital picnic the previous summer at another doctor’s home on Mount Desert Island. She was small but not frail, and her face, though soft and friendly, telegraphed a tough intelligence. The doctor had introduced them, but Bernadette couldn’t recall that they had exchanged more than a few words. Even then, Bernadette had detected suspicion in Annabelle’s dark eyes. Her husband was an attractive man, and all three of them knew it.
They stood there for an awkward moment, Bernadette at the top of the stairs, Annabelle on the landing halfway up. Bernadette dared not look over her shoulder at the door to the doctor’s office. Mrs. Sprauling’s hair looked different – she’d had it styled into a round halo of auburn ringlets – and her own straight, strawberry hair, hastily hand-brushed, must have looked disheveled in comparison. She was working, after all, and that thought jarred her from her paralysis. “Hello, Mrs. Sprauling,” she said, loud enough for the doctor to hear. “He’s just wrapping up some paperwork.”
The woman scowled at her. “I didn’t realize he’d be so busy on a Saturday.”
And then Bernadette heard the door to the doctor’s office open, followed by Elliott Sprauling’s voice: “Annabelle. What an unexpected surprise.”
All surprises are unexpected, Bernadette thought. That’s what makes them surprises. But people will say inane things when caught off guard. “You should have called,” the doctor continued. “I’ve got a patient.”
“You son of a bitch,” she heard his wife say. Without realizing it, Bernadette had retreated from the top of the stairs, into the hallway. Annabelle Sprauling was up in her husband’s face immediately, backing him against the wall at the top of the stairs, and Bernadette saw that one of the doctor’s shoes was still untied, the loose laces hanging over the edge of the top step. “How old is she anyway?” She cast a withering sidelong look at Bernadette. “Is there anything you won’t stick your dick into if you get a chance?”
He took a step away from her, toward the stairs. “Annabelle, it’s not what it looks like,” he said.
She slapped him across the face, hard. He recoiled, and tried to back away. She wouldn’t let him. “Don’t you stand there and lie to me. At least have the decency to admit what a bastard you are.” She shook her head. “I had my hair done. Doesn’t it look nice?”
“I was just going to tell you that.”
His attempt at charm only infuriated her more. “You didn’t even notice.” She went to slap him again, but the doctor grabbed her arm. “Don’t touch me,” Annabelle cried, yanking it away. Bernadette retreated farther back into the hall.
The doctor said something she didn’t catch. Mrs. Sprauling struck him again, this time with a closed fist. The doctor threw his arms in front of his face to protect himself, but his wife homed in, raining blows, cursing him. “Annabelle, stop,” he said, but she was in a rage, pummeling him and calling him every name she could think of: whore dog, shit heel, lying fornicating bastard.
“Annabelle, you have to go,” he managed to get out. “We can talk about this at home.”
But she did not relent. “At home?” she cried. “In front of the kids? Or maybe you were thinking we’d put them to bed, and then make all nicey-nicey, maybe with a bottle of wine in front of the fireplace.” She hit him again, punctuating each word with a fist. “That. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen.”
He continued to back away. The last blow caught him at the edge of the top step. Bernadette saw her hit him again, and she saw him stagger. He pinwheeled his arms. And then she saw Annabelle step on the loose ends of his shoelace, and hit him once more, square in the face.
He reeled backward, suspended in air for a moment, like Wile E. Coyote on the edge of a cliff. Bernadette could do nothing as she watched his long body pass the tipping point. His shoe came off. He tumbled down the stairs.
Bernadette thought she heard him cry out once, and then she heard a sickening crunch as his head hit a step just above the landing. He bounced, and kept falling, all at odd angles like a tossed piece of furniture, until he crashed on the floor below. The back of his head hit the linoleum hard. The shoe bounced down the stairs after him, and came to rest, right side up, on the landing.
“Oh, my God.” Bernadette rushed past the doctor’s stunned wife, and flew down the stairs. She knelt by the doctor’s head. His eyes were open, but unfocused. His mouth moved, but no sound came out. A trickle of blood emerged from one ear. She felt his neck for a pulse and, thankfully, found it.
She looked up. Annabelle stood on the top step, her hands grasping the railing, breathing hard. She felt the doctor’s neck for a pulse, and, thankfully, found it. But she knew already that he was in a world of hurt. Annabelle hadn’t moved.
“Is he all right?” Annabelle said.
Bernadette looked at his face, at his glazed-over eyes, at the blood seeping out onto the floor. “No, I don’t think he is.”
The doctor’s wife walked down the stairs, carefully stepping around the shoe on the landing. She lowered herself to one knee on the opposite side of the doctor’s body. Elliott Sprauling gave no sign that he saw her.
“Is he dead?” Annabelle whispered.
Bernadette shook her head. She felt herself trembling. “I’d better get the other nurses,” she managed to get out.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?”
Bernadette nodded. Annabelle’s eyes were dry, and Bernadette willed herself not to cry, either.
“I need to go get my kids,” Annabelle said. “They’re alone at home.”
“Can you stay with him until I get someone?”
“I don’t think I should,” Annabelle said.
Bernadette looked at her.
“You listen to me,” Annabelle said, her voice quiet but firm. “I’m not here. I stopped in to see him, but he was busy.”
Annabelle grasped her wrist with surprising strength. “You give me half an hour, and then you call me at home. I’m sure you have the number.”
Bernadette was young and scared. She did what she was told.
Everything after that was a blur. Two doctors were summoned from their weekends to tend to Dr. Sprauling while Bernadette took care of the appendectomy patient. She stayed in the call room that night but did not sleep. Annabelle and her daughters kept vigil, and Bernadette kept her distance. By Monday it became evident that the doctor was not going to recover. Bernadette had the day off after her weekend on call, and was not at the hospital when he died.
She spoke to Annabelle only once during the three days of the doctor’s lingering death, late on Sunday afternoon. Though the two women had tried to avoid each other, they found themselves side by side at the washbasin in the women’s bathroom. “How are your daughters holding up?” Bernadette asked her.
Annabelle did not look at her directly. But her eyes in the mirror were cold. “About as well as you’d expect,” she said. “My son’s coming up tomorrow night. He’s at school in New Hampshire.” She paused. “The doctors don’t think he’s going to make it, do they?”
Bernadette shook her head. “I’m sorry, Annabelle.” The use of the doctor’s wife’s first name felt strange on her tongue.
“Oh, spare me your pity,” Annabelle said. “You’re just as guilty as I am.”
Bernadette summoned her courage, and said, “I don’t think so.”
“How can you say that? You were having sexual relations with my husband. A married man with five kids.”
Soon to be six, Bernadette thought, if she was any kind of nurse at all, though Annabelle was barely showing, and Dr. Sprauling had not told Bernadette that his wife was pregnant. She stepped away from the sink and pulled two paper towels from the dispenser. Positioning herself between the doctor’s wife and the door, she said, “I saw what you did.”
Still the woman would not look directly at her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Bernadette dried her hands slowly, to keep them from shaking. Her insides felt like a sand castle crumbling into the waves, but she forced herself to maintain an outward show of calm. “You stepped on his shoelace. You did it deliberately. I saw the whole thing.”
Annabelle stopped washing her hands. She looked into the mirror, and found Bernadette’s reflection. “You saw nothing,” she said, her voice tight, “except another woman’s husband making a mockery of his marriage. I hit him. He deserved it. But what happened after I hit him was an accident.”
“That’s not how it looked from where I was standing.”
“You impudent floozy,” the older woman hissed, careful not to be heard outside the confines of the bathroom. “How dare you accuse me of anything! If you had been doing your job instead of letting him slip his hands up your dress, none of this would have happened. This is your fault.”
“Not entirely,” Bernadette said, quaking as she said it.
The doctor’s wife fell silent. Bernadette held her ground. The older woman made no move to push past her out the door.
“I could ruin you.” Annabelle’s voice was flat, but there was no mistaking the threat in it.
“And I could see you sent to prison, depending on what happens out there,” Bernadette answered, with a small nod toward the door. She didn’t have to say what “out there” meant. They both knew.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Annabelle said, in a pleading whisper. “Please believe me.”
“I don’t know that I’m entirely able to do that, Annabelle,” Bernadette countered.
Several seconds passed. The two women stared at each other in the antiseptic silence of the hospital bathroom. It was Annabelle who spoke first.
“No one,” she said, “must ever know of this – least of all my children. We never had this conversation. And I never want to see you again.”