The doctor was dead, to begin with. He died one of those bizarre deaths that defy explanation and offer comfort only in their absurdity. It happened on a raw, blustery day in late October, rain pelting the hospital windows and slapping faded leaves against the glass. Doctor Elliott Sprauling, 46 years old, with a wife and five kids and another on the way, had rushed from his upstairs office after the Saturday charge nurse on the floor below buzzed him on the intercom. His postoperative appendectomy patient was waking up. Doctor Sprauling knew that male patients could be combative emerging from anesthesia, and that the recovery room was understaffed on weekends. He doubted the nurses could handle the six-foot-four construction manager should he come up swinging.
Though the good doctor might rather have been home watching college football, it was his turn on the call rotation. And so Dr. Sprauling ran from his office and into the stairwell, where he met his sudden fate. Apparently he fell alone, but Bernadette Leighton, one of the young nurses on duty, heard his head hit the linoleum at the bottom of the stairs. By the time she got to him there was nothing anyone could do but call another doctor to tend to the doctor on call.
He didn’t die right away. He lived for most of three days, never regaining consciousness, his skull fractured, his brain functions shutting down. His wife and four daughters paid weepy visits to his hospital room to stare at his inert form and hold his clammy hands. The oldest child, a son, was summoned from his New Hampshire prep school and arrived a couple hours after his father’s last breath.
But decades later, long after the doctor’s death and the demolition of the stairwell, his presence lingered, though hospital management discouraged overt remembrances. No plaque bore his name. Fewer nurses and staff remembered him with each passing year. Most medical professionals maintain that they don’t believe in ghosts. None will discuss the subject in the workplace.
Annabelle Sprauling gave birth to a sixth child and second son the following spring, the spring of 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in and the last landing on the moon. Though she declined to name him after his deceased dad, the name she did give him – Everett – was close enough to require constant correction. “Oh, is this little Elliott?” her neighbors cooed when they saw him in his stroller that summer. The people of the small Maine town where Annabelle lived and raised her suddenly fatherless brood were generous and kind, and she had the house, a bit of life insurance money, and the distant benevolence of the doctor’s Philadelphia family. She found work in the local school system, remarried, and relocated farther out on the peninsula where her second husband, who fished for lobsters and fixed things, owned a small piece of inherited shorefront. Everett and his sisters – Gretchen, Madison, Joanie and Pilar – wandered some but mostly stayed in Maine. The first son followed a dark-haired woman several years older than himself to California, lost her, and became an astronomer.
Jeremy Sprauling liked to say that his career had been determined on the day of his birth – October 4, 1957 – the day the Soviet Union launched a basketball-sized object that passed over the United States every 96 minutes. It carried no cameras or weaponry; it did nothing but stay in orbit and send out a radio pulse that could be detected from the ground. But nobody knew that then. It was the first manmade object to disprove the maxim that what goes up must come down. Sputnik was undeniably up there, above and beyond the atmosphere, circling the planet. Jeremy had arrived just in time for the Space Age.
Annabelle Sprauling became Annabelle Bremerton, a name she would keep longer than the name of her first husband or the name she had been born with. Paul Bremerton was a decent, hard-working man, flawed by a fondness for alcohol and flashes of temper. In 2002 he holed his boat on a ledge and quit fishing, the same year that Annabelle retired (or was asked to retire, depending on who said what) from her job as an administrative aide and substitute teacher. The couple continued to live on the point, supported by Social Security, Paul’s odd jobs, and summer rentals of a cabin on the shore to well-off families from Boston and beyond.
They might have lived there happily until the end of their days, content to watch the comings and goings of the tides and the seasons. But as Annabelle approached her eightieth birthday, her body began to fall apart, and with it, the family history they all thought they remembered.