(Part Five) Chapter 36
“I’ve never seen anything like it before or since,” Bernadette said. “None of the other nurses had, either.”
“How do you mean?” Jeremy asked from across the table.
“Your brother recovered in 24 hours from injuries that usually take a month or more to heal.” Bernadette said, spearing an olive with her fork. “It was eerie. It was almost…”
“Supernatural?” Jeremy suggested.
“I’m not going there,” Bernadette said. She chewed the olive slowly. “I told you, that kind of talk is discouraged around hospitals. But it was damned strange, and more than a little unnerving. I honestly don’t know, to this day, how he walked out the hospital under his own power, less than forty-eight hours after the accident.”
“I was in California,” Jeremy said. “I only heard about the accident a few days after it happened. And of course Everett was fine by then.”
“Whereas the kid in the passenger seat had to use crutches all winter.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jeremy said.
“There’s a lot I don’t know,” he said, watching her face for a reaction as he paused. “About a lot of things.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she said again, her thin lips closed, her hazel eyes on his. She wore sand dollar sized hoop earrings against her shoulder-length strawberry hair, which fell loose over a white blouse. The corners of her mouth turned up ever so slightly. His assessment of her had not changed since their first meeting: she was an attractive, sixtyish woman. He liked her angular face and sharp eyes and the crow’s feet that showed when she smiled.
“Thank you for seeing me,” he said.
She set down her fork and looked at him. “I don’t have all the answers for you, Jeremy.”
“That’s okay. I’m not sure I have all of the questions.”
He had called her several times over the past few weeks, and she had finally agreed to this lunch, at a Greek restaurant in Ellsworth’s tiny downtown, which Jeremy noted was making an effort at revitalization. Though most of the commerce still lay along the garish commercial strip on the way out to Bar Harbor, where the familiar big box stores had established sprawling outlets amid acres of parking lots, a few small businesses had sprouted in the neglected historic district, including this pleasant, sunlit eatery. She had suggested it on his third attempt at an invitation.
“I didn’t know that you knew my father,” he said.
“I was a young nurse and he was a big shot doctor. I’m sorry I reacted the way I did. It’s just… well, you looked familiar the first time I saw you. And then when I saw your brother Everett… as an adult, I mean… You look a bit like your father, but Everett really looks like him.”
“Except for the hair,” Jeremy said, running a hand through his own. He hadn’t had it cut since coming to Maine.
“Baldness supposedly skips a generation. You don’t have sons, do you?”
He shook his head. “A daughter. She’s all grown up now. Lives in California. Everett has a boy, though. He’s nine, but he still has his hair.”
“Tell him to enjoy it while he can,” she said, and they laughed together.
“My dad got sunburned on the top of his head if he forgot to wear a hat in the summer. I remember once when he took Gretchen and me sailing for the day, out around the southern end of Mount Desert. Lots of wind, lots of sun. He had, like, a few hairs on top, and I guess he imagined they’d protect him. Or maybe it was just too windy for him to keep a hat on. When we came in, the top of his head was glowing like Bass Harbor Light.”
He had her laughing harder now. She took a sip of water, recovered, drew a deep breath and gave him that look again, of… what? Appraisal? Amusement? It was hard to tell what she was thinking. He felt nervous, as he usually did in the company of a woman he liked, and he didn’t know what to say next.
“My brother’s girlfriend is a surgical technician. She worked at your hospital for a while. Her name’s Corinne.”
“What’s her last name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Corinne’s a pretty common name. But it isn’t ringing a bell.”
“She flat-out told us the hospital is haunted,” Jeremy said. “She claims it’s common knowledge among the staff, but that no one will talk about it, because of fear of reprisal. She said the last thing anyone wants to hear in a place full of sick people is talk about ghosts.”
“Well, that last bit is true,” she admitted. “It’s part of the job not to spook the patients, or their families. The rest of it is nonsense.”
The impossibly young waitress arrived with their lunch: pan-fried trout for her, a turkey club sandwich for him. He had been tempted to order a beer, but when she asked for iced tea he had settled for cranberry juice. Now it was almost empty. He nodded when the girl asked him if he wanted a refill; she topped off Bernadette’s tea glass from a metal pitcher without being asked. “Will you be needing anything else right away?” the girl said, her blond ponytail bobbing from side to side as she glanced at them each in turn.
“Not right now, thank you,” Jeremy said.
They ate and talked of other, inconsequential things, but the conversation wheeled back around to the hospital and the question that hung between them. “My father wasn’t ready to die,” Jeremy said. “He had a family. He had a kid in the oven he never got to meet.”
She nodded. “Everett.”
“You said you had never seen injuries heal so fast. And my father was a surgeon. You see where I’m going with this?”
“Yes, and I’m not going there with you. Your father’s accident was a tragedy. It was the worst thing that’s happened at that place in all the time I’ve worked there. But that doesn’t mean his spirit scrubbed in with the real live doctors to save the son he never met. Come on, Jeremy. People talk, and strange stuff happens, including Everett’s recovery, but that doesn’t add up to evidence for a ghost in the elevator. You’re a scientist.”
“I know. But still… Bernadette, was there anything suspicious about my father’s death? Anything at all?”
She sighed, and looked at him with sad eyes. “Jeremy, why, after all this time, do you want to dig this all up again? What is there to gain from it? He fell down the stairs. He was your father and you miss him, but he’s been dead for more than forty years. Even if he did have, as you say, unfinished business in this world, and even if I were to acknowledge the possibility – the possibility only – what could keep him hanging around that long? Let him rest, Jeremy. Let him go. I have.”
He looked at his hands, folded in front of his empty plate. “I thought I had, too. I moved three thousand miles away. I had very little to do with my family, for years and years. My father was dead. He fell and hit his head, and three days later he died, without ever regaining consciousness. That was the official line from Ma and everyone else, and I never questioned it.”
“Then why start now? It’s done.”
“Because all this weird stuff started happening. Like every time we came to visit her, the elevator got stuck, or went to the wrong floor. That’s how you and I met the first time.” Their eyes locked. “I notice you don’t use that elevator, by the way.”
“It’s never worked right.” But Jeremy didn’t miss the defensiveness in her tone, or the set of her chin. “I lost patience with it after getting stuck a few times. We’ve had it serviced. But nobody was ever able to pinpoint the problem. That doesn’t mean it’s haunted, though. It’s more likely a wiring issue, or something that went wrong in the initial installation, wouldn’t you think?”
“I would,” he acknowledged, “except that my brother and at least a couple of my sisters are convinced otherwise.”
“What do you believe?” she asked him.
“I don’t believe anything. Like you say, I’m a scientist. I follow the evidence. That’s why I wanted to talk to you, to find out what you know. What you’ve seen.”
She leaned back in her chair and dabbed at the corner of her mouth. Her face relaxed. “In forty-three years at that hospital, I’ve seen a lot,” she said. “I’ve seen sick people make miraculous recoveries, and I’ve seen seemingly healthy people die. I’ve seen heartbreak and tragedy and triumph and incredible courage. I’ve seen horrible diseases and all kinds of family drama. But I have never, to my knowledge, seen a ghost.”
The young waitress reappeared, and asked if they were interested in dessert. Bernadette shook her head. “I guess we’ll pass,” Jeremy said.
He waited for the kitchen doors to swing shut behind her before resuming the conversation. “What was my father like?” he asked her. “As a doctor, I mean? I remember what he was like as a father – a little distant, kind of authoritarian, firm but fair. But what was he like at work?”
She paused, and twirled the ice in the bottom of her glass, looking down into it. “He was… well, he was very good at what he did, I’ll say that for him. He had a lot of confidence.” She raised her eyes again. “He was good to work for. He treated the nurses well – better than most doctors did, in those days. Some of them could be really verbally abusive. He wasn’t. But if you made a mistake he’d let you know about it. I was a little bit scared of him.”
“So was I,” Jeremy said. “My mother was, too, I think.”
“I don’t know about that,” Bernadette muttered into the glass.
“What makes you say that?”
“Nothing,” she said quickly, looking away.
“Something,” he countered. “Or you wouldn’t have said it.”
He sensed her discomfort. “I can’t tell you everything, Jeremy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m the chief executive officer of a hospital,” she said. “I am something of a public figure, although technically I work in the private sector. What I say, what I can be overheard saying, or quoted as saying, has consequences. Especially since we’re under new ownership, and we’re all worried about our jobs. There are rules about confidentiality. I’m not about to break them, for the sake of satisfying the curiosity of someone I barely know. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t trust me,” he said.
“Not entirely, no.”
“But there is something,” he pressed on. “There’s something about my father’s death that’s still unresolved. And it’s still affecting the hospital – and my family.”
Bernadette gazed out the window toward the street and said nothing. His eyes followed hers. Pedestrians sauntered along the sidewalk in sandals and shorts and sundresses. The weather had been hot lately, and humid, which Jeremy wasn’t used to. He had forgotten how sticky the east coast could get, even just a few miles from the ocean. The restaurant had air conditioning, but he had managed to work up a sweat walking here from his car to meet her. Now he felt moisture on the back of his neck. It was definitely past time for a haircut.
When she didn’t say anything, Jeremy said, “I’d like to see you again.”
She laughed nervously. He’d flustered her. “As in a date, you mean?”
“Why not? Maybe you’d learn to trust me if we got to know each other a little better.”
“So I can tell you more about your father and how he died? I don’t think so.”
He kicked himself for his directness. He still found the process of asking a woman out awkward. He supposed he always would. “I liked you before I even knew you worked with my father,” he said. “So, no, that’s not the reason.”
“I haven’t done much… socializing… since Ben died,” she said. “Besides, aren’t you going back to California? I admire you for staying when your mother broke her ankle, but from everything I hear, she’s going to be fine.”
Jeremy nodded. “She’s going home on the first of August.”
“And what about you? Don’t you have a home to go back to as well?”
“What’s that got to do with me taking you out to dinner sometime?”
She placed both elbows on the table and rested her chin against the backs of her clasped hands, leaning toward him. “Jeremy, I’m flattered, but I don’t’ think it’s a good idea.”
“Well, for one thing, your mother doesn’t like me very much.”
This caused Jeremy to burst out laughing. “My mother? Come on, Bernadette, I’m fifty-four years old.”
“And I’m older than that,” she said. “I won’t tell you by how much.”
“I learned long ago that it’s always bad form to ask a woman her age.”
“It’s not the age, Jeremy. It’s the history. In Maine everything is two degrees of separation anyway, but in our case it’s about half a degree. It wouldn’t work. Go back to California. The place must be crawling with attractive women.”
“It is,” Jeremy admitted.
But the thought of going back filled him with ennui. He had long since bailed on the conference in Colorado, forfeiting his modest fees for a workshop and lecture, and fall classes didn’t start up again until the last week in August. He would have to be back at least week before then to file syllabi and prepare the first few classes. He had no good reason to remain in Maine. Even his mother, recuperating in Keaton Manor, a mile from the hospital, had begun asking him about his departure. But it was the twentieth of July, the anniversary of the Moon landing, and he still hadn’t booked a flight.
Keaton Manor was a residential facility for people recovering from injuries that prevented them from safely navigating their own homes. Annabelle’s broken ankle and vertical house had combined to confine her to the Manor and its modest grounds for most of a month. Though she professed to miss her home on the point, to Jeremy she appeared to be enjoying her enforced convalescence, navigating the Manor’s wide halls and paved outdoor walkways in her wheelchair, befriending the nurses and a few of the other long-term patients, and watching the political shows on cable TV during the long summer run-up to the election in November. She had a steady if not constant stream of visitors. Every few days, she was driven to the hospital for an hour or more of physical therapy and an assessment of her condition. Joanie had offered use of a spare room in the one-level house she shared with Carol, but Annabelle had declined, saying that she didn’t want to live on Mount Desert Island in the summer. Keaton Manor’s management seemed content to have her stay for as long as she wanted, and as far as Jeremy knew it wasn’t costing his mother a dime.
She was walking now, though, albeit always accompanied by someone; the ankle was finally healing. How long could he plausibly stay after she went home? He was starting to get e-mails and texts from friends in California – yes, he still had a few, he was happy to discover – wondering where he was. Carl called and said he’d started up the Audi and taken it to the corner store, just to keep it from getting lonely. He realized that contrary to outward appearances, he had a life, and it was out there on the west coast. It was the life he’d made, and if it had proven less than satisfying, the responsibility was his.
Why didn’t he want to return to it, though? Why, from this distance, and through the filter of his family, did it seem shallow and hollow?
“To tell you the truth, I’m thinking about moving back here,” he heard himself say.
She lowered one of her hands and placed it on top of his. “There isn’t a lot of demand for astronomers in this neck of the woods,” she said. “Plus you’d get so sick of the winter by about the middle of January you’d walk back to California if you had to. Maine winters aren’t for the faint of heart.”
“My sisters and brother seem to survive. And their quality of life is better than mine. Gretchen and Joanie may bitch about the winters, but that’s their nature. Maddie does fine on her farm. Everett’s happy in Bangor. They all seem connected to their communities, in a way that doesn’t happen out west. Their lives seem richer than mine somehow.”
He hadn’t intended to say all this, but she was gazing at him in a way that compelled him to tell her the truth, even if he didn’t know it was true yet. He had mentioned to no one in his family the thought of returning permanently to Maine, where he had not lived full-time since the eighth grade. What made him think he could do it? When people in California asked him where he was from, “Maine” was his answer, but what made it home, exactly? He wasn’t a Mainer by birth. He had no Maine address. A good chunk of his biological family lived here, it was true, but he had cousins all over the country and relatives he’d never met. And what was the compelling need to be close to his family, anyway? To take care of his mother? But she had Paul, and Gretchen and Joanie close by, and Maddie and Everett within an hour or two. His siblings might even resent the intrusion, as they had resented him for going to prep school and then college on the largesse of Elliot Sprauling’s parents. Hadn’t he done better by staying away? Though they resented him for that, too.
The waitress returned with their check, in a brown leather folder. Bernadette appeared to be about to say something when Jeremy’s cell phone went off. “Excuse me.” He pulled it from his pants pocket and looked at the screen. “It’s a text from my sister Pilar,” he said. “The other family wanderer.”
“You have the Star Trek theme as your ring tone?”
“Only for texts,” he said. “For regular calls it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A friend of mine put them on here for me a couple years ago.”
On the tiny screen, Pilar’s cryptic message appeared: “Finally found Cyrus. Can U take me 2 Solomon I?”
Jeremy frowned. “Who is Cyrus?” he typed back.
“Sorry about this,” he said to Bernadette. “I should have shut it off.”
“Not a problem. It’s the world we live in now.”
“Yesterday’s science fiction,” he said. “My first cellphone flipped open, like Kirk’s communicator.” He was about to add that the inventor of the cell phone had been a Star Trek fan, but Strauss’s overture interrupted him.
“Now she’s calling me. I’ll let it go to voice mail.”
“No go ahead, answer it,” she said, moving to get up. “I have to go to the ladies’ room anyway. Be right back.”
Pilar was the only other member of the family who seemed as unsettled as he felt, though he had lived in the same city for a quarter of a century. He didn’t know where things stood with her boyfriend in Quebec, and she hadn’t asked him when he planned to return to California. Pilar had been helping Madison on the farm but had also been spending a few nights at Gretchen’s here and there, and occasionally their paths intersected. Jeremy was now splitting his time mostly between Bangor and the point, the boat and Everett’s apartment. He had concluded that small town life was okay in small doses, but if he did move back to Maine – which was probably a fantasy – he would have to live in Bangor or Portland, or at least a place bigger than Blue Hill, where he had been small-towned to death in his youth. Bonnie’s insistence on the boonies in California had cemented his desire for more people around him. Living at the end of the point, like his mother and Paul did, would drive him out of his mind. Maybe that was why they drank so much. But there was the sailboat, and going back and forth allowed him to stop each way and see his mother and discharge his duty as a devoted son. When this summer was over and he returned to his routine in San Diego, he would not regret these weeks in Maine, the longest stretch of time he’d spent in the past three decades in the place he told people he was from.
He touched “answer” on the screen as Bernadette disappeared. With his other hand, he pulled out his wallet and found his debit card. “Hi, Pilar, can I call you back? I’m having lunch with someone.”
“The singer?” Pilar’s voice sounded both eager and bemused. “You finally asked her out?”
“No, not with her,” Jeremy said. Damn this family, anyway. The last two times he’d stayed with Everett in Bangor, Stella Weaver had just happened to be playing in one of the downtown bars, and on the second occasion his younger brother had let slip a remark about the coincidence. But he had managed to make small talk with her between sets at each gig, and when he’d driven to Castine last week to hear her sing at a seaside restaurant, she had recognized him and called him by name. He’d been with Gretchen that evening, and she had surely noted his delight and shared it with the rest of his siblings. He had not come close to asking the young singer out, nor was he likely to, because it would mortify him if she turned him down. “I’m with Bernadette, from the hospital. But she’s in the ladies’ room. What’s up?”
“Cyrus Nash,” his sister said. “The writer, remember? He wrote the article in the paper about haunted places in Maine.”
“Oh, right.” She had shown Jeremy the paragraph in the professor’s book, but he had privately dismissed it as foolishness and forgotten about it.
“He’s living on an island down off Stonington. He’s the caretaker. I need someone to take me out there. What are you doing tomorrow?”
The waitress appeared beside the table and just as quickly vanished with his card. “I don’t know,” he said, suppressing a sigh. “I guess I might be going sailing.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Pilar said. “You know where Solomon Island is, don’t you?”
“I do.” He tried to keep the resignation from his voice. It would be fun, sailing with his little sister, even if she did wear him down with her beliefs in spirits and the supernatural. And this Cyrus Nash might be turn out to be an interesting guy.
“Super. Weather’s supposed to be good. I’ll meet you at the point. What time do you want to leave?”
“It’s your show.” He spotted Bernadette heading back toward the table, and the waitress returning from a different direction with his receipt.
“Is eight in the morning too early?”
“Not for me,” he said. “Listen, Pilar, I gotta go. I’ll call you tonight and we’ll firm up the details, okay?”
“Sure thing, big brother. Thank you again.”
Bernadette sat back down as he was filling in the tip. “Thank you for an interesting lunch,” she said.
“Who’s Cyrus Nash?” he asked her.
She looked at him blankly. “Never heard of him.”