A Sprauling Family Saga

By Hank All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Mystery

Chapter 38

Joanie was the first to arrive, at ten minutes past seven. Gretchen had the salad made, the green beans cut and washed, and the pot roast in the oven. She planned to serve dinner around eight. Jeremy had called to tell her that he and Pilar were running behind schedule. Though this was not unexpected, since they’d gone sailing, Jeremy’s explanation had sounded Everett-esque in its convolution. She found herself suppressing a surge of irritation, which evaporated the instant Joanie pulled into the driveway. She set down her glass of red wine and went to the door to greet her sister.

Joanie had her arms full. She had brought a carrot cake with white frosting, a bottle of sparkling cider, two jars of strawberry jam, a bag of blue corn tortilla chips, and a tub of locally made salsa. Gretchen relieved her of the cake, which was in a rectangular pan covered with transparent plastic wrap, and missing a couple of pieces at one corner. “Mom didn’t really like it,” Joanie explained. “I was going to leave it with her to share around, but when she heard I was having dinner with you and Jeremy and Pilar, she insisted I take it.”

“Jeremy drove down to Stonington to pick her up,” Gretchen said, as Joanie set the other stuff down on the kitchen table. “They took the boat out to an island, and I guess Pilar didn’t want to leave when Jeremy did. The caretaker’s bringing her back to shore, and Jeremy’s meeting her. They’ll be along shortly.”

Joanie took up the bottle of cider and looked around for an opener. Gretchen found one on the counter and handed it to her.

“Thanks,” she said. “You want some of this?”

Gretchen shook her head. “I’ve got a glass of wine going.”

“The caretaker, huh?” Joanie said, as she poured cider into the wine glass that Gretchen handed her. “What’s our little sister up to now?”

“I’m not sure,” Gretchen said. And she wasn’t. Pilar had talked of going out to one of the islands off Stonington to see this Cyrus Something-or-Other, who had supposedly written something about the hospital and their father’s death, and she had told Gretchen of her plans to sail there with Jeremy. She had also bent Gretchen’s ear more than once about the mention of their father in the professor’s book. Gretchen had listened and not much more. She was not a hardcore skeptic like Jeremy, but she was a busy woman with responsibilities in the real world, and lately she had been embroiled in a fight with Ted, who wanted to move Calvin to a more expensive group home in southern Maine, farther from her but closer to his manipulative and controlling family. Lily had recently wrecked her car in Massachusetts (thankfully escaping injury in the accident, which wasn’t her fault), and needed money for a replacement vehicle. Trey kept calling her for advice on how to handle his temperamental girlfriend, who was between jobs and suffering from bouts of depression. The bookstore was having a lackluster summer, and there was talk of reduced hours at the newspaper after Labor Day. Her flesh-and-blood problems trumped Pilar’s speculations.

She reached up into the cupboard for a large wooden bowl and a small ceramic one as Joanie opened the chips and salsa. “It’s too bad Carol couldn’t come,” she said, taking the chips from Joanie and dumping them into the large bowl.

Joanie emptied the salsa into the small bowl and dipped a chip. “You know where she is?” Chomp. “Mount Desert Rock.” She reached for another chip. “She’s out there with three other biologists, just them and the birds and the whales.”

“Must be nice,” Gretchen said. “To get away from it all, like that, I mean.”

“Are you kidding? I’d go crazy.”

Gretchen glanced involuntarily at the phone, thinking that a spit of rock twenty miles out in the ocean might be just the place for a respite from her needy, quasi-adult children. Of course, places like that weren’t as out of touch as they used to be, not with the range and variety of modern communications. There was no hiding from the world and its array of obligations.

“How’s Mom?” she asked.

Joanie laughed. A piece of salsa flew out of her mouth and landed on her chin. Gretchen reached for a napkin. Joanie waved a hand in front of her face, coughed, and said, “She’s fine. Ready to go home, I think. She had quite an adventure today when I took her to her physical therapy session.”

“What do you mean, an adventure? What happened?”

“The service elevator was out,” Joanie said. “And when they tried to take her up in the regular elevator, she threw a fit. She absolutely refused. You know she’s not supposed to be doing stairs by herself yet. Even when she comes home, Paul’s gonna have to help. But she stalked off down the hall so fast that three guys had to chase after her. She would’ve hauled herself up the stairs if they hadn’t been there.”

“So did you finally get her to take the elevator?”

Joanie shook her head. “Uh-uh. Those same three guys helped her up the stairs. She insisted on going down the steps after her appointment, too. Said she’d have to do it at home anyway.”

“I wonder what her deal is with the elevator,” Gretchen said.

“Pilar thinks it’s haunted.”

“I know. She thinks it’s Dad that’s haunting it. That’s why she went out to see this caretaker. Apparently he’s written about it.”

“That elevator is funky,” Joanie said.

“So how did Mom do, on the steps?”

“She did okay,” Joanie said. “She still had one guy on each arm and someone spotting her from behind. Going up’s easier than going down. I’ve been trying to talk Paul into installing one of those chair tracks, but he said it’s impossible, because of the way their stairway’s built. You know how it goes around a corner? They’d have to tear out the wall and reconstruct the whole set of stairs. I offered to pay for it, but he says it’s too much.” Joanie swirled cider in her glass. “Of course, she could come stay with me. I’ve got a room on the first floor. But she won’t hear of it.”

“Well, you know Mom,” Gretchen said. “She thinks there’s no civilized life beyond the Blue Hill peninsula.” She was only mildly surprised to hear herself say this about the place she had lived most of her life. Once, it had seemed to offer everything she could possibly need. Now it seemed provincial and small.

“Still,” Joanie said, “she’d be closer to the hospital. And she’ll be going in for physical therapy at least once a week. That’s an awful lot of driving for Paul.”

“How soon are they going to let her drive?”

“Don’t know,” Joanie said. “And frankly, at her age and in her condition, I’m not sure she should be driving at all.”

“She won’t hold still for that,” Gretchen said. “I mean, come on, Joanie, look where she lives.”

“True. But it’s 30 miles each way. I don’t know why she can’t get something set up in Blue Hill.”

“She probably could.” Gretchen said, “But she gets treated like royalty every time she goes into that hospital in Ellsworth. I don’t think they’ve ever sent her a bill for anything. Every other old person I know has to scramble to keep up with co-pays and charges for prescriptions and stuff like that. But every time I’ve been with Mom in that hospital, though, she sails right through, and there’s never any mention of money.”

“Maybe our father’s paying for it,” Joanie said. “You know, from some blind trust.”

“An invisible account?” Gretchen said, and they both laughed.

She poured another glass of wine and set out some cheese and crackers as their talk turned to other things: her kids, summer misadventures in the park, the upcoming state referendum on same-sex marriage. Gretchen periodically glanced at the clock and got up to check the pot roast. It was three minutes to eight when she heard Pilar’s car in the driveway.

“About time,” she muttered. Pilar burst through the door, followed by Jeremy, who toted a six-pack of beer.

“Man, have I got a story for you guys,” Pilar gushed.

“Can we eat while you tell us?” Gretchen said. “Everything’s just about ready.”

“We would have been here sooner,” Jeremy said, “except Pilar only drove seventy instead of her usual ninety.”

“You drove seventy miles an hour on these roads?” Gretchen said.

“Say what you want about sailing,” Jeremy quipped. “At least it’s slow.”

“Especially with a broken spreader,” Pilar added, “and a motor that doesn’t start.”

“Thank God for Cyrus Nash,” Jeremy said. “He saved our bacon.”

And he told me a lot of stuff about the hospital, and Dad,” Pilar said.

Gretchen looked at Joanie. “We were just talking about that.”

“Well, did you know that the elevator shaft is on the exact same spot as the stairs that Dad fell down? It’s right on the spot where he died. Now you can call that coincidence if you want to, but I think it’s mighty strange.”

Gretchen realized she had never known the precise location of the stairwell where their father fell to his death. She remembered Elliott Sprauling’s inert form on his deathbed, but Annabelle had never pointed out the scene of his accident to them, and she had never felt curious enough to ask about it.

“And how does this Cyrus know this?” she asked.

“He’s a writer,” Pilar said. “There was another newspaper in Ellsworth, for a few years, a competitor to the American. Though I guess it wasn’t much competition, because Cyrus said about three people read it.”

Gretchen nodded. “The Weekly News,” she said. “It was around for five or six years. And he’s right. Most people didn’t even know it existed.”

“Cyrus wrote for it. And his editor had him write a piece about haunted places in Hancock County. He heard about the elevator from one of the nurses, and started asking around about it. Turns out there was more to our father’s death than anyone’s ever let on.”

“It’s all hearsay, though, Pilar,” Jeremy said. “Rumor and speculation.”

“Let’s eat,” Gretchen suggested, grabbing two oven mitts and moving toward the stove. Joanie and Pilar pitched in to help get the food on the table, and Gretchen poured wine for herself, Pilar and Jeremy. Joanie stuck with cider.

Gretchen hadn’t had much opportunity to prepare a meal for other people lately, though she liked to cook and took pride in it. Living alone had made her lazy in the kitchen. Many nights she subsisted on cottage cheese, hummus, and low-calorie crackers. A good meal with family was a welcome treat, and she was happy that her guests seemed to appreciate it.

As they ate, Pilar and Jeremy regaled them with the story of their day: the sail to Solomon Island, the broken spreader, the rescue by the man who just happened to be the caretaker they were coming to see, and the subsequent unfolding of events up to Jeremy’s departure from the island. “So what did you find out,” Joanie asked Pilar, “about Dad’s death?”

Pilar chewed a piece of beef and took a sip of wine as they all waited for her to answer. “Well, after Jeremy left, Cyrus and I talked some more, and he told me about trying to write that story. He poked around, asked a lot of questions, but he didn’t tell people what he was writing about. He found out right away that no one would talk to him about whether or not the hospital was haunted, so he tried a different approach. Instead of focusing on our father’s death, he decided to focus on his life, and find out as much about him as he could.”

“How’d he do that?” Gretchen asked.

“He told them he was working on a history of the hospital, including profiles of some of the people who had worked there over the years, particularly the doctors. He’d casually bring up our father’s name and ask people what they remembered about him.”

“And what did they remember?”

“Well, apparently he was good at his job,” Pilar said. “And he was well-liked around the hospital. A little too well-liked, maybe.”

“Meaning what?” Joanie asked.

“Meaning that he might not have been above a little extracurricular activity,” Pilar said. When nobody said anything right away, she continued. “This shouldn’t surprise any of you. I mean, Mom’s admitted as much. He was no saint. And he was a hotshot doctor from Philadelphia in a small hospital in Maine. A few of the nurses apparently had crushes on him.”

“So he fooled around,” Jeremy said. “I don’t think that makes him unique among doctors.”

“Or even among Spraulings,” Gretchen said, before she could stop herself. But Jeremy just laughed, and after a moment, Joanie and Pilar joined in the laughter.

“My point is,” Jeremy said, “that dear old Dad getting a little on the side has no bearing on any of this supernatural stuff. If it did, every hospital in the country would be crawling with ghosts.”

“That’s not the point,” said Pilar. “Besides, how many doctors actually die in the hospital, like our father did?” She looked at each of them in turn. “What do you guys remember about the day he died? Jeremy, I know you weren’t there – you were away at school. But the rest of us were home. I remember Mom whisking us off to the hospital, and I remember sitting there in his room, hoping he’d wake up, but it was so long ago, and I was so young…”

“All I remember,” Gretchen said, “is Mom rushing in from somewhere and telling us that something had happened to Dad and we had to get in the car right away. It was that big ugly maroon station wagon with the jump seat in the front.”

“Where I got to sit, because I was so little,” Pilar said.

“I learned to drive in that car,” Gretchen said.

“She kept that car for a long time,” Joanie said, “because I remember riding home from basketball games in it.”

“And how did Dad die?” Pilar asked.

“He was hurrying to get to a patient on the first floor,” Gretchen said. “He tripped over his own shoelace or something, and fell down the stairs, and broke his skull. Nobody saw it happen.”

“That’s not what Cyrus said.”

“That’s the story I’ve always heard,” Gretchen said. “He was rushing to get to a patient who was coming out of anesthesia in the recovery room and fell down the stairs. One of the nurses heard his head hit the floor, but by the time they got to him it was already too late.” She looked alternately at Joanie and Jeremy. They nodded.

“Took him three days to die, though,” Jeremy put in.

“He never regained consciousness,” Gretchen said.

“Maybe not,” Pilar said. “Maybe he sent his consciousness somewhere else.”

“Oh, come on, Pilar,” Jeremy retorted. “Just because some crusty old guy on an island – okay, a crusty old guy who’s good at fixing things – dangles a few stories about our father, a few loose ends, a few what ifs…”

He stopped, and looked at Gretchen, as though for support. She stared right back at him and said nothing.

“Well, it doesn’t prove anything,” he said.

“No, it doesn’t,” Pilar admitted. “But I’ll tell you something strange. Years ago, in Arizona, I went to see a fortune-teller, a medium, I guess she called herself.” She put a hand up as Jeremy began to scoff. “I know what you’re thinking. And I thought she was a charlatan, too. But I asked her about our father. And she described a scene about this man dying in the presence of two women, who were vying for his attention. And that’s when I knew she was making it up, because I always knew that Dad had taken his fall alone.” She paused. “Only today, Cyrus told me differently.”

“But how does this Cyrus Nash know anything, other than what people told him?” Gretchen objected. “You said yourself that he only wrote the story ten years ago. Dad’s been dead a lot longer than that.”

“What did he tell you, Pilar?” Joanie said.

“That two women witnessed our father’s death.”

“And how does he know this?” Jeremy challenged.

“From talking to people,” Pilar said.

“People can say anything, Pilar,” Gretchen said, trying to be gentle.

“And who were these two women, supposedly?” Jeremy said. “Why wouldn’t they have said something, long before Cyrus Nash came poking around? Why would they suddenly decide to talk to some journalist nobody’s ever heard of, thirty years after the fact?”

“I don’t know, Jeremy,” Pilar shot back. “But why would two different people in two different places years apart, each with no knowledge of the other, tell me the same thing?”

“Like Gretchen says, people can say anything. Your fortune-teller was trying to scam you for money, and Cyrus – I don’t know what credentials he has, if any, as an investigative journalist, or who he talked to at the hospital. Bernadette doesn’t even remember him. Surely he would have talked to her, if he was looking for people who knew Dad. She worked with him.”

“He said some people were reluctant to talk. He said he could only print what he knew was true.”

“Must have been a short article,” Jeremy said. He pushed his chair back from the table. “Gretchen, that was absolutely delicious.”

“Thanks,” she said. “There’s more.”

“And I may take you up on that,” he said. He moved to the refrigerator and opened the door. “But right now I’m going to have one of these,” he said, holding a beer bottle aloft. “Anyone else?”

“Sure,” Gretchen said. He handed her one.

“I’m going to stay with wine, I think,” Pilar said. “I’m a little beered out after today.”

“Joanie?”

“No, thank you.”

Jeremy sat back down and tipped his bottle as Pilar continued. “No one would tell him who these two women were, but there seems to have been some kind of a cover-up at the hospital after Dad’s death. The whole truth never came out. People were discouraged from talking about it.”

“And so that suspicion morphed over the years into a haunted hospital story,” Jeremy said. “Corinne told us that was common knowledge, too, remember?”

“It is,” Pilar said. “But maybe it’s common knowledge because it’s true.”

“Come on,” Jeremy said.

“Rumors don’t start from nothing,” Pilar maintained.

“No, but neither do they bear much resemblance to the original story after a while,” Jeremy argued back. “Anyone can dig up third-hand information and concoct an interesting story around it. That’s what your friend Cyrus did.”

“What else do you remember about that day?” Pilar asked her sisters.

“It was raining, wasn’t it?” Joanie said. “Because Mom came in the door, and she was already babbling about something happening to Dad, and her hair was all wet, and we were all running around trying to find our coats while she stood in the middle of the kitchen screaming. That’s what I remember.”

Pilar frowned. “So she’d been out. And while she was out, someone told her about Dad. She rushed home and bundled us off to the hospital.”

“That’s about right,” Gretchen said.

“Were we with a babysitter?”

“No,” Gretchen said. “Mom went out to get her hair done. She had some guy on Mount Desert Island, Southwest Harbor, I think, that she liked to go to. She left me in charge.”

“How do you suppose she found out about Dad?” Pilar said.

“News travels fast around here,” Gretchen replied. “She probably stopped at the store, where someone had most likely stopped in earlier and told someone the news he’d heard from someone. That’s usually how it works. What?”

Jeremy was laughing and shaking his head. “Nothing. It’s just that we have all this instant communication technology: cell phones, the internet, the internet on cell phone – and for all that, the small-town grapevine was sometimes just as efficient.”

“I think we should talk to Mom,” Pilar said.

“Oh, Pilar,” Joanie said.

“What? Aren’t you curious?”

“She’s eighty years old. It happened more than half her life ago. She’s raised six kids since then. Hasn’t she earned the right to put it behind her?”

“I’ve gotta agree with Joanie,” Gretchen said. “Mom just wants to go home and enjoy the view. She needs to get well. She doesn’t need any additional stress.”

“Why do you think she wouldn’t go into the elevator?” Pilar asked.

“I don’t know,” Joanie said.

“Did she say anything? Did anyone think to ask her why she didn’t want to go in the elevator?”

“Nope. She just flat-out refused.”

“Maybe she just doesn’t want to deal with that it,” Jeremy said. “It’s annoying, anyway, even if it isn’t haunted. She probably didn’t want to get stuck, or get taken to the wrong floor like I did.”

“When did that happen, Jeremy?” Joanie asked him.

“The day I met Bernadette,” he said. “I was on my way up to see Ma, but I ended up on the fourth floor, where the executive offices are. The strange thing about it was that the floor was nearly deserted. She was up there all alone.”

Gretchen felt an involuntary shiver. She set down her wine glass and stared at him. “Jeremy, what are you talking about?”

“The elevator,” he said. “It doesn’t work right all the time. Doesn’t mean there’s a ghost in the machinery.”

“But… you said it took you to the fourth floor.”

“It did. I went up there twice, actually. The first time by accident, the second on purpose.”

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

He stared at her for several seconds in apparent confusion. Then he laughed. “Nice try, Gretchen.”

“I’m not kidding, Jeremy. I covered the construction of that new wing for the paper. Three floors. That’s it.” She looked at Joanie and Pilar. They nodded.

Jeremy stopped laughing and stared at each of them in turn. “No way.”

“We can go there together tomorrow and I’ll prove it to you,” Gretchen said.

Jeremy leaned back in his chair, a look of disbelief on his face. “Are you telling me,” he said, “ that I imagined the whole thing?”

“I don’t know, Jeremy, but I do know that the new wing has three floors, and has since the day it was built.”

“But you met Bernadette. I brought her to Everett’s gig.”

“She’s real,” Pilar said. “But the fourth floor isn’t.”

Jeremy appeared thunderstruck. “Where’s her office, then, if it isn’t on the fourth floor?”

“It’s in the old wing of the hospital, in what used to be the front, on the ground floor,” Gretchen said. “It’s completely inaccessible from that elevator.”

Jeremy stared into the middle space in the room. “I’ll be goddamned,” he said, finally, in a soft voice.

“Now do you believe me?” Pilar said.

“It must have been those cookies,” Jeremy said. “I must have been hallucinating.”

“I don’t think so, Jeremy,” Gretchen said. She felt cold, despite the warmth of the kitchen on a July evening. She was remembering a day long ago, when her mute son had suddenly spoken. Had that been a hallucination, too? She had heard Calvin speak as clearly as Jeremy remembered going to a nonexistent floor. Were these shared symptoms of some familial dementia? Or was it possible, perhaps, and against all her rational judgment, that some consciousness did, in fact, still inhabit the space where their father had fallen to his death? She wished Madison and Everett were here, so they could all compare notes.

Gretchen didn’t know where all this was going, and wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. What had she unleashed? She had been the one to summon her siblings to their mother’s bedside back in the spring, when Annabelle had appeared to be losing her struggle with immobility. She hadn’t invited or expected an inquiry into their father’s final moments. It would take some finesse to settle Annabelle back into her home with some comfort, to watch over her so she didn’t hurt herself again, and to peel away the layers of family lore that had piled up like wet autumn leaves on top of the truth.

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