History teacher Mark Fife, thirty-eight, has finally reached a place in his life where the future is possible. He is about to propose to fiancée Allison Daniels and leave the past behind. Allison is aware of Mark’s baggage and has patiently supported his long struggle begun seven years earlier, when Mark’s son, Brendan, fell down the stairs of the family home: “The person he was: a man who felt like weeping whenever someone he loved left the room.” Brendan didn’t survive, nor did the marriage of Mark and Chloe Fife. Blaming each other and themselves, Mark and Chloe simply couldn’t get over the loss of their boy. Chloe slipped farther away, and Mark drowned his grief in alcohol and self-recriminations. The only way out was to stop hurting each other over what could not be changed.
Finally moving on, Mark is outraged when he is approached by a stranger named Connie Pelham, who identifies herself as the new owner of the house where Brendan died. Claiming her young son has heard a boy calling for his father, Connie wants Mark to come to the house and see for himself. Furious at her unwelcome persistence, Mark refuses, even when Chloe appears at the townhouse he shares with Ally to ask him to go to the old house with her. Mark resists, but in the middle of the sleepless night, when a sobbing Chloe calls his cell to say she has been in the house and felt Brendan in the room, the seed is planted, a seed that undermines Mark’s firm belief in logic and the impossibility of ghosts. The slow melding of guilt and yearning for all he has lost, including marriage to a woman he loved passionately and promised he would never hurt, invades Mark’s subconscious, undermining the hard work of the past few years and his fiancé’s positive influence on their lives.
Coake mines this territory with compassion and a clear understanding of that netherworld between what is and what we don’t know, doubt so easily awakened by the inexplicable desire, the spark that lights a flame. Mark begins to shut Ally out, to dream of Chloe and Brendan, to imagine a lost boy calling for his father. Ally promises stability and the future, but Mark’s guilt has kept him tethered to the past, to the futility of life without Brendan and a deep desire to fix what has been so terribly broken.
Soon Mark is lying to everyone, avoiding accountability for actions he knows have no basis in fact but are as seductive as the grave. And then there is Chloe, believing the impossible, begging Mark to help her reach their son, to draw Brendan back to them, if only for a while—anything not to endure the unbearable sense of living in a world where Brendan does not exist. Like a man in a fugue state, too often fortified by alcohol, Mark blunders into the place he once called home, to a marriage he lost touch with even before the tragedy—the awful, stupid mistakes that might have ended so differently.
Coake follows Mark’s crooked path through the twists and turns of his desperate hope, the drunken impulses, the suspension of rational belief, even serious consideration of the possibility he could be with Chloe again. Everything hinges on the impossible. Or is it? Stumbling along, Mark must find his way alone and come to a decision that will cost one woman terrible pain, caught in a vortex where hope battles with reason, a contest without a winner.