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You Came Back: A Novel

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Overview

Thirty-something midwesterner Mark Fife believes he has successfully moved past the accidental death of his young son Brendan, as well as his subsequent divorce from his college sweetheart Chloe. He's successful, he's in love again, and he believes he's mastered his own memories.

But then he is contacted by a strange woman who tells him not only that she owns his old house, but that she believes it to be haunted by Brendan's ghost. Will Mark—who does not believe in ghosts—come ...

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You Came Back: A Novel

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Overview

Thirty-something midwesterner Mark Fife believes he has successfully moved past the accidental death of his young son Brendan, as well as his subsequent divorce from his college sweetheart Chloe. He's successful, he's in love again, and he believes he's mastered his own memories.

But then he is contacted by a strange woman who tells him not only that she owns his old house, but that she believes it to be haunted by Brendan's ghost. Will Mark—who does not believe in ghosts—come to accept the mounting evidence that Brendan's is real? Will his engagement to his new love Allison be threatened by the reappearance in Mark's life of Chloe—who does believe? If the ghost is real, what can these two wounded parents do to help their son?

YOU CAME BACK examines the beauty and danger of belief in all its forms—not only belief in the supernatural, but in the love that binds parents and children, husbands and wives.

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Editorial Reviews

Jennifer Finney Boylan

"When I finished the last page of Christopher's Coake's amazing new novel, I set the book down with a sense of wonder. There's a ghost in this story, to be sure, but this remarkable author is less concerned with the supernatural than with the all-too-too real specters that haunt us all-the ghosts of our former selves, the ghosts of the lives we might have lived had just a few things turned out differently. YOU CAME BACK will stay with me forever. What an incredible writer."
Nick Hornby
"Sometimes when you're reading these stories, you forget to breathe...They're beautifully written, and they have bottom, but they're never dull and they all contain striking and dramatic narrative ideas." (Praise for We're in Trouble)
Entertainment Weekly
"Uncanny, clear-eyed...[Coake] is wildly engaging as he explores one theme--love in the face of harrowing death (or near-death)--from seemingly every angle. A-." (Praise for We're in Trouble)
Booklist
"Gripping reading from a talented newcomer." (Praise for We're in Trouble)
BookPage (Fiction Top Pick

Ghost stories, more than most other tales, are at heart love stories. At their core is the fact that someone, on this side or the other, just flat out refuses to let go.

In You Came Back, the compelling debut novel by award-winning writer Christopher Coake, there is no shortage of love. There is the love Mark Fife has for his fiancée, Allison. There is his stubborn, somewhat obsessive love for his ex-wife, Chloe, the college sweetheart who left him. And there is the mountain of love he and Chloe both shoulder for their young son, Brendan, whose death in terrifyingly mundane circumstances will send chills down the spine of every parent.

It is seven years after Brendan's death. Mark is 38, no longer drinks and is on the verge of conquering his misgivings and proposing to Allison. Despite occasional nightmares and the feelings for Chloe he sometimes has to push away, he is sure that he will be happy again.

Then he is paid a visit by the woman who lives in the house where he, Chloe and Brendan lived together, and where Brendan died. She tells him that her fourth-grade son has seen Brendan's ghost, and that the ghost has been calling for his daddy. Mark initially wants nothing to do with the woman. But as the boy's story evolves into something more believable, both he and Chloe are drawn in, and toward each other. For Mark, it is heartbreakingly tantalizing: Can he get it back? Have Chloe, the love of his life, and Brendan, whose death he still feels responsible for?

Coake, named by Granta in 2007 as one of the 20 best young American novelists, received the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers for his collection of short stories, We're in Trouble. His first novel is a wrenching journey through the human heart. You Came Back isn't a book to start the night before a workday. It reads like a suspense novel and will keep you turning pages longer than is good for you. Afterward, it will leave you lying in bed in the dark, contemplating its surfeit of pain and beauty.

From the Publisher
"When I finished the last page of Christopher's Coake's amazing new novel, I set the book down with a sense of wonder. There's a ghost in this story, to be sure, but this remarkable author is less concerned with the supernatural than with the all-too-too real specters that haunt us all-the ghosts of our former selves, the ghosts of the lives we might have lived had just a few things turned out differently. YOU CAME BACK will stay with me forever. What an incredible writer."—Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She's Not There and I'm Looking Through You

"Sometimes when you're reading these stories, you forget to breathe...They're beautifully written, and they have bottom, but they're never dull and they all contain striking and dramatic narrative ideas." (Praise for We're in Trouble)—Nick Hornby, author of A Long Way Down, in The Believer

"Uncanny, clear-eyed...[Coake] is wildly engaging as he explores one theme—love in the face of harrowing death (or near-death)—from seemingly every angle. A-." (Praise for We're in Trouble)—Entertainment Weekly

"In his striking debut collection, Coake considers how character is revealed under pressure...With unadorned but dramatic, economical prose, Coake explores the human capacity for altruism and cowardice in these high-stakes tales." (Praise for We're in Trouble)—Publisher's Weekly

"Gripping reading from a talented newcomer." (Praise for We're in Trouble)—Booklist

Ghost stories, more than most other tales, are at heart love stories. At their core is the fact that someone, on this side or the other, just flat out refuses to let go.

In You Came Back, the compelling debut novel by award-winning writer Christopher Coake, there is no shortage of love. There is the love Mark Fife has for his fiancée, Allison. There is his stubborn, somewhat obsessive love for his ex-wife, Chloe, the college sweetheart who left him. And there is the mountain of love he and Chloe both shoulder for their young son, Brendan, whose death in terrifyingly mundane circumstances will send chills down the spine of every parent.

It is seven years after Brendan's death. Mark is 38, no longer drinks and is on the verge of conquering his misgivings and proposing to Allison. Despite occasional nightmares and the feelings for Chloe he sometimes has to push away, he is sure that he will be happy again.

Then he is paid a visit by the woman who lives in the house where he, Chloe and Brendan lived together, and where Brendan died. She tells him that her fourth-grade son has seen Brendan's ghost, and that the ghost has been calling for his daddy. Mark initially wants nothing to do with the woman. But as the boy's story evolves into something more believable, both he and Chloe are drawn in, and toward each other. For Mark, it is heartbreakingly tantalizing: Can he get it back? Have Chloe, the love of his life, and Brendan, whose death he still feels responsible for?

Coake, named by Granta in 2007 as one of the 20 best young American novelists, received the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers for his collection of short stories, We're in Trouble. His first novel is a wrenching journey through the human heart. You Came Back isn't a book to start the night before a workday. It reads like a suspense novel and will keep you turning pages longer than is good for you. Afterward, it will leave you lying in bed in the dark, contemplating its surfeit of pain and beauty.

BookPage (Fiction Top Pick, June 2012)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455506699
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 3/12/2013
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 792,575
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher Coake

Christopher Coake is the author of WE'RE IN TROUBLE, which was chosen for the PEN/Bingham Award of 2005. In addition, Coake was among "Granta's Best of Young American Novelists" in 2007. His stories have been published in several literary journals. A native Hoosier, he received his M.F.A. in fiction from Ohio State University. He now lives in Reno, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Nevada.

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Read an Excerpt

You Came Back

A Novel


By Christopher Coake

Grand Central Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Christopher Coake
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4555-0669-9


CHAPTER 1

Mark Fife was being watched.

He realized this in a coffee shop three blocks from the townhouse where he and his girlfriend, Allison, lived, sitting in a stuffed chair with his back to the front window. It was early on a weekday morning; all of central Ohio had woken to four inches of new snow, and Mark and Allie had decided to take a morning walk, ending here. Just before rush hour, the Cup O'Joe was full, noisy, the air warm and humid from snow melting off scores of boots. Allison had left Mark alone to use the restroom, and he was pretending to read the Dispatch while he waited. And then came the prickle at his neck, the sudden shock—as though a sly lover had drawn the tip of a fingernail across the short hairs of his nape.

He lifted his eyes from the paper and scanned the shop, but no one was looking his way. Then he turned around in his seat and was startled again: A woman—a stranger—was peering through the window at him.

The woman was older than he was, forty-five maybe. Her face was round, unnaturally tan for December, and wrapped in a silver scarf; what hair escaped was curly and very dark. Her eyes were wide: she seemed surprised to see him, in a way he recognized, and that soured his stomach.

Mark might have ignored her, but the woman was too odd—too nervous and frenetic—to ignore. Her mouth hung open; her gloved hands were twisting together in front of her. She wasn't simply surprised to see him. She was afraid.

He raised his hand, automatically, and she flinched—as though, instead of waving, he'd held up a gun.

Was she really afraid of him? He turned back to the shop, but the only other person in the woman's line of sight was a young blonde, wrapped in a shawl on a nearby couch, frowning at her textbook.

When Mark turned back to the window, the woman had vanished.

He stood, peered out onto the sidewalk. At that moment maybe a dozen people milled outside, all dressed in dark coats, converging and scattering, getting in and out of cars, puffing steam. The silver scarf, that hair—he searched for them, but saw nothing. The woman was gone.

He dropped back into his seat, trying to place her, failing. He told himself that she must have made a mistake. She'd thought he was someone else. Or she could simply be a crazy; Columbus had its share. Still, her appearance and departure left Mark oddly shaken, maybe because the strange woman was of a piece with a morning that had already done its best to unnerve him.

Not forty minutes before, Allison had woken him from an endless nightmare—the pressure of her fingers in his hair as gentle, as unreal, as the sensation that had alerted him to the strange woman's gaze.

It snowed, Allie had said, when he'd opened his eyes. Come see.

Mark had been dreaming of his son, Brendan, who had died on a cold January day several years before, just weeks after his seventh birthday. The dream was an enemy whose tactics were familiar, intimate. In it, Mark and Brendan's mother—Mark's ex-wife, Chloe—were still living in their old two- story brick house in Victorian Village, on the far side of downtown. In the dream their old, rambling home had become a labyrinth: Floors had traded places; new hallways branched into shadows; doors had been smoothed over into plaster walls. Brendan was still alive, running from them, laughing, calling them, always out of sight, but in this strange new house they could never catch him; they could never tell him to be careful, to wait for them, to take his time on the stairs.

And then Mark was awake, and seven years had passed, and instead of Chloe's tear-streaked, panicked face beside him, he saw only Allison's peering down at him, her dark eyes alight, excited by the snowfall.

Allie had spent the first eight years of her life in Southern California; even after more than two decades in Cleveland and Columbus, snow was still exotic to her, special. Whatever Ohio doesn't have, she liked to say, it's got snow and fireflies.

Get dressed, she urged him. Come play with me.

He didn't want to. Allie knew about Brendan, about Chloe, as much as he could bear to tell her—but how could he make her understand that a second ago Brendan had been lost, that Chloe had been crying? That even though Mark was awake, he could still hear them?

He couldn't make her—anyone—understand a thing like that. So he dressed, pulled on his boots, and did as Allie asked.

They lived in German Village, an old, historic neighborhood just south of downtown Columbus; they'd moved into their brownstone townhouse the previous summer, six months after they'd begun dating. The streets here were cobbled, and the brick houses were all a hundred years old, squared and serious and rising porchless from the streets; the sidewalks were overhung by enormous, steadfast trees. This morning's snow, flat and heavy, gave the air a weird closeness, as though Mark and Allie walked across a soundstage. Strings of white Christmas lights glowed in their neighbors' windows—but not yet in their own; they'd been too busy with work to decorate—and on the light poles at the corners. If not for the single set of tire tracks dividing the road, Mark wouldn't have been surprised to see a horse-drawn carriage clattering by.

Allie kicked at the snow, shrieked away from clumps shed by tree branches, with a kid's joy. Mark followed her, freeing himself from the dream, remembering himself.

He was thirty-eight. Chloe had left him six years ago, not long after Brendan died. He loved Allison Daniel now.

Mark couldn't help his dreams, but his years of lonely grieving had taught him how to pull his mind back from its gray chasms and thickets, into the world where his body moved, where his heart beat and his lungs breathed in cold air; where a woman he loved frolicked ahead of him in the snow. This was his life, now. His new life.

He wasn't so naive as to think anyone could simply choose to be happy—that was bullshit of the highest order, and he'd thought so even before his son had, in an instant, fallen down the stairs and out of the world—but one could choose paths that allowed for happiness. One could choose to accept any happiness one found. How many times had he and Allison, herself divorced, talked about this? Neither of them had planned for the other. Planning was impossible. Their lives, now, were wild improvisation.

Allison lifted a hand and smacked a low branch; snow sifted down. Watching her, he felt aching gratitude that, on a morning like this one, he was not alone.

Allison Daniel, he said.

She turned. Her cheeks and lips were a violent red; her black hair was speckled with snowflakes. Mark Fife? she said.

He reeled her in for a kiss. Her lips cold. The barest warm touch of her tongue.

What's that for? she asked.

For weeks he'd been thinking of proposing to her. He could have asked, then; the words were close to the surface. Marry me. Please.

But he didn't. That's for Allison Daniel, he said.

You speak in riddles, she said. She thumped his chest with her palms. Come on. Let's get coffee.

Just like that, his happiness clouded. Why hadn't he asked? He had been sure, for some time, that Allie wanted him to. He followed her to the Cup O'Joe feeling as he had in his dream—silenced, as though a magician's spell had sealed his lips.

Just before the strange woman stared at him through the window, Mark had been steeling himself, again, to ask. As they'd drunk their coffees he'd found his humor again; he had just been trying to convince Allison to call in sick to work, to stay home with him—Mark designed websites for local businesses, working out of his office at the townhouse, and his schedule was his own. Finally Allie had smiled and asked, What's it worth to me?

She knew, he thought. Ask.

His hesitation registered; Allie's smile faltered. And when, minutes later, she left for the restroom, he was sure—for a long, free-falling moment—that she had finally given up on him. That none of his thoughts were hidden from her. That she was really calling her sister from the alley, was right now telling Darlene, He'll never ask. I'm wasting my time. Mark had to fight back an overpowering urge to weep.

But then the stranger had appeared. A cold finger had touched his neck. The unknown woman had stared at him—into him. Whatever she'd found there had caused her to run.

Allison returned now from the restroom, the soles of her snow boots squeaking; she picked up her coat from her chair, then saw his distress. "What's wrong?"

His first instinct was to lie, to say, Nothing. But he made himself tell her about the woman. "She scared the hell out of me," he said. "The look on her face—"

"Someone you knew?" Allie said. "Someone—"

"No," he said.

Allie pulled a white knit cap over her black hair, tugged on her mittens. She was trying, still, to read the look on his face.

"It's all right," he said.

They walked the three blocks home, holding hands.

Someone he knew before? That was what Allie had meant. Only a few days earlier, she had been with him at the grocery when, by accident, they had run into the mother of one of Brendan's old babysitters in the checkout line. The woman had been too slow to realize Allison was with Mark, that they were buying supplies for two. To remind herself that he and Chloe had split. When she finally had, she'd given both of them a quick, sour look of appraisal. A look that seemed to ask, How could a man like him—a man who had lost so much—dare to be happy again?

Allie had seen it, too. In the car she told him, It's the judgment that gets me. Like anyone has that right.

She wasn't judging, Mark told her, though he knew better. When the woman in the checkout line had last seen Mark, he had been sobbing at his son's funeral. And now here he was: trim from two years of working out, wearing an expensive sport jacket and shiny shoes and horn-rimmed glasses, standing at the side of a woman not only obviously younger than poor Chloe, but untouched by grief.

Mark tried to bury thoughts like the one he'd had, then: that Allie didn't know what judgment was.

The snow on the streets was bright; the rising sun's light caught hold of every flake. Mark took Allie's mittened hand; he steadied her, his fingertips touching the small of her back, as she climbed the steps to their townhouse door. He concentrated on these things: touching her, smiling. Again, he brought himself back.

What had happened this morning did not matter. He would ask Allison to marry him. She would say yes. Allie had trusted him enough to love him, and he owed her all of himself. He promised himself, then, that he would ask the right way—he would buy a ring, drop to one knee, say something to her profound and true. He would find the ring this afternoon while Allie was at work. She deserved the full ritual, the best gesture, not some half-assed declaration over morning coffee.

It wasn't until Mark was pulling the door shut behind him that he noticed the extra footprints leading from the sidewalk to the door. His and Allie's had come and gone from the left. But another pair of prints—the size of Allie's, or even smaller—approached their steps from the right, in and back out.

He glanced across the street, right to left. Then he closed the door. Before turning to Allison, he locked it.

CHAPTER 2

Mark didn't buy a ring that day, after all. By nine o'clock in the morning his work voicemail had amassed several messages—emergency calls, clients panicked by the impending holiday—and he ended up spending too many hours trying to figure out why a website selling imported balsamic vinegars wouldn't display any images of the bottles.

In the afternoon Allie called from work to tell him two of her college girlfriends were traveling through town, on their way east to New York. Did he want to go out with them tonight? He didn't; he disliked most of Allie's college friends, though he tried to keep that from her. He was relieved, in a way, to say no—if he stayed home to work he'd have no reason to feel guilty about ring shopping, either. He told Allie to have a good time.

But the prospect of the empty townhouse, with nothing but work and cold drafty air and his cowardice and footprints in the snow to think about, proved to be too much for him. He had been a hermit for far too long after Brendan's death; even when he wanted to be alone, now, he often failed at it. So when he knocked off at five he called his old friend and college roommate Lewis, then drove out to the recording studio in the neighborhood of Grandview, fifteen minutes away, where Lew worked as an engineer.

He found Lew smoking a cigarette beside the studio's side door, halfway down a slick and shadowed alley; the ice by Lew's feet was littered with cigarette butts, each sunken into a tiny crater, like dud shells on a battlefield. Lew had shaved his massive head cue-ball-bald, and it glowed whitely beneath the security light. Mark exclaimed over it as he knew Lew wanted him to, as they walked inside, down a narrow hallway and into the booth. "I'm an old man," Lew said. "This hair-growing business is for kids." Lew eyed Mark's own hair, made a face. "I'm glad you called, stranger. I'm bored to fucking tears in here."

Mark had roomed with Lew at Ohio State for three years, first in the dorms and then in an apartment off-campus; Lew had, in fact, dragged Mark to the party where he had met Chloe, had doubled with them on their first date. Since moving in with Allison, though, Mark had barely seen him. He had been troubled by this without making much of an effort to rectify it. But in Lew's presence now he felt an old, welcome comfort. Going through college with Lew had been, much of the time, just like this: happy, profane talk; access into secret places, cool places, where shy, quiet Mark could never have found entry on his own.

Lewis was, really, the only friend from his old life Mark had kept. The only friend from that life who'd ever truly been his. Lew came with his issues—he was an unrepentant drunkard, for one, and Mark wasn't—he didn't drink at all, anymore—but Lew had been Brendan's godfather, and had loved Chloe nearly as much as Mark had. Lew, more than anyone except maybe Mark's father, knew the depth of his grief. Lew had spent countless nights with Mark after Brendan's death, after the divorce, bringing Mark food, making him play video games or watch movies instead of brooding alone. Lew knew the depth of the pit out of which Mark had climbed. He knew what Mark's happiness had cost him.

Mark understood, now, why he'd called. He hadn't simply wanted company; he'd come to tell Lew he was going to propose.

They sat side by side in the control booth. Lew laced his fingers behind his gleaming head, his big wedge of a torso barely contained by a torn Stooges T- shirt. He told Mark about the band whose record he was mixing (terrible, just terrible), about other music he did like; as usual, he made Mark surrender his iPod, and while he talked he loaded music onto it from his laptop. Then he told Mark about his new girlfriend, a mechanic. "Her hands are calloused like a man's," Lew said. "I'm really questioning myself, here."

"We'll have to double," Mark said. "Allie would like that."

Lew's palm rasped over his skull. "How is Allie? I haven't seen her in ages."

Mark hesitated. When Lew had first met Allie, last year, she and Mark had been on the tail end of a fight. Lew, maybe sensing this, hadn't liked her at all, and Allie had been sharp with him when he told a dirty joke. The next day Lew had emailed him: There's plenty of people you can fuck, if fucking's all you're after. So why pick a mean one?

The two had warmed to each other since. Even so, he and Allie almost never invited Lew over for dinner, and Lew, for all his promises, almost never invited them out. Mark hadn't sat with Lew like this in, what—two months? There'd once been a time when Lewis crashed two nights a week on Mark and Chloe's couch; when Brendan had run eagerly down the stairs every morning to see if his uncle Lewis was there and needed waking up.
(Continues...)


Excerpted from You Came Back by Christopher Coake. Copyright © 2013 Christopher Coake. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 17, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    This book is so emotional and so gripping and gut wrenching. It

    This book is so emotional and so gripping and gut wrenching. It tells you a story of utter grief, unconditional love of a husband and wife,
    between parents and a child, and the uncertainty of the future and afterlife.

    The story is written from the father/husband's point of view, and I found it quite interesting to hear that, because not many author's venture
    to that territory. Mark is such a strong, committed, unconditional loving character, who in fact, has his flaws. He proves that even through
    flaws, one can overcome and persevere. He also proves that sometimes love isn't enough if both people don't feel the same way. I didn't
    find myself liking Allison all that much, but maybe it was because throughout the story, I couldn't help finding myself routing for Mark and
    Chloe. Coake did such a wonderful job writing all of the characters and being so in depth with each and every one of them!

    I thought that the story was well written and thorough. It seems like Coake really thought this through before putting it on paper and takes
    the reader through many different emotions while reading, from the very beginning to the very end. I feel that too often stories leave a reader
    hanging without giving insight into their future, however, I felt comfortable closure at the end of this story. 

    Overall, I really enjoyed listening to this book and thought that the narrator, Scott Holst, did the story complete justice. I felt like I could have
    been truly listening to Mark tell the story! I certainly was glad that I finally got around to reading this one!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2012

    Alright read

    Like others have said, it was an alight book, but would have been better if the author wouldn't repeated himself over and over again.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2012

    I knew you would come back

    I tried to get to the end of this book , but it is a struggle . It drones on over and over on the same scenario. Child died, father trys to move on, mother is mentaly weak, he lies to girlfriiend and ex over and over again. Then to keep local readers interested he throws in familiar locations.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2012

    loved the build up to the suspense of whether he gets to "s

    loved the build up to the suspense of whether he gets to "see" his son but so disappointed with how it ended.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2012

    I thought the book was a good read. However, I wish the author

    I thought the book was a good read. However, I wish the author had not spent so much time having the main character, Mark, nagging page after page about his ex-wife.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2012

    Could not put this book down once I started it. Was disappointed

    Could not put this book down once I started it. Was disappointed the way it ended, I felt the ending was sloppy like the author just quit.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2012

    Excellent book!

    Good reading about death and life and how you cant bring back the past. A story about one mans attempt to rebuild his life after the death of his young so. Oh and there are ghosts too........maybe!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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