It was late October, the first cold night of the year, when nine-year-old Hallie Costa followed the bobbing arc of her flashlight to the roof where she was irresistibly drawn to the black sky, the brackish taste of the wind that shuddered off the bay, and the companionship of the gull who slept near the chimney. She knew him from the slight bend in his right wing, and his unbalanced flight–her father had diagnosed an old injury. Asa Quebrada, he called him. Broken Wing.
Hallie had been on the roof before, but that night was different. She would never be sure whether her sleep had been disturbed by the shift in temperature or by a sound that entered her room as stealthily as moonlight. Was it singing? By the time she opened her eyes and sat up in bed, it was gone. For some reason, she thought of how the old people wept when they played Fado music at the annual Portuguese Festival. Saudade, her great-aunt Del called it: homesick music. But according to her father, the emotion was about more than place. It was a profound longing for everything that was lost and would never be regained.
When she heard the sound, Hallie had turned on the light and taken in the objects in her room. Everything was in place. The glowing face of the clock read 3:07. Her dutiful side, inherited from the Costas, reminded her that it was a school night. But at that hour, the unruly spirit of her mother always prevailed. She switched off her lamp and reached for the flashlight under the bed and a jacket that hung on a hook shaped like a clam shell.
Usually, she was careful not to wake her father when she crept through the dark. But that night, she tiptoed down the hallway toward his room. The door was ajar, and she considered crawling into his bed. She could almost feel his warmth, the arm inserted beneath her neck; she could hear his sleepy murmur. Nightmare, Pie?
A nightmare: was that what it had been? She buttoned her jacket against the chill that had infiltrated the house and looked down at her pale feet, wishing she had put on her red Keds. Her father groaned and shifted in bed as if sensing her presence. If she stood there another second, he would surely open his eyes.
The sign outside his office advertised Nicolao Costa as a General Practitioner, but his patients also knew him as a psychiatrist specializing in common sense, an unorthodox marriage counselor, and a friend they could call when they were too drunk to make it home from the Pilgrims’ Club down the street. When the latter happened, Nick would ask his friend, Stuart, who lived in a renovated fish house next door, to come and watch Hallie. Stuart groused about being disturbed so late at night; but even before he hung up, the light in his dormer window flicked on and he could be seen putting on his pants.
On the rare nights when Stuart wasn’t available, Nick would rouse Hallie from sleep and take her along. He made his house calls at the bar in faded pajamas, hair spiked with sleep. Syl Amaral, who owned the place, would have a shot of bourbon waiting for him after he’d returned from getting the offender home safely. Hallie would watch as Nick downed it quickly, cursing the bacalhau who’d dragged him out, and vowing never to do it again. To his consternation, everyone in the bar would laugh.
But even she knew that Nick was too haunted by the drunk driving accident that had claimed her mother to ignore any late night call. If one person, one family, could be spared what he had seen, or the loneliness he had endured following the collision on the infamous stretch of road known as Suicide Alley, he would be there.
Hallie was surprised that her father, with his famously keen sense of observation, hadn’t yet discovered her secret excursions to the roof. The only one who knew was her best friend, Felicia.
“I think you just miss your mom,” Felicia had said, twisting her wheat-colored braids and studying Hallie like a therapist, after she confided to her on the playground. “You go up there because you’re looking for her.”
“Liz Cooper’s got nothing to do with it,” Hallie insisted, wishing she hadn’t brought it up. “Besides, it’s scientifically impossible to miss someone I can’t remember.”
She would never admit that she didn’t go onto the roof to find her mother; she did it to escape her. In many ways, Thorne House still belonged to Liz Cooper, whose fledgling renovations and dreams of a family large enough to fill the place had ended abruptly on the highway. Though the first floor had been gradually taken over by Nick’s rambling practice, it was cluttered with her memory.
Hallie and her father confined themselves to the kitchen, and the large room that most people would have referred to as a living room. Nick preferred to call it his study. One wall was covered with maps that told the story of ancient societies, and newer ones that defined the world as it was now. There were charts that explored the intricacies of the human body right down to the cellular level, and others that mapped the heavens.
“Either one will give you a view of infinity,” Nick liked to say.
Another wall chronicled a different kind of history. Nick’s mother’s family had arrived with the first wave of immigrants nearly a hundred years earlier, but on his father’s side, he was only second generation, and the ties with people at “home” were still strong. Photographs of family in the Azores mixed with shots of Nick’s friends from Provincetown and Harvard. There were pictures of him and Liz Cooper on the leafy, brick streets of Cambridge where they’d fallen in love, at their small, private wedding, and then holding their newborn daughter. But most of the wall was taken up by images of Hallie at every stage in her young life. At the bottom of a baby picture, her mother had written her proper name in a dramatic left-handed slant. Hallett. Since the accident, however, she had become irrevocably Hallie. Nick’s shining happiness. The only thing that had stopped him from walking into the sea after he lost his wife.
The real proof of Liz Cooper’s continuing dominion over the house was found on the second floor where the desolation of her absence settled like a thick dust. The doors to three spare bedrooms were kept closed, as if the children the couple would never have were sleeping behind them. The ghost rooms, Hallie called them.
Only the widow’s walk was her’s alone. Most of the spoke railing had rotted away and what was left tilted precariously toward the sidewalk, but the platform remained as solid as it was when a whaler named Isaiah Thorne built the house. According to town lore, his wife, Mary, would sit up there for hours, often at night, watching for her husband’s ship to return. The first time Hallie heard the story, her curiosity was aroused. Just once, she promised herself, knowing how her father would react if he found out. But as soon as she felt the proximity of the stars, she was spellbound. She extended her arms and took in the night air, pretending she was wearing a long white dress with a peplum and high-button shoes instead of mismatched pajamas and bare feet, and that she was waiting for a handsome sea captain to return. An exhilarating sense of release–and something else, possibility–assailed her whenever she pushed open the heavy door. Despite her vow, she was drawn to the roof regularly, sometimes as often as once a week.