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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A powerfully emotional and beautifully written story of heartbreaking loss and undying love

He was a fishing guide and struggling artist from a south George trailer park. She was the beautiful only child of South Carolina’s most powerful senator. Yet once Doss Michaels and Abigail Grace Coleman met by accident, they each felt they’d found their true soul mate.

Ten years into their marriage, when Abbie faces a life-threatening illness, Doss battles it with her every step of the way. And when she makes a list of ten things she hopes to accomplish before she loses the fight for good, Doss is there, too, supporting her and making everything possible. Together they steal away in the middle of the night to embark upon a 130-mile trip down the St. Mary’s River—a voyage Doss promised Abbie in the early days of their courtship.

Where the River Ends
chronicles their love-filled, tragedy-tinged journey and a bond that transcends all.

Excerpt

1
MAY 30

I climbed the final step into my studio, sniffed the dank fireplace and wondered how long it would take an errant flame to consume everything in here. Minutes I should think. Arms folded, I leaned against the wall and stared at all the eyes staring back at me. Abbie had tried so hard to make me believe. Even taken me halfway around the world. Introduced me to Rembrandt, poked me in the shoulder and said, "You can do that." So I had painted. Faces mostly. My mother had planted the seed that, years later, Abbie watered, nurtured and pruned. In truth, given a good flame and a tardy fire department, I stood to make more money on an insurance payout. Stacked around me in layered rows against the four walls lay more than three hundred dusty works--a decade's worth--all oil on canvas. Faces captured in moments speaking emotions known by hearts but spoken by few mouths. At one time, it had come so easily. So fluidly. I remember moments when I couldn't wait to get in here, when I couldn't hold it back, when I would paint on four canvases at once. Those all-nighters when I discovered Vesuvius in me.

The last decade of my life was staring back at me. Once hung with promise in studios across Charleston, paintings had slowly, one at a time, returned. Self-proclaimed art critics pontificating in local papers complained that my work "lacked originality," "was absent of heart" and my favorite, "was boring and devoid of artistic skill or understanding."

There's a reason the critics are called critics.

On the easel before me stretched a white canvas. Dusty, sun-faded and cracked. It was empty.

Like me.

I stepped through the window, along the side of the roof, and climbed the iron stairs to the crow's nest. I smelled the salt and looked out over the water. Somewhere a seagull squawked at me. The air was thick, dense and blanketed the city in quiet. The sky was clear, but it smelled like rain. The moon hung high and full, casting shadows on the water that lapped the concrete bulkhead a hundred feet away. The lights of Fort Sumpter sat glistening in the distance to the southeast. Before me, the Ashley and Cooper rivers ran into one. Most Charlestonians will tell you it is there that the two form the Atlantic Ocean. Sullivan's Island sat just north, along with the beach where we used to swim. I closed my eyes and listened for the echo of our laughter.

That'd been a while.

The "Holy City," with its competing steeples piercing the night sky, lay still behind me. Below me stretched my shadow. Cast upon the roof, it tugged at my pants leg, begging me backward and pulling me down. The ironwork that held me had been fashioned some fifty years ago by local legend Philip Simmons. Now in his nineties, his work had become the Charleston rave and was very much in demand. The crow's nest, having ridden out the storm, had come with the house. In the thirteen years we'd lived here, this nine square feet of perch had become the midnight platform from which I viewed the world. My singular and solitary escape.

My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I checked the screen and saw the Texas area code. "Hello?"

"Doss Michaels?"

"Speaking."

"This is Anita Becker, assistant to Dr. Paul Virth."

"Yes?" My breathing was short. So much hung on her next few words.

She paused. "We wanted to call and . . ."--I knew it before she said it--". . . say that the oversight committee has met and decided on the parameters of the study. At this time, we're only accepting primary cases. Not secondary." The wind shifted and swiveled the squeaking vane. The rooster now pointed south. "Next year, if this study proceeds as we hope, we're planning on adding a study on secondary . . ." Either she faded off, or maybe I did. "We're sending a letter recommending Abbie for a study with Doctors Plist and Mackles out of Sloan-Kettering . . ."

"Thank you . . . very much." I closed the phone.

The problem with a Hail Mary pass is that it hangs in the air so long, and most are dropped in the end zone. That's why they invoke God.

Because it's impossible to begin with.

The phone rang a second time, but I let it ring. A minute passed and it rang again. I checked the faceplate. It read, "Dr. Ruddy."

"Hey, Ruddy."

"Doss." His voice was quiet. Subdued. I could see him, leaning over his desk, head resting in his hands. His chair squeaked. "The scan results are in. If you two could get around the speakerphone, thought maybe we'd talk through them."

His tone of voice told me enough. "Ruddy, she's sleeping. Finally. Did that most of yesterday. Maybe you could just give them to me." He read between the lines.

"I'm with you." A pause. "Umm . . . they're uhh . . ." He choked. Ruddy had been our lead doctor since the beginning. "Doss, I'm sorry."

We listened to each other listening to each other. "How long?"

"A week. Maybe two. Longer if you can keep her horizontal . . . and still."

I forced a laugh. "You know better than that."

A deep breath. "Yep."

I slid the phone back in my pocket and scratched my two-day stubble. My eyes stared out over the water, but my mind was a couple hundred miles away.

Empty-handed and lungs half full, I climbed down and back through the window. Running my fingers along the trim tacked to the wall, I crept down another flight. The staircase was narrow, made of twelve-inch-wide pine planks, which at nearly two hundred years old, creaked loudly--tapping out a story of age and the drunken pirates who once stumbled down them.

The sound lifted her eyelids, but I doubted she'd been asleep. Fighters don't sleep between rounds. A cross breeze slipped through the open windows and filtered across our room, raising goose bumps across her calves.

Footsteps sounded downstairs, so I crossed the room, closed the bedroom door and returned. I sat next to her, slid the fleece blanket over her legs and leaned back against the headboard. She whispered, "How long have I been asleep?"

I shrugged.

"Yesterday?"

"Almost." While we could manage the pain with medication, we couldn't deter its debilitating effects. She would lie still, motionless for hours, fighting an inner battle in which I played helpless spectator. Then for reasons neither of us could explain, she'd experience moments--sometimes even days--of total lucidity, when the pain would relent and she was as normal as ever. Then with little warning, it would return and she'd begin her own private battle once again. It is there that you learn the difference between tired and fatigued. Sleep cures tired, but it has no effect on fatigued.
She smelled the air, catching the last remnants of aftershave that still hung in the air. I lifted the window. She raised an eyebrow. "He was here?"

I stared out over the water. "Yup."

"How'd that go?"

"About like normal."

"That good, huh? What is it this time?"

"He's"--I lifted both hands in the air making quotation marks with my fingers--" 'moving you.' "

She sat up. "Where?"

More quotation marks. " 'Home.' "

She shook her head and let out a deep breath that puffed up her cheeks like a blowfish. "For him, it's my mother all over again."

I shrugged.

"How'd you leave it?"

"I didn't. He did."

"And?"

"He's sending over a team of people in the morning to . . . 'collect you.' "

"He sounds like he's taking out the trash." She pointed at the phone. "Give it to me. I don't care if he is four heartbeats from the President."

"Honey, I'm not letting him take you anywhere." I flicked a piece of paint off the windowsill.

She listened to the sound of footsteps downstairs. "Shift change?"

I nodded, watching a barge slowly putter up the Ashley.

"Don't tell me he talked to them, too."

"Oh, yeah. Really put everybody at ease. Basically read them the riot act disguised as an 'attaboy.' I just love the way he gives you what he wants you to have under the pretense of your best interest." I shook my head. "Sleight-of-hand manipulation."

She wrapped her leg around mine, using it as leverage to push her head up, allowing her eyes to meet mine. The once fit thighs now gave way to bony knees, thin veins and sticklike shins. Her left hipbone, the once voluptuous peak of the hourglass, pointed up through her gown, which hung loosely over the skin. After four years, her skin was nearly translucent--a faded sun-drenched canvas. Now it hung across her collarbone like a clothesline.

The shuffling downstairs faded into the kitchen. She stared at the floor. "They're good people. They do this every day. We've only got to do it once."

"Yeah . . . and once is enough."

Our bed was one of those old, four-poster, Southern things that Southern women go gaga over. Dark mahogany, it stood about four feet off the ground, was bookended by steps on either side and Lord help you if you rolled off it at night. There were two advantages: Abbie slept there, and when I laid on my side, my line of sight was above the windowsill, giving me a view of Charleston Harbor.
She stared out the window where all the world rolled out as a map, the green and red channel lights blinking back. Red right return. She slid her fingers into mine. "How's she look up there?"

I loosened the scarf and let it fall down across her shoulders. "Beautiful."

She rolled toward me, placed her head on my chest and ran her fingers inside my button-down where both my chest hairs grew. She shook her head. "You need to get your head examined."

"Funny. Your father just told me the same thing." I stared back out across the water, blindly running my finger along the outline of her ear and neck. A shrimp boat was working her way out to sea. "Actually, he's been telling you that for almost fourteen years."

"You'd think by now, I'd listen." The boom lights of the shrimp boat rolled slowly east to west, seeming to skim the ocean's surface as she reached the larger swells.

Her eyes lay sunken, the lids dark and dim, as if eye shadow had been tatooed in. "Promise me one thing," she said.

"I already did that."

"I'm being serious."

"Okay, but not if it involves your dad." She pressed thumb to index finger, snatched down and plucked out one of my chest hairs. "Hey"--I rubbed my chest--"it's not like I've got a surplus of those things."

Her fingers, like her legs, were long. Now that they were skinnier, they seemed even longer. She pointed in my face. "You finished?" She fingered a circle around the opening in my shirt. " 'Cause I see one more."

That's my Abbie. Thirty pounds lighter and still making jokes. And that right there is what I held to. That thing. That finger in the face--the one that threatened strength, promised humor and said "I love you more than me."

She scratched my chest and nodded at the picture of her father. "You think you two will ever talk?" I studied the picture. We had taken it last Easter as he christened his new darling, Reel Estate. He stood, broken bottle held by the neck, champagne dripping off the bow, white hair ruffled by the sea breeze. Under other circumstances, I would have liked him, and sometimes I think he would have liked me.

I glanced at his picture on her dresser. "Oh, I'm sure he'll talk."

"You two are more alike than you think."

"Please . . ."

"I'm serious."

She was right. "He still rubs me the wrong way."

"Well, me too, but he's still Daddy."

We laid in the darkness listening to the footsteps of well-intentioned and unwelcome strangers shuffling below us. "You'd think," I said, staring at the sound coming up through the floor, "they'd come up with a better name than 'hospice.' "

She rolled her eyes. "How's that?"

"It just sounds so . . ." I trailed off.

We sat awhile longer. "Did Ruddy call?"

I nodded.

"All three?"

I nodded again.

"No better?"

I shook my head.

"What about the guy at Harvard?"

"We talked yesterday. They're still a few months out from starting that trial."

"Sloan-Kettering?"

I shook my head.

"What about the website?" Two years ago, we'd created a website for people with Abbie's condition. It had become a clearinghouse of information. We gleaned a lot from it. Got to know a lot of people who led us to a lot of really knowledgeable people. A great resource.

"No."

"Well, that just sucks."

"You took the words right out of my mouth."

Silence again, while she studied a fingernail absent of polish. Finally she looked at me. "Oregon?"

The Oregon Health & Science University, or OHSU, was on the cutting edge of developing some new systemic therapy that targeted cancer at the cellular level. Real front-lines stuff. We'd been in contact with them for several months, hoping for some sort of clinical trial in which we could participate. Yesterday, they had established the parameters for the trial. Because her disease had moved out of her organ of origination, Abbie didn't qualify. I shook my head.

"Can they make an exception?"

I shook my head a second time.

"Did you ask?"

It had taken so much. And yet, all I could do was sit back and watch. While I held her hand, fed her soup, bathed her or combed her hair, it had no quit. No matter what you threw at it.

I wanted to take it back. Wanted to kill it. Slice it into a thousand painful pieces, then stamp it into the earth, grind it into nothing and eradicate its scent from the planet. But it didn't get here because it was stupid. It never shows its face and it's hard to kill something you can't see.

"Yes."

"And M. D. Anderson in Houston?" I didn't answer. She asked again.

I managed a whisper. "They called and . . . they're still two, maybe three, weeks from a decision. The uhh"--I snapped my fingers--"oversight committee couldn't meet for some reason. Some of the doctors were on vacation . . ." Looking away, I shook my head.

She rolled her eyes. "Another holding pattern."

I nodded. A single piece of yellow legal paper lay folded in thirds on the bedside table. Abbie's handwriting shone through, covering the entire page. Beneath it sat a blank envelope. A silver Parker ballpoint pen rested at ten o'clock and served as a paperweight.


From the Hardcover edition.
Charles Martin|Author Q&A

About Charles Martin

Charles Martin - Where the River Ends

Photo © Deborah Feingold

CHARLES MARTIN is the author of When Crickets Cry. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife and their three sons.

Author Q&A

Q. You have said that Where the River Ends was partially inspired when you heard the true story of a man who sent divorce papers to his dying wife. In your opinion, what separates men like Doss from those who cannot find it in their hearts to be caregivers? Deep down, does everyone have the potential to be as loving as Doss and Abbie?

Charles Martin: Good grief! You would have to start with something like this. Make me feel like Dr. Phil right off the bat. Let me try and answer the second question first as I’m not sure I can answer the first. In short, “Yes,” we all do. All the same potential. Do we all use it? Not hardly. Myself included. In my own case, the hurdle to my loving Christy like Doss loves Abbie is, 99% of the time, my own selfishness. It’s an ugly thing. Does of nasty job of getting in the way. From bailing on helping with dinner, to not stopping at the store at the last minute to pick up something I know she needs, to passing by dirty laundry without filling my arms, to not mowing the yard without having to be asked, to going for a run right when I want rather than asking what she needs, to not telling her she ought to go treat herself to a pedicure or a new pair of Lucky jeans, to…the list goes on. In truth, Christy is far more deserving of love than I give her. I’m working on it, but I fall down. The good news is that she cuts me a good deal of slack and forgives me–which I need.

Reading over this, I’m impressed with the idea that this is one of the biggies. I mean, how do you convince a man, or make a man, love one woman. Even when it’s tough. And do so with his whole soul. More than he loves himself–because, and I don’t care what any other guy tells you–we’re all guilty of this.

I don’t feel like this answers your question, but I’m not sure there is one this side of heaven. If you really want to know what I think, read my book. ;-)


Q: A fourth-generation Jacksonvillian, you grew up on the banks of the St. John’s River in Florida. What are your best childhood memories of the river? How have your impressions of that landscape changed throughout your lifetime?

CM: My childhood was a healthy mixture of Huck Finn meets The Outsiders. We spent a good time either canoeing on the surface, skimming rocks across the ripples, fishing the bottom, counting mullet jumps out beyond the end of the dock or swimming in it and trying to touch a manatee. The St. Johns is part of me. Always has been. As a kid, I woke up most mornings and went to bed most evenings looking at it or thinking about it. I imagine that my relationship with it, somewhere way down in my psyche, fed my interest in the St. Mary’s and the possibility of crafting a story there. If you look at all my stories, water is involved in some capacity. Even in the story I’m crafting now–my seventh. I can’t explain this–others have offered me their own theories–but I’m not so sure. There is just something inexplicable with me and water.


Q: You completed extensive research while writing this novel. What discoveries surprised you the most?

CM: Off the top of my head–kayaks rock, alligators are attracted to orange more than khaki, cancer is evil, divorce sucks, topographic maps are a good thing, so are cell phones, hatching mosquitoes are hungry and looking for something to eat, a bald woman after having had a double mastectomy and three courses of chemo is still magnificently beautiful, pigmy rattlers swim near the shore after dark, good friends can’t be bought and they come prepared, cancer is evil, doctors who fight cancer have my deepest respect, so do their nurses, Charleston is a beautiful town, as is St. Mary’s, fathers who cry at their daughter’s graveside humble me, fried shrimp tastes better with beer and a gentle breeze, it’s easier to paddle a kayak than pull a canoe, duct tape really does have ten million uses, I never learned how to pack light, cancer is evil, I have the greatest job in the world…


Q: Which authors serve as your inspiration for fiction? What books have you read in the past year?

CM: In the past year? I can’t remember what I read last week. I grew up on Louis LaMour, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. Robinson Crusoe is my favorite book, followed closely by Huck Finn. In truth, I don’t understand much of the fiction I read, although I’m beginning to understand more the more I write. Stephen King is one of the finest craftsmen in the business. I have a lot of respect for John Krakauer, Hampton Sides and Stephen Ambrose. John Grisham’s cadence resonates with me. Clive Cussler takes me places I like to go. If I could only have one book from the Bible I’d take the Psalms.


Q: What effect do you want Where the River Ends to have on readers? How would you like their lives to change as a result of reading your novel?

CM: I’ve said this in other interviews, I’ll repeat it here: As I get older, and life dings me more, I end up with these calloused places on my insides. Like fish scales on my heart. I’ve learned I’m not alone in this. If I can write stories that somehow circumnavigate the hard places…maybe reach around the back, where it’s still tender and touch someone in some place where maybe they haven’t felt in a while, touch something tender, make them want something they haven’t wanted in a while, hope something they haven’t hoped, love somebody, forgive, find some freedom, then I will have done some of what I set out to do.


Q: What was it like to make the leap from a life in business to life as a writer?

CM: Scary. Most of my family thought I was nuts. In truth, I probably was. Maybe I still am. BUT, if I have issues I need to deal with, and I deal with them, then chances are good I’ll quit writing books, so I think I’ll keep my issues. My writing seems to be where I work them out.

I was miserable in business. Grateful to be making a paycheck, but miserable. To make a long story short, I wanted out and Christy gave me the freedom to chase my pipe dream. People have heard the details of my story and told me that I’m tenacious, showed perseverance, etc. In part, this is true, but without Christy, I’m not here and you’re not reading this interview. In the face of some pretty strong family pressure, Christy kissed me and gave me the freedom to chase the impossible. Maybe the second greatest gift I’ve ever been given.


Q: Describe your writing process. Where is your favorite place to write? What steps do you follow when producing a manuscript?

CM: Our house has no garage. Just a carport. So, to house all the stuff that should be in a garage, we bought this shed-looking thing. Metal building, two windows, plywood floor, one big door. We had it drop-shipped in a corner of our backyard. We then stuffed if with lawn equipment, Christmas decorations, kayaks, etc. Two years ago, when the noise from our three boys drove me out of the house, I unpacked the shed and paid a carpenter to finish it out. Carpet, trim, paint, a window a/c unit. I slid a desk in there, pointed my router toward the shed and I’ve been there ever since. It’s not much and I’d hate to try and ride out a hurricane in it, but it’s quiet and it’s quiet and it’s quiet.

I’m best in the early mornings. Like from 4 am. To 7 or 8. By 2 or 3pm, my seat has had all it can endure so I get up and go for a run or ride or something.

When I’m working on a first draft, I make myself (or try to) reach a word quota. Maybe 1500 words. Sometimes, it’s two or three thousand. Somedays–when the words don’t come–I’m lucky to get a page. When I’m editing, I set a page goal out there. Like 25 pages, or 50 or whatever. For me, writing and editing require different energies.

When the monotony drives me out of the shed, I’ll drive up to Dunkin Donuts where I have my own table. I don’t eat the donuts but I do like their coffee.

My process of creation is different now than it was seven books ago, but, in each case, I can’t begin until I know the beginning and the end. I can figure out the middle, but not the destination. And usually there’s a theme driving me. Like, a dying woman’s last wish and the husband who tries to make it come true. When I’m honest I will tell you that writing books has gotten harder. More difficult. Not easier. And that’s good.


Q: Your family is clearly the focus of your life. How did you meet your wife, Christy? Are there any parallels between Christy and Abbie? What do she and your sons think of having a writer in the house?

CM: My freshman year of college, I played football at Georgia Tech. Actually, I walked on, got hurt and they carried me off. Career over, dream dead. That summer, Christy and I met through a mutual friend. The three of us went to dinner, I fell in love, asked her out. We dated almost five years. Married in ’93. Summer ’08 will be fifteen years.

When I first started writing what became my first book, The Dead Don’t Dance, I told myself I was going to create a female character who looked and sounded nothing like my wife. Figured I wouldn’t let people in. Keep the reader at a distance. Not let them smell my laundry. I got about forty pages into the book and my female lead, Maggie, was sterile, two-dimensional–a cardboard construction that even I didn’t like her. I hit the delete button and said, “Write what you know.” Maggie and Christy are a lot alike. Even today, my grandmother will call the house and ask for Maggie. Now, several books down the road, there are similarities, but my craft has improved. (So I’m told.) And so have my female leads. At their core, they’re similar, because I only have experience with one wife, but in practice, they differ–i.e. Abbie’s mannerisms are not Christy’s. Hopefully, that means I’m improving as a writer.

As for what the boys think about their dad as a writer…I’m not sure. Charlie, our ten year old, has now read three of my books–and I didn’t give them to him. He picked them up himself. It’s been fun to talk through them with him. He doesn’t ‘get’ all of it, but he understands more than I thought he would. That surprised me. He was forty pages into The Dead Don’t Dance when he said, “Daddy?” “Yeah, buddy.” “Does Maggie wake up?” (She’s in a coma.) I smiled. “That’s why you read the book.” A few nights later, he walked in our room where I was flipping channels and he leaned against the bed. He was quiet a minute. Finally, he said, “I like Amos. And Bryce. I like your characters.” “Thanks, pal.” As for John T. (8) and Rives (5), I think they are just starting to think through the fact that my being in the shed for long hours translates into books on a shelf, and thankfully, food on the table. (Oh, if you bought this book then you had something to do with dinner last night, so thank you.)

Q: What inspired you to place Doss in the art world when you were choosing a career for him? Is the life of a painter comparable to the life of a fiction writer?

CM: I often look at what I do as painting. Each day, I walk in here, sit down and stare at a blank canvas. I color with words, Rembrandt with a brush. We’re both tugging at emotions and telling stories. Admittedly, he’s better. I’m a work in process. Are they comparable? To a point, but I can’t paint my way out of a wet paper bag so don’t let me pretend like I know what I’m talking about.

As for Doss? When I first ‘saw’ him, he was covered in paints, holding a brush and staring at a blank canvas. I can’t explain that.


Q: What are you writing now? Where will your next book take you?

CM: That is a very good question. I’d like to know that answer myself. Did my editor put you up to this?

I’ll say this: it deals with addiction, a has-been musician and takes place in the mountains of North Carolina. It’s based on this idea: people don’t just all-of-a-sudden wake up and say, “Gee, I want to be addicted to Oxycotin, crack, alcohol, or whatever.” Something causes this. In my experience, that something is pain. Us guys are famous for this. (People will argue this but I’m giving you my take on it.) Anyway, the ripple effects are crushing. But, as devastating as it is and can be, addicts are not the living damned. What I’ve learned is that the ride to the bottom is something akin to a waterslide. Fun, fast and difficult to get off. Once you’ve splashed at the bottom, the only way out is a ladder. It’s length depends on the depth to which the person fell and climbing it may be the single most difficult thing they ever do. Tough as hell? Absolutely. Agonizingly painful? Yup. Can it destroy you and those you love? In a heartbeat. Do people fall back down? All the time. Drown at the bottom? Everyday. Life is a choice. But that doesn’t change the fact that at the other end is hope. And freedom.

And that’s worth writing about.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Lovers of love stories, get ready to cry you a ‘River.’”„ŸUSA TODAY

“This tale is a pleasure to read because it eloquently pictures unquestioning, steadfast love.” „ŸFayetteville Observer

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