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.
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?"
"This is Anita Becker, assistant to Dr. Paul Virth."
"Yes?" My breathing was short. So much hung on her next few
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."
"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
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
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
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?"
"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
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."
"How'd you leave it?"
"I didn't. He did."
"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
"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
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
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.
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
"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
"You two are more alike than you think."
"Please . . ."
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 again.
I shook my head.
"What about the guy at Harvard?"
"We talked yesterday. They're still a few months out from starting
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.
"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
"And M. D. Anderson in Houston?" I didn't answer. She asked
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
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.
Excerpted from "Where the River Ends" by Charles Martin. Copyright © 0 by Charles Martin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.