Below is a chapter that anchored the opening of Last Words through seven drafts, and the only chapter I ever wrote from the point of view of Sarah Martin, the 17-year-old murder victim whose unsolved case forms the spine of the story. I think it’s a fine chapter. For a long time, I even thought it was a critical chapter, because I didn’t want Sarah to serve as merely the “body on page one.” I wanted her living, breathing, and captivating — the way I saw her, the way I knew her.
So why cut the chapter?
A couple reasons. Ironically, the logic of showing her as a living, breathing, and captivating character — but for only one chapter — began to bother me for the same reasons it had once appealed to me. It felt as if I was using her, in a strange way, deepening the emotional connection between reader and victim only so it would hurt more when she became a victim. I could argue that point from both sides for days. (Trust me, I did. Mostly with myself, but sometimes with my ever-patient editor, Josh Kendall, agent, Richard Pine, and my wife — the three most-frequent participants in the “Michael’s Mistakes” conversations, whether incoming or outbound). Then there was the fear of repeating myself. I have no concern about returning to familiar thematic ground, because my personal belief is that most writers are most passionate about a few core themes, and will be able to produce wonderful and varied work on that emotional turf. But when it comes to the execution of the story itself, I will admit a real concern with repetition, and I work hard to avoid it. I’d just opened a book, Those Who Wish Me Dead, with a chapter featuring a teen running into unforeseen danger in a rural quarry. Now I was opening one with two teens running into unforeseen danger in a rural cave? It felt far too familiar.
I think I still might have won the arguments with myself on these points if they had been the only evidence the prosecution introduced. But then we got to Exhibit C, and I issued a bench ruling. Exhibit C was a question that seems so simple but can be so difficult — for me, at least — to answer until I’m well into the book: whose story is it?
Last Words belongs primarily to two characters — Mark Novak and Ridley Barnes. And here’s the rub, where Sarah Martin is concerned: neither of them knew Sarah. Not in the way that I was presenting her, at least. I was providing the audience with an emotional access that my lead characters didn’t have. Julianne Grossman, the third point on the triangle of the story, also didn’t know her. Because of this, as I moved deeper into the book, Sarah became more ephemeral, and for a long time that bothered me.
I kept struggling with the question of why does Mark care so much about this? Why is he so motivated?
That question gave me the rewrite that, finally, began to crystalize my understanding of the story. Mark has no reason to care. He’s in exile on a case that he knows nobody is interested in actually having him work, and the things that matter deeply to Mark, the questions of personal passion for him, are all back in Florida. They’re in Cassadaga, where his wife was killed, and they’re in Tampa, where his firm is debating his future. To write Mark honestly, I had to admit that I was writing a story in which the detective doesn’t care about his case.
For a few days, this realization was troubling enough that I worried about the whole book. (And as my editors know, I’m entirely willing to scrap a book. It ain’t fun, but it’s been done!) I stopped writing for a time, took a lot of long hikes, paced too close to the ledges, and then returned to that essential question: whose story is it? And I returned to the writing cliché that is so often repeated that its critical importance can be forgotten: tell the truth.
The story was Mark’s — and, to a lesser extent, Ridley and Julianne’s — and the truth was, none of them knew Sarah, and Mark did not care about her. So I went back to another rewrite, cut the Sarah chapter, and gave Mark the honesty he was lacking. So now we had:
From the sheriff, in the first chapter: “No offense, Mr. Novak, but I don’t get the sense that you give a damn about this.”
From Mark, later in the book: “I’m starting to care.” You see, I saw her down there. And she’s waiting, sheriff. She’s waiting, and she doesn’t understand why it’s taken so long.
And what is self-evident in those moments? Character arc. Mark is changing, and he is changing in response to the events of the book. External plot is creating internal change. Character and story are in harmony.
Those moments were when I finally began to understand the truth of my own character, and to see his journey through the remaining pages of Last Words and on to the next book.
I’d envisioned Mark originally as the dogged detective, but he just wouldn’t behave for me. When I finally understood why he wouldn’t behave, the book took on a new clarity and life.
Why offer up a chapter that I ultimately decided didn’t belong in the book, then? Well, because I announced that I intended to write about the process in this blog, and for me, the most critical parts of the process tend to involve cuts.
So, meet Sarah Martin in the way the writer knew her, but not the protagonist…
GARRISON, INDIANA SEPTEMBER 13, 2004
They were laughing from the start, having fun but nervous, too. It had been a joking bet for three months, but now that the time had come to make good on it, things were different. Evan kept turning the flashlight off, forcing them both to stumble in the darkness, and though he acted pleased as hell with that prank, Sarah knew that he handled his nerves with humor. Evan could always make you laugh. It was one of the reasons Sarah didn’t feel the least bit of regret to miss the football game and the dance. The other reason was that this trip was a chance to go back to Trapdoor.
“Stop it!” she said when he clicked the light off again and the toe of her running shoe caught a root and almost tripped her. He was there to catch her, though, wasn’t about to actually let her get hurt. He was wearing cologne, something he hadn’t done until they started dating, and she knew it was for her benefit so she never had the heart to tell him she didn’t like it.
The knowledge gave her a bit of confidence that she otherwise wouldn’t have had in their relationship — he lived alone in an apartment with beer in the fridge and joints on the coffee table; she lived with her mom and slept in a bedroom that still had a band of teddy-bear wallpaper around the top of the wall. She would die if Evan ever saw that. But the cologne was a reminder that he was making an effort, too, that she was someone he was afraid of losing.
“Stop flashing that light!” she said again, but still she was laughing, because it was exciting to be with him, to be headed back to their sacred spot.
“I’m trying to prepare you, baby!” he said. “If you can’t handle a little bit of darkness up here, how are you going to do in the cave?”
“You don’t prepare for the dark by flashing lights on and off! You just leave them off and let your eyes adjust.”
“Oh. Really? Well, then…” He turned the light off yet again, so all she could see were the silhouettes of the trees. The sky was thick with clouds; no stars shone, no hint of moon. She could hear the creek but it was lost to the shadows. The trail started high and wound its way to the creek, and up here you were actually looking down at the treetops on the opposite bank. She had no idea how he’d even found the trail to begin with — you had to fight through the brush and small trees on the side of the road just to locate it — but he was confident that it would take them to the back edge of the Trapdoor Caverns property. Trapdoor, if you listened to local cavers like Ridley Barnes, had potential to be the largest cave in the country, with miles of unexplored passages. To Sarah, the cave was big enough already. Home to the best summer job she could imagine, and home to the first real romance of her life.
“You’re going to leave the flashlight off?” she said.
“That’s what you told me to do. I’m just being obedient.”
“I think you’re stalling.”
“You’re the one who said it was going to be a long walk, and now you’re making it longer. I don’t think you want us to get down there. I think…” she let her lips linger by his ear in a way that she knew drove him crazy — the good kind of crazy — “you’re scared of the cave.”
“Madam, I was in fact employed to work in that cave all summer. That cave is my home. I am not afraid of my own home.”
She was already laughing. The madam bit still worked, one of the holdover jokes from the summer staff. They’d gotten bitched out early in the season for not being formal enough when speaking to the guests, and Cecil, the caretaker, told them not to talk like a bunch of teenagers, which was strange advice to a bunch of teenagers. Everyone was in “sir and ma’am” mode with the guests after that, but Evan took it up a notch, was calling the women madam as he escorted them in and out of the tour boats. That caught Cecil’s ear, too, who pulled Evan aside and gravely informed him that he knew what Evan was up to. Madam is another word for whore, kiddo. Don’t think you’re slipping a whore by me, because you’re not. That line had achieved instant immortality, was whispered back and forth by the staff for the rest of the summer. Don’t think you’re slipping a whore by me! A dumb joke, yes, but it was the dumb jokes that held you together in a long summer on a low-paying job with a jerk of a boss.
They’d come out of the trees now and stood on the bluffs above the cave; he’d been right about the strange trail.
“Welcome back,” he said. “See it?” He played the flashlight beam over creek, and sure enough, she could see that they were facing the back deck of the main building. This was where the walking tours gathered, where some of the preliminary tasks were handled — safety lectures and the like — and, best of all, where the staff relaxed on breaks and after hours. On the nights when Cecil was distracted, they’d sneak some beers out there.
“I miss this place,” she said softly.
“I know. Me, too.” The wiseass tone was gone from him. “I’m glad you were actually game to do this.”
“Of course I was. The question is, how do we get in from here?”
“We’re going in the creek?”
“Why do you think that I told you to bring boots and old sandals? Instead you forgot the boots and wore new running shoes. What did those cost, a hundred and fifty bucks? For someone who doesn’t like to run?”
There was a nastiness to the tone, almost an anger, that made her uncomfortable. He’d joke about money from time to time, but occasionally it came from someplace deeper.
“I’ll just take my shoes off and wade, even if there might be brain-eating amoebas in there,” she said, searching for another joke, something she knew would make him laugh. When he groaned in disgust, she felt better.
“You don’t know there aren’t any,” she said. “They’re real.”
“Yes, they are. You printed out fifty articles to prove that one to me. I give up. We either surrender our brains to the amoebas or we don’t get in the cave tonight.” He lowered the backpack he was wearing and turned to face her. “Seriously, babe, I don’t care. If you don’t want to try it, we can walk back up. It’s your call.”
She looked at the dark water and thought of the cave mouth just beyond. Thought of their first kiss, inside that cave on one of the boats, hands and fingertips and lips touching in total darkness.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
They scrambled down the slope until they reached the water, and there they paused and he rustled around in the backpack and came out with a pair of boots, tied the laces together and looped them around his neck and over his shoulders. Then came the helmet, outfitted with a miner’s lamp. When he slipped it over his head and fastened the chinstrap, she laughed.
“You look like such a tool.”
“We’ll see how hard you laugh the first time you crack your head in there! I told you I’d get you one.”
“And I told you that I didn’t want to look special ed.”
“Which you actually will be if you fracture your skull.”
She smiled and shook her head. For a joker, Evan could turn into a disapproving dad fast.
“I’ve got thick hair,” she said. “Use a really good conditioner.”
“Your funeral,” he said, and then he entered the water. It went up to just below his knees. “See? Not bad at all.”
“Cold?” she said, slipping her shoes and socks off and rolling her pants up.
“Nah, the amoebas wrap around your legs right away and add some heat.”
The water was shallow and had been baked warm by a day of unseasonable sun. Cold enough to put a shiver up her back, sure, but not intolerable. They waded forward toward the cave mouth, hugging the rocks on the right side of the cave entrance. You put the boat tours in the deep channel to the left, and the walking tours began on a narrow ledge to the right. Once she was out of the water and up onto the ledge she felt better.
“I miss this place,” she said for a second time.
“Why? It’ll all be yours soon enough.”
“I don’t think that’s quite how it works,” she said, though in truth she felt a tingle of anticipation. Once the wedding was done, she supposed it would be hers, in some small way. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about any of that, though. Her love of the cave was one thing. A new stepfather was quite different. “But at least I’ll be able to be here more. That’s good for both of us, right?” She reached for his arm, squeezed it, and pulled him in for a kiss. Grazed the tip of her tongue against his and went to loop her hands around his neck, only to have him pull away.
“Let’s get our shoes on and get farther back.”
“How far are we going?”
“Maybe to Chapel Room?”
The Chapel Room had earned its name based on the legend of a cave where a group of fundamentalists had taken to holding their services in the 1800s after their preacher had decided the end of the world was upon them. The owner of Trapdoor had dismissed the legend, insisting that nobody had even known the cave existed back then, but the story remained. The room was farther back in the cave than Sarah wanted to go, but she could see how it would be the most comfortable place for their goals.
They’d made the bet on the Fourth of July, flirty trash-talk exchanged before they’d even had their first kiss, joking about their attraction before actually acting on it. Sex in the cave — he said she wouldn’t do it; she said the same about him. It had gone on and on as talk, but the longer they talked the more intriguing the possibility became, and then when the summer was gone and the cave shifted to fall hours, open to the public only on weekends, it became not only a fun idea, but a chance to go back. Adults would laugh at the idea of nostalgia for a summer that wasn’t even officially done yet, but that was the truth of how it felt. She’d been back in classes for three weeks now, and already those long summer days, the days when Evan and Sarah had been side by side, seemed very far away. Even the social aspects of school weren’t appealing this fall. When the job ended and school began and she went from talking about payroll and work schedules to locker combinations and class schedules, it was disheartening, because she’d felt like an adult for three months, and there was a terrible indignation to being sent back to a role you believed you’d left behind. Maybe that was the real frustration: she felt like she’d changed over the summer, but nobody else detected anything different. Tonight was about making a point. Or at least a grab at what she’d left behind.
“Okay,” she said, “to Chapel Room we go.” She was starting to slip her wet, muddy feet into her socks when she noticed that he was staring over her shoulder, toward the stairs that led down from the deck. She followed his glance and didn’t see anything.
“What’s your problem, Evan?”
“Nothing.” He began to put his own boots on. He seemed to be in a hurry. Maybe he was scared of the cave. She thought of that and began to get uneasy herself, then realized his concern was located outside of it, not inside. That made sense. Evan wanted to come back to work at Trapdoor even more than she did, and if he got caught he was going to lose that chance.
“Ready,” she said, tying the last lace. “Let’s get out of sight.”
He seemed to appreciate that idea. He handed her the flashlight and then clicked his miner’s lamp on and they began to walk along the narrow ledge. Where the water curled left, they curled right, walking away from the channel that was deep enough to allow for the boat tours. Those were the moneymakers — not many places offered you the chance to ride in a boat through three miles of caverns.
To get from the entrance to the Chapel Room didn’t require any crawling, another reason she was glad he picked it. She’d grown comfortable with the cave, but never with the crawling passages.
They walked in silence, the cave darker than it usually was because they weren’t armed with the high-powered LED lamps of the tour guides. There were two guides per tour, one leading and another trailing to make sure nobody got separated or tried to carve their initials into the walls or any of the dumb stuff people thought to do in caves. Sarah usually played the role of the trailer because she had the highest odds of getting lost, which nobody wanted to see in their underground tour guide.
Around them the water that had carved the place into existence moved behind rock walls, audible but not visible. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, and stalagmites rose from the ground. Easy to remember which was which, because the stalactites had to hold on tight or they’d fall from above. It was cool in the cave, but not bad — right at 58 degrees. It wouldn’t vary from that point much all year, insulated by all the earth above it. They reached the Chapel Room in fifteen minutes, and by then Evan seemed relaxed again.
“Well,” he said, turning to her and pulling her into his arms, “if this is the place where the world is going to end, we might as well not waste time, right?”
“Love the foreplay,” she said, but then he was kissing her, and she lost herself to that. She ran her hands up and down his arms, and smiled when he flexed a little — he always flexed when his arms were touched.
“What do you know,” she said, kissing his neck. “It looks like I’m going to win the bet.”
“It sure does,” he said. He slid his hands up from her hips, gathering her T-shirt as he went. She lifted her arms and allowed him to slip the shirt over her head and off. “But I don’t really feel like I’m losing.” She burst out laughing and shoved him back.
“What?” he said.
“Take off that stupid helmet! I am not going to fool around with you if you keep that thing on.”
He smiled. “Not even if I put it on the romance setting?” Then, with a few clicks, he changed the light over to blinking red, a built-in distress signal.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “It’s been great, but, um, something came up…”
He caught her arm, laughing. “Fine, fine, fine. Whatever you want.”
“You’re always agreeable when I have my shirt off.”
“That has nothing to do with it.” He unsnapped the helmet, removed it, turned the light off, and set it down on the stone floor. She thought of the blinking red light again, the warning signal, and started to laugh.
“Romance setting?” she said.
The last thing she saw before she turned off the flashlight was his grin. Then she clicked the button and they were in total darkness. For a moment neither of them moved. The blackness of a cave was unlike any other form of darkness. Zero lumens, Evan liked to say, blacker than black.
They were fumbling by the time they got back to it — gracefulness didn’t come easy in the dark — and giggling a little as they struggled to find belts, buttons, zippers. She caught her shin on an outcropping of rock and winced, knowing it would leave a bruise, but mostly she was excited. Her breathing was fast and the feel of his skin on hers had quickened her heart rate as well. She pushed toward him and kissed him hard.
“You sit,” she whispered. “That will be easiest. Just sit down and let me…”
The flicker of light was so brief that for an instant she thought she’d imagined it. Like a car’s headlights passing by at a hundred miles an hour. But it had been there, and it shouldn’t have been.
“What the hell,” Evan said, pushing her aside, staring down the corridor they’d just come from.
“Was that…” she didn’t finish the question because the answer was obvious, and she didn’t want to think of what it meant.
“Yeah.” Evan’s voice was soft. And scared.
“The lightning,” she said. “Maybe it was a flash of lightning.”
“You know we couldn’t see that all the way back here. Someone’s inside with us.”
She was trying to find her underwear, pull it back up, when Evan shouted. “Hey! Who the hell is in here!” It didn’t even sound like his voice. It sounded bigger, meaner. He was trying to sound that way, at least.
Silence and darkness answered his shout.
“Let me get dressed,” she whispered. “Turn on the light and let me get dressed.”
“Hang on. I don’t want to show them exactly where we are.”
For a few seconds they stayed in hushed silence, and then he began to feel around on the ground for clothes. He handed hers over and pulled on his own pants, leaving his shirt off. When he turned the flashlight on, he had his palm over the lens, muting the light. Even the palest of glows was welcome.
“Stay here, Sarah.”
“No! Are you crazy?”
His face was dark and serious. “Let me go see who this is,” he said. “You just stay here.”
“Evan…no, don’t leave, I don’t want to –”
“When I come back, I’ll call to you first,” he said. “If someone is coming who doesn’t say your name, then you take that passage to the left. This one.” He gestured with the light. “It’s a crawler. I know you don’t like them. But it goes on a long way.”
“Evan, this is a really bad –”
“No,” Evan whispered. “Remember, if it’s me, I will say your name. If whoever it is doesn’t…”
He moved away from her without finishing the sentence, the end of it obvious and terrifying, and she tried to grab him but missed, and then felt exposed because she still didn’t have her shirt on, was wearing jeans and a bra and no top. She wanted to yell at him for leaving her, but it seemed imperative to be silent, so instead she knelt and ran her fingers over the stone, searching for her shirt. They touched cool, hard plastic instead.
Evan had left his helmet behind.
Your funeral, he’d said.
She put the helmet on, her hands shaking. She thought about using the miner’s lamp but decided against it. Right now the darkness felt like a shield. She couldn’t see the faint glow from his flashlight anymore. She never had found her shirt. She edged into the passageway he’d indicated, the crawler, and toward a safer haven.
Michael Koryta is the author of Last Words.
“On the subject of great summer reads: LAST WORDS, by Michael Koryta. You can’t put this baby down.” — Stephen King
“A thrilling start to what should prove to be a solid series.” — Associated Press
Available wherever books are sold.