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Literature / Hollow Places

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Hollow Places is a 2015 literary novel bordering on a supernatural thriller. Austin is a twenty-one-year-old man with burn scars all over his body, one eye blind, and an undersized prosthetic who is forced to leave his foster home. He makes his way to Santa Rosa, California, where he gets a job as a private prison janitor. In a nearby state park, he finds a cave that changes with every visit. At the end of it, however, there’s always an anomaly that instantly transports the user to wherever they most wish to go. Austin enlists the help of a couple of friends and decides to use the cave to save prisoners. Guided partly by the apparition of his dead sister, Austin discovers what it means to be a hero, to be normal, and the difficulty in taking down a corrupt industry.

This novel includes examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: While Austin’s foster mother, Cindy, is probably the most moral character in the novel, the same can’t be said for the other people who ‘cared’ for him over the years. His foster father, James, is not physically abusive, but he has a tendency to be hurtful regardless. He digs himself deeper and deeper into alcoholism as the novel progresses, and his ‘fuse’ gets shorter accordingly. Austin claims to have been under the guardianship of his older brother and his wife at one point. They became domestic terrorists. As far as his biological parents go, Austin mentions little about them in this novel. He only says they were worse than Cindy. Even though that doesn’t mean they were terrible in themselves, it can be reasonably assumed they were pretty bad.
  • Afraid of Doctors: Austin, to an extent. Waking up in his new hospital apartment freaks Austin out quite a bit. It makes him recall the moment a decade ago when he woke up in such a place to find one of his arms replaced and his sister dead. He also seems to hold a bit of a grudge against Doctor Young, the man who installed his prosthetic and coldly let him know of his family’s demise. Austin gets over his fear of hospitals quickly, but never his dislike.
  • All for Nothing: This is Austin’s opinion of his actions by the end of the book. Though he saves over a dozen people from immediate death, he figures most of them will end up dead soon anyways, if not even worse off. His biggest regret is being unable to stop the guards from abusing the prisoners even with supernatural assistance.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: A line of thinking that Austin is very opposed to. See Rule of Empathy below.
  • Arc Number: Nine and its exponents.
  • Artificial Outdoors Display: Deep in the Nine-Eyed Fish’s inner chamber, the ground changes from grass, to snow, to sand, transforming every time an observer takes notice of what’s below their feet.
  • The Alleged Boss: As per the intentions of his employers, Warden Tim White pretty much lets the prison run itself, allowing the guards to become increasingly abusive. He only intervenes when the abuse goes a little too far and starts to leave marks. Asides from that, his job basically consists of bribing local judges and managing logistics. Austin notices popular media websites reflected in his glasses more than once, heavily implying he spends most of his day surfing the web.
  • Alien Geometries: The cave’s layout transforms with every visit. Rooms change in layout and order. Corridors change directions. Formations appear and disappear. On one occasion, the cave led up to what should be miles in the sky (Which, of course, couldn’t be seen outside) rather than descend into the ground. During Austin’s final trip, he encounters paths that loop into each other in impossible ways. The only consistent features are the presence of the inscribed column and the primary anomaly.
  • Anti-Villain: Warden Tim White to an extent. True, he allows abuse to occur in his prison, purposefully hires violent guards with the assumption they will harm the inmates and boost their recidivism rate (as per company policy), and bribes local judges into sending more convicts to his facility. However, he knows and readily admits that what he does in his line of work is wrong and wishes he didn’t have to do it. He refrains from stopping the abuse because he knows doing so would get him fired and replaced with someone who treats the prisoners even worse. The Warden shows no personal resentment when Austin blackmails him into getting the guards in line, seeing such an act as noble yet naïve.
  • Attack Drone: What seriously injured Austin and killed his sister a decade before the novel opens.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Averted. Austin is one of the most moral characters in the novel (Though he would never admit to that), but much of his body is covered in scars and has a child-size prosthetic. One of Austin’s big pet peeves is when people judge others based on looks and other external factors, whether said judgement is cast on him or others.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Monica. While she’s polite and outwardly appears to love Jeffery, she’s materialistic deep down and immediately breaks up with her boyfriend of a decade once he loses his job. Granted, her tastes are cheap, she could have hooked up with someone much richer to begin with, and seems mostly concerned with supporting the child she plans to have in the future. But it still stands that she had Jeffery buy her constant (Though inexpensive) gifts and was willing to break up with him without a second thought.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Austin ends up with a significant other and a child on the way, both major components of the normality he’s been aiming for. But Isabella is no longer herself, as her humanity was stripped away when she was thrown into the cave’s water to heal her slit throat. Plus, the memories of what happened in Santa Rosa are too traumatic for Austin to bear living there any longer. He is forced to leave behind Jeffery, the only real friend he’s had in years. To quote the book’s final line: I’ve finally found my paradise, but it lacks the luster of gold.
  • Book Ends: Both the closing and opening paragraphs state that normality is hard to define. Both the beginning and ending chapter feature Austin leaving his foster home on the way towards a new city.
  • Breather Episode: The chapter directly after Austin saves Isabella where he goes to check up on her, along with a couple others.
  • Came Back Wrong: After Benjamin slits Isabella’s throat and Austin and Jeffery take her back to the cave, they rush her through the anomaly while wishing to be someplace she can be saved. Rather than an emergency room, they end up in front of the cave’s ‘wishing well’. Austin takes that as a sign and convinces Jeffery to help throw her in, knowing the water possesses paranormal properties. Moments later, Isabella appears behind them, her throat having been fixed. But this healing changes her personality dramatically. She becomes ‘doll-like’. Dull, overly positive, agreeable to anything people say, contrasting with how she was before. Austin sees her as having lost the humanity he so admired.
  • The Charmer: According to Isabella, Benjamin was rather charismatic despite being a serial killer and all.
  • Cool Gate: The primary anomaly found in the cave is at a point eighty-one steps past a particular column. Upon reaching said point, the user is teleported to wherever they most want to go, should it exist. Access to this anomaly is what enables Austin and his friends to save others. They simply step into it while concentrating on how much they’d like to be heroes, then poof: they arrive at just the right place at just the right time to rescue someone somewhere.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The upper management and shareholders of Shore State Corrections, seeing as they’re alright with fostering recidivism in their prisons’ inmates if it brings profit.
  • Covered with Scars: Austin, especially around his midsection.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Austin claims to have been cared for by his older brother and his wife, both of who were essentially domestic terrorists. They discovered some unspecified dark secret which led them to start a ‘crusade’ through unspecified means. This led government forces to attack them through a drone strike. Austin and his sister, Caroline were caught in the blast. Caroline died, and Austin was seriously injured, costing an arm and the sight in one of his eyes, along with causing full-body burns. With his parents and guardians dead, the government places him in a foster home (Which, luckily ends up being a pretty decent one). However, Austin and his foster family aren’t rich enough to ever by him a new prosthetic arm, so he’s stuck with a child-sized one even as an adult.
    I’ve been an unwilling participant, a tool, a sacrifice, and finally a smoldering burden that was given away.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Isabella. Austin first encounters her working as a receptionist, and he notes her smile as appearing insincere. Next he sees her as a pole dancer. While this does make him more curious about her situation, it doesn’t exactly make him feel she’s any less fake. Later on, however, Austin realizes how human Isabella is, capable of both coldness on the outside and warmness on the inside, both love and hate. This contrasts her with Monica, who outwardly appears warm and affection but is inwardly cold.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: In a sense. Austin ends up with Isabella, but she’s quite different from the woman she was when he fell in love with her.
  • Disappointed by the Motive: Late in the novel, Benjamin tells Austin the gist of how he became a serial killer with a thing for mummified women. He grew up poor, raised by a neglectful and depressed father. His beloved girlfriend went missing when he was still in high school. The police couldn’t find anything, so he began his own search. It led to Benjamin finding her mummified body in the basement of a pawn shop. Since Benjamin loved her to the point of giving her credit for redefining what life meant to him, seeing her in a mummified state convinced him that’s how ‘’all’’ women should be. So he set out transforming other women into mummies, what he now considers to be their natural and most beautiful state. Austin is rather disappointed by this explanation.
    “What else did you expect?” [Benjamin asked.]
    “A bigger turning point. I figured you went through something that made you snap, but no. Your girlfriend’s death just gave you an idea. You transitioned from mourner to murderer in about five minutes because there was never any humanity to slow the process down.”
  • Dr. Jerk: Austin’s impression of Doctor Young, the man who helped to repair his burnt flesh and installed his prosthetic a decade before the novel opens. Though Austin believes Doctor Young was somewhat compassionate towards him, he holds a minor grudge because he seemed apathetic towards Caroline, his dead sister.
  • Easily Forgiven: When Jeffery gets a new job and Monica offers to get back together with him, he forgives her instantly and takes her up on said offer. Austin calls him out for this, questioning how he could do that so readily without even talking things through. Jeffery simply brushes it off by saying she loves him and will always love him, so there’s nothing to discuss. That Jeffery believes their relationship won’t take time to fully recover is a pretty clear indication of how naïve he is.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Near the end of the book, Austin encounters the Nine-Eyed Fish alluded to earlier by the carving on the column. It appears as a fish with mouths on each of its scales and many eyes that ‘float’ over its body. It also takes on ‘ideal’ versions of his and his friend’s appearances, claims to have created the cave (As Austin previously suspected), and to be some sort of fate god.
  • Eldritch Location: The cave. It changes layout with every visit, contains a pool of water with strange restorative/wish granting properties, and features an anomaly that transports whoever takes eighty-one steps past a mysterious column to wherever they most desire to go (So long as such a place exists). In addition, there are a number of smaller phenomena, including a hall full of quartz formation that change shape depending on the explorer’s mood, preoccupations, or future concerns, and an echo that occurs in places it shouldn’t.
  • Embarrassingly Painful Sunburn: Benjamin’s modus operandi is to lure women to his mansion, trap them naked in a glass box heated by the Sun reflecting through a series of mirrors, and wait until they die of dehydration. Isabella narrowly escapes this fate due to Austin and Jeffery. She is left with horrifying sunburns and is treated by spending days in a bathtub, having creams applied to her skin, and being kept out of Sunlight. Obviously, her path to healing isn’t very fun or dignified..
  • Empty Nest: Cindy bears a great deal of shame for having to kick Austin out due to a limited budget. It soon becomes clear she misses him and is concerned for his safety.
  • Ephebophile: Benjamin. Isabella mentions that she was the oldest of his victims. This is probably because his girlfriend was only in high school when she died, and it was her death that ‘inspired’ Benjamin to be a killer.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Even though Benjamin goes with the official story so as not to complicate his trial and weaken his insanity defense, he reveals to Austin that he is quite offended the authorities assumed he killed his old girlfriend along with the other women in his closet. He says he would never harm his girlfriend, and is adamant that he only killed five women.
  • Family Disunion: In the final chapter, Austin brings Isabella to celebrate Thanksgiving with his Foster Family. But before they even get through the front door, Isabella gets a text from her doctor revealing she’s pregnant. This surprises and upsets Austin quite a bit. After Isabella says she’s been poking holes in Austin’s condoms, he floors her with a punch and laments how being healed by the cave’s waters ‘dulled’ her. With his foster family now watching, Austin demands that Isabella prove she has a little humanity left by hitting him back on the threat of leaving her. She eventually complies, and the two of them decide to head north without even eating Thanksgiving dinner, intending to get married tomorrow.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Austin and Jeffery have a lot of differences. A big one is their disagreement on the morality of saving prisoners, which leads to Jeffery kidnapping Austin’s foster mom to deter him. But that doesn’t stop them from becoming close over their expeditions to the cave and attempts at being heroes. Unfortunately, Austin eventually decides to leave Santa Rosa on account of the bad memories there. In the process, he loses one of the best friends he’s ever had.
  • Foster Kid: Austin.
  • Friendship Moment: When Austin decides to take the Nine-Eyed Fish’s offer of restoring Jeffery’s relationship with Monica over healing himself of old injuries or returning Isabella’s personality to how it was before.
  • The Fundamentalist: Though he’s not a religious or even a political type of fundamentalist, Jeffery is dead-set on his morals and stubborn to a fault. One of the main reasons he opposed Austin saving prisoners was thinking it would be ‘dishonorable’ to let them go free since he was being paid to be a guard. After Isabella, not knowing Jeffery’s opposition, tips him off that Austin is planning to save prisoners with her help, Jeffery kidnaps Cindy and holds her as leverage to get them to stop.
  • Groin Attack: To claim vengeance for his victims, Austin, Benjamin, and Isabella use the cave to travel to Benjamin’s cell while he is asleep and stab him in three places. Jeffery and Austin stab him in the neck and heart, respectively. Isabella stabs him in the crotch, leaving it in ‘tattered remains’.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Austin believes he would have gone crazy from seeing the Nine-Eyed Fish and its lair had it not willed otherwise. He’s probably right. Considering what Austin saw, the way he wasn’t very disturbed after the fact was likely an anomaly in of itself.
  • Handicapped Badass: Austin. Despite his flaws and his self-doubt, what he accomplished took immense bravery and badassery. He casually mentions deeds like saving little girls from guarded brothels and stopping a man from beating his girlfriend. That’s not to mention saving Isabella from a serial killer twice. He accomplishes all of this while being blind in one eye and possessing a useless prosthetic.
  • Hellhole Prison: After Austin reports the guard’s abusiveness, the Warden is quick to admit that Shore State Corrections (the private prison company employing them both) explicitly intends to treat their inmates badly to foster recidivism and thus increase profit. Abuse, so long as it does not leave the prisoners dead or maimed, is company policy. The Warden treats the company’s dark side like an open secret, and ensures Austin that leaking it wouldn’t turn many heads.
  • Heroic BSoD: When Austin, Jeffery, and Isabella all stab Benjamin in his sleep, he surprises them by jumping to his feet and fighting back. Austin is pushed to the ground. On account of the shock, he merely watches as Benjamin wrestles with Jeffery and stabs his shoulder, only snapping back when he sees Benjamin going for Isabella.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Austin is a pro at this. Despite saving over a dozen lives (not to mention a couple livelihoods) within the course of the book, he finds himself unable to accept himself as a decent human being, let alone a hero. Austin is under the impression that he saves people only to make himself feel better or to repay the sin of once using his sister as a meat shield from a missile blast. He derides himself throughout the novel for treating heroism like a weekend hobby rather than utterly dedicating his life to the cause of saving others. According to him, the supernatural means at his disposal are being wasted on him. Due to the personal risk involved in his rescue attempts, they’re decidedly more than a hobby, but Austin’s lack of confidence and self-worth make him blind to that.
  • Heroism Won't Pay the Bills: Jeffery, Austin, and Isabella all make minimum wage or little above it. One of them could reveal the cave’s special properties to the world and take credit for their accomplishments, gaining fame and riches as a result. But they all refuse to for fear that the government would restrict access to the cave and stop it from being used for anything good. Asides from good feelings, none of them every get rewarded for their actions.
  • Hollywood Homely: Isabella. She has ash-colored hair, and Austin describes her as being, “Pretty enough to star in a medicine ad.” Attractive, though in a plain sort of way. That said, she does manage to be a stripper despite looking plain.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Isabella works as a stripper on the weekend, but that doesn’t stop Austin from admiring her for being honest, unselfish, and overall plain human, traits he finds lacking in most of the other characters.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Austin feels immense guilt over using his sister, Caroline, as a human shield when they were attacked by a predator drone a decade ago. He believes this led to her dying and him surviving as a result. Making up for this is one of his main motivations for attempting his heroics.
  • I Love the Dead: Let’s just say Benjamin has a thing for ladies with tans. Especially when they’re dead.
  • The "I Love You" Stigma: Austin is hesitant to say he loves Isabella even in his head, unsure whether or not his feelings warrant the use of such a word. He prefers to say he simply has a ‘strong liking’ for her. Austin considers himself ‘too old’ to hold unrequited crushes. Pretending his feelings are minor could be his means of softening the blow of them being unrequited. It’s also possible that he was turned off to love due to his resentment for his terrorist older brother and his wife, who were quite visibly intimate. But despite his general dislike of romantic affections, Austin can’t quite keep himself from them. This is one of the instances where Austin shows cognitive dissonance: he loves ‘humanness’ in others and wants to feel it in himself, but he dislikes its hurtful traits.
  • Insanity Defense: What Benjamin and his lawyer try to push. Being declared insane would mean him going to a psych ward for life rather than a prison. Benjamin tries to make it more believable by acting mundanely crazy in court, making strange faces and forming strange shapes with his hands – enough to perhaps convince a few jurors but not enough to get him thrown out. But even if Benjamin’s acting is fake, it’s still a safe bet that a serial killer who kills women by drying them out in glass box and has a thing for dead bodies is probably not entirely sane, as Benjamin himself points out in the quote below.
    “You don’t think I’m insane?” (Benjamin asked.)
    “Not at all,” [Austin] said. “You knew positively one-hundred percent what you were doing when you built that glass box, that chain of mirrors. And especially when you put women in them.”
    “Perhaps I knew what I was doing. That doesn’t rule out insanity, though. Anyone able to kill as easily as I can is at least a little crazy. But do I know right from wrong? Hmm. I honestly couldn’t tell you that. Perhaps not by your definitions.”
  • Invisible to Normals: When Austin uses the cave to get to Benjamin so he can talk to him about admitting to his crimes, it takes Austin to places with others are present. Fortunately, only Benjamin is able to see or hear him, and the others aren’t able to perceive him speaking to Austin, either.
  • I Owe You My Life: The initial reason why Isabella became friends with Austin. Beforehand, she thought of him as little more than a creep with a tendency towards blackmail, and he didn’t look at her much better. Isabella eventually realizes that Austin is a decent person on his own accord, and Austin returns the sentiment several times over.
  • I See Dead People: After Austin tosses a quarter into the cave’s ‘wishing well’ while asking to see his sister again, Caroline starts appearing to him. She looks like she did upon her death, her skin burnt all over, lacking a jaw. It’s shown several times that Caroline is much more than a vision. She is able to open doors with a single touch and communicates through notes written on construction paper that remain after she disappears. Once, she even leads him through the streets of Santa Rosa to the apartment of a corrupt judge, where Austin finds a recording of an illegal deal between said judge and Warden Tim White. This gives him the leverage he needs to force the Warden to stop the guards from abusing the prisoners, at least temporarily.
  • Justified Criminal: Tyler only stole to feed his granddaughter. Despite this, he still doesn’t begrudge the length of his sentence.
  • Lack of Empathy: Benjamin, which, according to Austin, keeps him from being truly human. At times, Austin doubts if he himself can feel empathy on account of past actions he perceives as selfish. But he realizes later that he does have some empathy left in him, at least towards those he loves. It comes at a price. In many ways, Austin comes to resent his empathy because it reminds him there are people deserving sympathy other than him.
  • Loser Protagonist: Austin is an amputee, half-blind janitor with a foster family that had to let him go and no biological family left alive. Asides from stumbling upon an anomaly, he doesn’t exactly have much going for him.
  • Mad Artist: Benjamin has shades of this. He has a habit of turning women into mummies because he sees them as beautiful and ‘natural’, though it’s for an audience of one.
  • Magic Mirror: Not exactly a mirror, but Austin finds a shard of glass atop the Nine-Eyed Fish’s pyramid roughly in the shape of a skyscraper window. Crystal-clear images of various shapes and sizes float around the glass’s surface, each showing the first-person perspective of an individual known to the observer. Not unlike a security monitor, but much higher definition and disorganized. Austin even suspects that touching the images might affect something in real life.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: What Isabella tries to be after the cave’s waters heal her slit throat and changes her personality. She becomes overly cheery to the point of being quirky and agreeable to everything Austin says. Subverted in that Austin is not at all appreciative of her new self. He sees her manic-ness as inhuman and dishonest to who she truly is.
  • Mellow Fellow: The Warden. He only gets truly angry when Austin blackmails him, threatening his family’s financial security. That said, he does seem to regret the shadier parts of Shore State’s business model, even if he doesn’t get very emotional about it. 1t’s likely that he’s simply used to how things are.
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Fist Fight: Austin, Isabella, and Jeffery, despite being armed with knives and their unarmed target being initially asleep, did not come out of their fight with Benjamin unscathed. Not even close.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Austin stops the prisoners from being abused by blackmailing the Warden into getting the guards under control and making them wear body cameras. He comes to regret doing this, however, as it turned out to be an only temporary fix. Austin figures the prisoners getting to live decently for a few months only made it sting worse when it was taken away.
  • No Romantic Resolution: Several times throughout the novel, Austin considers whether to make his feelings known to Isabella, but decides against it because it would either be tasteless given the circumstances or be very unlikely to get him anywhere. Then he loses the chance to ever admit things in the future when he is forced to throw Isabella into a pool of the cave’s anomalous water in a last-ditch effort to heal her slit throat. It succeeds in healing her physically, but it alters her personality into a sort of wannabe manic pixie dream girl – a far cry from the woman he first grew to love.
    It’s not like admitting things would make a difference. I’ve imagined spilling everything and failing a dozen times. That dozen overpowers the hundred times I’ve imagined succeeding, her falling into my arms. Because the failing’s more realistic. First I’d stutter through all those flowery speeches I prepared to proclaim ‘the grand depths of my heart’. Then she’d give a fake smile, offer her nicest excuse as to why it’s not meant to be, skip around the shallow truth. ‘I never saw you that way.’ ‘You’re a great guy, but I just don’t feel like dating right now.’ ‘I don’t think you really know who I am. If you did, you wouldn’t want me.’ And I’d tell her I know who she is. I’d tell her there’s only one difference between the Isabella in my head and the real one: the Isabella in my head loves me back. That’s all. It would be touching, but it wouldn’t make a difference. The worst part? She’d be doing nothing wrong. I wouldn’t even have the comfort of calling the girl who hurt me evil. Love isn’t made to order.
  • Odd Friendship: Austin and Jeffery. They’re quite different in personality and occupation. Jeffery is a charismatic prison guard who worries about honor and naïvely places great faith in karma. He values his relationship with Monica above everything else, doesn’t seem to be very concerned with his past, and is able to focus on people’s better aspects. Austin is a cynical janitor who knows from personal experiences that justice isn’t a law of nature. While he’s not overbearingly awkward, he doesn’t have the people skills to make most look past his scars and prosthetic. He’s single and lonely. Austin tries to keep his morals utilitarian and focused, and is far more able to see the faults of others as well as his own. Austin and Jeffery bonded only by becoming unlikely partners in their attempts at rescuing others.
  • The Omniscient: The Nine-Eyed Fish, at least to a point.
  • Out-Gambitted: About halfway through the novel, Austin blackmails Warden Tim White into stopping the guard’s abuse of the prisoners with a recording of him bribing a judge. This plan backfires months later, when the Warden obtains a security video of Austin breaking into the judge’s apartment to find the recording. The Warden promises to not report Austin if he doesn’t report him, but this also results in Austin losing his leverage. Abuse resumes at the prison in order to increase recidivism among the inmates and therefore increase profit.
  • Physical Scars, Psychological Scars: Austin’s prosthetic and burn scars all remind him of losing his sister to a drone attack. He finds the mental trauma to be much worse than the significant pain he felt and still feels, especially because he partially blames himself for her death.
  • Private Profit Prison: Shore State Corrections deliberately creates a Hellhole Prison to foster recidivism among the inmates, and thus increase profits when they are inevitably reincarcerated.
  • Rags to Riches: The Warden claims to have started his employment at Shore State as an unskilled, minimum wage worker. He was able to gradually climb to his current riches, though the way he did so was ethically questionable and he only reached the high-middle class. This explains his lack of haughtiness and paranoia towards losing his job, knowing personally what it’s like to be poor.
  • Rapid-Fire "No!": Austin does this once when, upon his final visit to the cave, he finds the anomaly no longer working. After recovering from the anger and shock, he heads forward to see what lies beyond and finds something even more amazing: the lair of the Nine-Eyed Fish.
  • Rasputinian Death: Before he goes down, Benjamin pushes through being stabbed in the neck, heart, and genitals. He’s able to fight off Jeffery and slit Isabella’s throat before Austin finally finishes him off by stabbing him in the brainstem.
  • Rule of Empathy: Austin can’t stand when people only care about events that affect themselves/their families and friends, or when people assign value to others based on their appearance. For example, he gets upset when Jeffery takes a break from saving people to spend time with Monica. Austin sees this as Jeffery valuing the feelings of his fiancée over the lives of strangers. Later in the book, however, Austin finds himself unable to avoid this ‘aesthetic morality’ when he goes to the cave with the intention of having it take him to a newsroom where he can reveal the cave’s special properties to the world. His idea was that doing so would achieve great fame for him and Jeffery, fame that would convince Monica to get back together with his friend. Because of wanting to do this, Austin blames himself for valuing Jeffery’s happiness over the lives that could yet be saved should the cave remain unknown and therefore unrestricted. Fortunately for what little remains of his self-worth, the anomaly refused to work on Austin’s last visit. Instead, the Nine-Eyed Fish offers him a better way to fix Jeffery’s problems.
    ” I’ve become like all those strangers who glanced through [Caroline’s] obituary without bothering to read it. Who care more about some celebrity’s drinking problem than a massacre on the other side of the world, who’d will the bombing of mud hut villages if it would save their mother from lung cancer. Just as long as they don’t have to see it. My morals are hopelessly grounded in aesthetics and connections. Pain resonates better from a familiar face than a news report.”
  • Sadistic Choice: Subverted slightly in that none of the choices would make anything worse, but it was still a little sadistic in that Austin was only able to pick one out of thee very attractive options. Late in the novel, Austin is confronted by the Nine-Eyed Fish deep in its lair. It appears first in the guise of an alternative version of Austin with both arms intact and without any scars, then as a version of Isabella with the mark on her neck gone, then in the form of Jeffery and Monica holding hands. It offers Austin three choices. One, to have the healthy body he would have had if not for being hit by a missile. Two, to return Isabella’s personality to how it was prior to when she was healed by the cave’s waters, along with the added benefit that she would one day fall in love with him. Three, to fix Jeffery’s relationship with Monica. He eventually settles on the third option.
  • So Proud of You: Cindy tells Austin this after she learns of the anomaly he found and that he uses it to do good.
  • Slasher Smile: At least once or twice, Benjamin makes these while in court to torment Isabella.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Austin certainly doesn’t make a habit out of it, but at one point he follows Isabella all the way from the road just outside the prison parking lot to Annadel Park, then into the cave, and finally through the anomaly to the graveyard of Benjamin’s victims, all under the pretense of making sure she’s safe. While his intentions were innocent enough, Isabella is still a little annoyed when he reveals himself. Her annoyance vanishes when Austin tells her that he has decided to help her kill Benjamin after seeing his victim’s caskets firsthand as well as Isabella’s determination to avenge them.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The novel, written in 2015, is set in 2023. A few minor technological advancements are described, including holographic clocks, newfangled prison cutlery able to cut food but not people, and cellphone service able to extend deep underground in caves. It has become commonplace for hospitals to cheaply offer their many vacant rooms to healthy tenants. The economy is heavily implied to have deprecated slightly further.
  • Wham Line:
    And she gave me a big, wet kiss.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Jeffery has shades of this. For one, he believes in a sort of cosmic justice, that all those who suffer are merely paying for past wrongs, that those who appear to have gotten away with their crimes will eventually get their due, and that good deeds will one day be rewarded. His blind idealism shows up again later in the book when Monica gets back together with him instantly after he gets a better job, having previously left him on account of being let go from his position as a prison guard. Jeffery believes that their relationship can resume as if the whole episode never happened, and that no further reconciliation will be needed. All things considered, he’s probably right about that one, but still. Jeffery’s belief in cosmic justice has a tendency to annoy Austin, who has a more cynical worldview.
    “What a cute thought, that bad things only happen to bad people,” [Austin said.]]
    “Don’t patronize me,” Jeffery said.
    “I’m all the proof you need to know what bullshit that is. These scars, this prosthetic hand of mine? Got them before my first damn pube. And Caroline died before she was off crayons.”
  • Window Love: Shortly after Austin finds Isabella slow-cooking in Benjamin’s glass box, he places his palm over hers through the glass and promises to get her out.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Due to Austin’s penchant for heroic self-deprecation, Isabella tries to remind him of his worth several times. These attempts usually hinge on Austin having rescued her, which he sees as a biased source. Isabella’s attempts aren’t all that successful.