The Poison Garden

A.J. Banner

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Poison Garden, by A.J. Banner. Elise Watters has it all—an amazing career, a gorgeous home, a wonderful new husband. But right before her first anniversary, she learns a dark secret that jeopardizes everything, and puts everything in her perfect existence—and her own life—at risk.

Out in the driveway, I scrolled through the contacts on my cell phone until I reached the listing for my business attorney, Gabe Harvell. He’d been my mother’s attorney, too. I could picture him in his San Juan Island office overlooking Friday Harbor. The model airplanes on his shelves next to his law textbooks. The photographs of his family on his desk, next to crayon pictures his granddaughter had drawn for him. I called his number, got his voice mail.

“I’m out of the office in litigation proceedings,” he said. “Please leave a message and I’ll return your call when I am able.”

When he is able. “I need to update my will immediately,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “I need to lock out my husband, please. Call me back.”

Lock out. I hung up, returned to the house, fell into another crying jag. Exhausted, I forced myself to heat up a frozen dinner, but my stomach couldn’t handle much. Outside the window, a movement in the garden caught my eye. Dusk was falling. I turned on the porch light and flung open the door to the cold air. “Hello? Is anyone out here?” There was a rustling in the woods, then quiet. Probably a deer or a rac- coon, I thought, but it spooked me to be here alone.

Back inside, I locked all the doors and windows and staggered up to bed. It was too late, and I was too tired to make any more decisions.

But I couldn’t bear to return to the master bedroom, where I had seen Kieran with Diane, and I hadn’t remade the bed after ripping off all the sheets. So I moved into my childhood room, with its view of the front garden. In this cozy space, my mother had read to me, brought me soup when I was sick, lifted my spirits. I missed her tonight with a deep ache, wished I could consult with her about what to do.

I twisted off my gold wedding band and threw it as hard as I could. It cracked against the wall, bounced off, and pinged to the floor. I didn’t bother to pick it up. I knew I was being dramatic, but I had a right. I’m going to be dramatic all over the place, I thought. But I was soon asleep. Kieran came to me in a dream, slipped into bed beside me. We were fine. We were whole again. Nothing bad had happened. He took my hand—all was well. He kissed me softly on the lips. I felt an incredible sense of relief. I hadn’t caught him in bed with Diane—it had all been a nightmare. We were happy, the breeze in my hair as we glided across the sea in his yacht. Then a gust of wind knocked me overboard, and I sank beneath the waves, swallowing water, suffocating. I struggled upward, a great weight on my chest. I tried to scream, but no sound came out. I could see Kieran’s wavering silhouette above the surface, his arms pushing me down.

I jolted awake, gasping in the dim light of dawn. Someone stood in the doorway, a vague silhouette. I shot upright, my heart hammer- ing, and backed up against the headboard. I fumbled for the lamp on the nightstand, a weapon. “Who are you? What do you want? Get out of here!”

“You’re so beautiful when you sleep,” Kieran said placidly, switching on the ceiling light. I squinted in the sudden brightness, let go of the lamp.

“How did you get in?” I was still half in the dream, underwater, shielding my eyes against the light.

“Sorry.” He switched off the bright overhead light, reached over to turn on the soft bedside lamp instead. “Is that better?”

“What are you doing here?” I repeated, peering at him in the bluish lamplight.

“I came home to be with my wife.”

“What?” My breath caught. How could he be here again? After I’d threatened him with a butcher knife? “I told you to leave.”

“I know you didn’t mean it. I can’t stop thinking about you.” He was in sweats and running shoes. He sat at the edge of the bed. I felt the mattress depressing beneath me.

“You’re trespassing,” I snapped, fully awake now. “You can’t just—”

“I like to watch you sleep. Looked like you were having a bad dream. I almost woke you.”

I shivered, wondering if he had “almost” smothered me with a pillow. A cold draft of air seeped in from somewhere. “How long were you standing in the doorway?”

“Long enough.” He smiled. “I can’t believe you’re in this little room—”

“How did you get into the house?” I pulled the covers up to my neck. “I thought you left your keys.”

“I did.” He pulled a single spare key from the pocket of his sweatpants. “I always keep another one under a stone.”

“You didn’t tell me,” I said, my heart racing. My emotions were at war—part of me was relieved to see him; another part of me was somehow terrified of him.

“I thought you knew,” he said gently. “I told you. The key is under the white rock next to the path by the front door.”

“No, you didn’t tell me.” “I did, six months ago.”

Had he told me, or was he lying again? “There are quite a few rocks in the garden,” I said, my voice shaky.

“I showed you which one.”

“No, you didn’t.” I tried to remember. I reached for the glass of water I kept by the bed at night, gulped down the liquid. I felt parched,

the dream still vivid in my mind. “How long were you standing in the doorway? Really?”

“Not long.” But I had the strange feeling he’d been watching me, silently, for a while. He looked around the room, at my shelves of books from childhood, my stuffed animals lined up on the shelves. My mother had never thrown anything away. He gestured toward the hall. “I called for you when I came in, but you didn’t answer, so I went up to our room.”

“My room. It’s not yours anymore.” I would’ve heard his voice—he must not have called for me at all. Or maybe I’d been in a deep sleep.

“Diane was the one who wanted to come here,” he said, his voice still soft. “I didn’t want to—she told me she wanted to see the garden for inspiration. She’s working in her dad’s garden—”

“You should’ve said no. You should not have gone anywhere with her!”

“You need to understand what happened. I’m human—couples deal with this kind of thing all the time.”

“I don’t care what other couples deal with.”

“Don’t you remember what day this is?” His face fell in disappointment.

“I know what day it is,” I said, hardly able to catch my breath. “We’re not celebrating.”

“Do you remember the way we danced?” His voice dropped to almost a whisper.

“Of course I remember,” I said, making my voice harsh to hold off the pain. We’d danced after the wedding guests had left and the music had ended, our arms wrapped tightly around each other. Other happy moments flowed through me—evenings spent dancing in the dark, our trips on the ferry, the time we’d been out on the windy deck, watching orcas breaching in the strait. I saw him bringing me breakfast in bed in Maui on our honeymoon. Interlacing his fingers with mine, insisting on holding my hand on our hikes, even if the trail was only wide

enough for one person. At night, his presence had been a comfort, his arm wrapped around my waist as we spooned. But now the memories fell over like building blocks. I longed to see him the way I had seen him before, as my loving husband.

“Don’t ever forget the good times. I won’t,” he said sadly. “We can go back to the way things were.”

“No, we can’t!” But I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to, but everything was befouled now. Ruined. I didn’t know the man sitting at the foot of my single bed, staring at me with an expression I could not identify.

He reached into his pocket, handed me a small velvet box. “I went to Seattle to get these for you last month,” he said. “Remember when I had that medical conference? Happy anniversary.”

I didn’t take the box from him, so he laid it on the bedcover. He could’ve taken Diane to the city with him, for all I knew. I wished him an anniversary in hell. “I don’t want it,” I said.

“Open it,” he said, nodding toward the velvet box.

“No, take it back, whatever it is. You need to leave.” I’d bought him a shirt, a handmade English shaving brush, a pair of wool socks, all down in the cottage. I wasn’t going to give them to him. Ever.

“I live here,” he said. “We need to talk.”

“No, we don’t. There’s nothing to say. And you don’t live here, not anymore.”

“You know I do.” He reached for me, but I snatched my hand away, tucked it under the covers.

“If you want to see me next time, call first,” I said. “It’s the crack of dawn.”

“I’m always up early, you know that. I was out for a run along the harbor. And we have plans.”

“What?” I said, incredulous. “We don’t have any more plans, ever.” How could he come in here, sit at the end of my bed, hand me a gift,

after everything that had happened? Did he really believe what he’d done didn’t matter?

“The best thing would be for us to go on our trip and try to work this out,” he said, touching my arm. I flinched.

“On our trip? You still want to go sailing? Are you crazy?”

“We have hotel reservations—I was going to sail us into Salmon Bay Marina—”

“Stop!” I said, holding up my hands. I squeezed my eyes shut,  opened them. “Just. Stop. Why are you acting like nothing has happened?” I flung off the covers, got out of bed, slid my feet into my slippers. They felt slightly damp inside.

“Because it wasn’t anything. It was nothing to me.”

“To you. You’re . . . unbelievable.” I went down the hall, through the master bedroom to the bathroom. He followed me, watching me in the mirror from the doorway as I brushed my teeth.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said.

I looked at myself—I felt far from beautiful, with my puffy eyes, my splotchy cheeks, my tangle of dark hair. He’d said the same thing many times. I’d always felt as if he spoke the truth. I’d always felt beautiful when he’d said I was beautiful. But now his words rang hollow.  A wall of protection went up inside me. I washed and dried my face. I was bristling. “What game are you playing? Do you think if you just sweet-talk me and diminish what happened, I’ll come around?”

“I’m not pretending it didn’t happen, but don’t you think you’re overreacting? It’s over.”

“Yes, our marriage is over, exactly!”

“No, I mean I broke things off with Diane—I’m not going to see her again.”

“You should not have started ‘things’ in the first place.”

“I told you, it’s done. I’m back here one hundred percent. With you.”

“Well, I’m one hundred percent done with you. You can’t just come in here like this.”

His eyes went flat, as if all the blue had been drained out of them. “You can’t stop me,” he said quietly.

I stopped cold at the bedroom closet, in the middle of pulling a sweater off its hanger. “What did you say?” I said, turning to face him. Time slowed again. I saw the way things had happened, the ghost of Diane behind him, scrambling out of bed. Kieran, naked, trying to explain. It was as if he’d completely forgotten. Here he was, in the house again after I’d almost stabbed him. The nerve. But his expression was mild, passive. “I said, you can’t stop me. I’m not giving up. I’m your husband.” His voice was still soft and even.

“I’m filing for divorce.” My voice shook. I tried to pass him on the way to the door, but he grabbed my wrist, his grip so tight I thought my bone would snap.

“No,” he said. “I don’t want a divorce.”

“You’re hurting me,” I said, yanking my arm away.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. Talk to me. I can’t lose you.” In the shadows, his face looked angular, malevolent.

“You mean, you can’t lose my money.”

“What?” He blinked at me, as if he really didn’t comprehend. “Your debts. You left an envelope here from your post office box,


“Shit.” He ran his fingers through his hair, sat on the edge of the master bed.

“Yes, shit. I opened your filing cabinet.”

He looked up at me sharply. “You found my keys.”

“No,” I lied, but I could feel myself blushing. “You left the cabinet unlocked.”

He nodded slightly, ran his hand down his face, a bead of sweat on his forehead. “So you know my situation.”

“I know your situation very well, yes.” I strode past him to the stairs, and he followed me down.

“You’re not going to come at me with a knife again, are you?” “Only if you stay here.”

“Come on.” He followed me into the kitchen, watched me pour water into the coffee maker. “I was going to tell you.”

“When?” I shouted. “Next year? The year after?” “I’m paying my bills,” he said, pacing.

“Good for you. You and . . . Diane can finish paying them off together.” I scooped coffee grounds into the basket.

“Do you know what it’s like when you graduate from medical school? You get any amount of credit you want. You get approved  for loans. You think you’re going to stay on top of everything, but it’s impossible. And when Lana got sick, we got into more debt, and I couldn’t work my way out of it.”

“Your ex-wife.”

“Ask anyone, Elise. I’m not the only physician up to his ears in obligations.”

I opened the fridge, brought out the soy milk. He was making a dent in my certainty. “But you lied!”

“I was embarrassed!” he shouted, his cheeks flushed. “Being in debt—it wasn’t a crime. It was a bad choice.”

“Seems you made a number of bad choices,” I said, bringing a mug down from the cabinet.

He pulled the velvet box out from his pocket again, placed it on the countertop next to me. So he’d brought it downstairs. “Open it.”

I looked at the box, sighed. “Really, I can’t.”

“Fine, I’ll open it for you.” He flipped up the top of the box to reveal a pair of delicate, hand-carved silver earrings featuring teardrop images of orcas. I’d coveted those earrings at Pike Place Market in Seattle the last time we’d visited the city together. I felt a tiny corner of my heart softening, but then it hardened again.

“Thank you for being so thoughtful. But I can’t accept them. They don’t make up for what you have done.”

“I know that,” he said, sliding the box across the counter. “Keep them anyway. I love you. I’ll do anything for you. We can go to therapy. You can put a tracker on my phone.”

“Stop it,” I said, my voice breaking. “Don’t you understand? I shouldn’t have to do such a thing.”

“I know. Look. Talk to Diane. She’ll tell you I broke it off—that I won’t ever see her again.”

“What about the next time?” “There won’t be a next time!”

“Stop!” I slammed my hand on the countertop, and he fell instantly quiet. “Stop going on and on, trying to wear me down. It’s not going to work. Get the hell out.” I turned to glare up at him, and his eyes had darkened, as if clouds moved inside them.

“All right,” he said quietly. “But this isn’t the end, and you know it. Not over some small mistake, a blip—a slipup. You don’t let anyone be human, Elise. You don’t let anyone make human mistakes. You’re a perfectionist like your mother.”

“Well, I have news for you. I’m not perfect, and neither are you. I see the way you look at your ex-husband every time he’s in town.”

“Like my mother!” I shouted. “She wasn’t—”

“Well, I have news for you. I’m not perfect, and neither are you. I see the way you look at your ex-husband every time he’s in town.”

“What?” I shouted, my jaw nearly coming unhinged. “His projects here have nothing to do with me.”

“Oh yeah?” He raised his voice, gaining steam. “He’s back again. I’ve seen him. And now he’s building a deck for Chantal. You know why? He wants to be close to you, that’s why.” He jabbed his forefinger in the direction of Chantal’s house. His words threw me off-balance.

“I . . . didn’t know he was working for her,” I said, as the coffee began to percolate. “He did work for my mother—it’s not surprising that she would have referred him to—”

“I thought he built mansions for tech CEOs.”

“He does, but his guys do the work. He has employees, foremen.

He likes side projects. He likes helping people.”

“Helping people. Is that what he’s doing? More like, he makes up excuses to be on the island all the fucking time.”

I frowned, a pain in my head. “How did this conversation get turned around?”

“It’s not normal, Elise. He should stay in Seattle.”

“It’s normal for him to be here because he has built a reputation—” “So you didn’t know he was working right next door?”

“I really didn’t know. And I don’t even see him when he’s here. Not intentionally. I mean, I run into him now and then.” I looked toward Chantal’s house, wondering how long Brandon had been working for her, why she hadn’t mentioned it.

“Face it. The guy’s still in love with you.” “We’ve been divorced three years.”

“He doesn’t care! Do you really think he comes here to build houses? He comes here to try to get you back.”

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” I said, shaking my head. “I can’t believe you would come in here again and lay this on me, try to make me feel like I’m responsible—”

“Fine. I’ll go for now, but I’ll be back. I need my keys.”

“I haven’t seen them,” I lied, staring out in the direction of Chantal’s house, dense forest obscuring the view.

He turned and strode into the front hall, and I followed, biting my tongue, withholding any mention of the keys hiding in my handbag. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t tell him I had them.

He gestured toward the suitcase and bags, turned to glare at me. “We need to talk about this. I live here.”

“You have the farmhouse,” I said. “I’m sure Diane would be happy to stay there with you. Is she really a home stager? Or was that part of the lie?”

“Yes, why wouldn’t she be? She moved to the island a few months ago to take care of her dad. He was recovering from heart—”

“I don’t need her life story. I would like to know how you met her, though. Did she come into your clinic?”

“Yes,” he said reluctantly. “How many other patients?”

“What? None! Elise, come on.” He moved toward me, but I backed away, nearly tripping over a garbage bag full of clothes. He shook his head and sighed, then searched the table and the floor for his keys. He went upstairs, stomped around, came back down. “Let me know if you find them.” He grabbed the handle of his suitcase and rolled it out to his car, returned for the garbage bags.

“Since you don’t want to go on our trip today,” he went on, “I’ve got patients who want to see me. We can still leave tomorrow. Or Sunday. I could take Monday and Tuesday off.”

“Why, when your schedule is so crazy?” I said. “Oh, wait, you could cancel your appointments and fuck all afternoon. Or for the rest of your lives.”

“Don’t do this, Elise.”

“Goodbye, Kieran.” I slammed the door in his face, locked it, remembering only after he’d driven away that he still had his extra house key.



From The Poison Garden by A.J. Banner. Used with the permission of the publisher, Lake Union. Copyright © 2019 by A.J. Banner.

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