Galt Niederhoffer Excerpt: Poison

With life-or-death stakes and irreversible consequences, Poison by Galt Niederhoffer is a chilling and irresistible reminder that the closest bond designed to protect and provide for each other and for children can change in a minute (available November 21, 2017).

Cass and Ryan Connor have achieved family nirvana. With three kids between them, a cat and a yard, a home they built and feathered, they seem to have the Modern Family dream. Their family, including Cass' two children from previous relationships, has recently moved to Portland ―a new start for their new lives. Cass and Ryan have stable, successful careers, and they are happy. But trouble begins almost imperceptibly. First with small omissions and white lies that happen daily in any marital bedroom. They seem insignificant, but they are quickly followed by a series of denials and feints that mushroom and then cyclone in menace.

ONE

It’s Thursday night, just after six, and Cass does the things of a mother. She decapitates a head of broccoli and drops it into a pot of boiling water. She opens the lid on a vat of rice and nearly burns her face off. She kneels to check the chicken, sweating in the oven. She hacks an onion with a knife, achieving, in three swift blows, a painless execution. She balances a call for work with the needs of her toddler, who is feet away on the floor, demolishing a wooden tower. She mutes the phone and calls upstairs to the older kids to please come down for dinner. She unmutes the phone just in time to utter something useful. The kids tumble down the stairs, enmeshed in their own struggle. The sitter, at six on the dot, abandons her post at the tower and makes her evening exit, the speed and precision of which sometimes feels to Cass like a jailbreak.

Despite the initial shudder of knowing that she is outnumbered, Cass softens when the sitter leaves, relieved by the privacy and power of being alone with her children. She could do anything with these kids, teach them any new concept, any new religion. She could tell them blue is green, that gender is a construct, that God does not exist, that God is perfect. It’s a dizzying amount of power. There is no one to check or balance this power—only the mother and the father. In any other situation—work, government, or religion—this would be a recipe for disaster. For Cass, it is a sacred gift, a vocation and an honor, the chance to start and end her day with her three most important people, three human beings who share her big trusting eyes and the rest of her genetic makeup.

The hours between six and nine include several obligations: dinner, homework, piano practice, bathing, brushing teeth, bedtime book, just ten more minutes of LEGOs, please, pile in for a snuggle. This time is often chaotic. But it is routine, and routine offers its own meditation. It is regimen and ritual. Cass lives for this time, and it lives by her supervision. She texts her husband before sitting down to dinner.

“Home soon? Kids are hungry.” She leaves the phone on the counter, deposits the baby in the high chair, and begins her nightly sermon. “All right, people.”

The kids take their seats. Cass dismembers the chicken.

“I want to wait for Ryan,” says Pete.

“Not tonight. It’s getting late.”

“I’m not eating until he gets here.”

“Then I guess you’re not eating.”

The standoff between mother and son ends in the usual fashion, with a heartfelt attempt at mutiny followed by a decisive maternal triumph, along with a tacit relief in the imperviousness of the ruling power dynamic. As the kids begin to eat, Cass breathes more slowly. She is like a mother cat, purring when her children are close—double that when they are eating a healthy dinner. She cuts and mashes chicken for the baby while Pete covertly transfers his portion to his sister. Cass takes a bite of her own and pretends not to notice.

A noxious buzz interrupts the quiet. Cass starts—as though it is not just the sound of her phone but rather she and her husband are wired for instant communication. She makes a show of disinterest and then, as the kids consider the meal, she stands and crosses the room to read her husband’s message.

“Stuck at work.”

She puts the phone down. The news is not uncommon. Ryan’s workload as an architect is cyclical, and his schedule can sometimes resemble a bear going in and out of hibernation. But the frequency of late nights over the last few months has been a source of minor frustration. She makes a conscious effort to unfurrow her brow and sits down with the children.

Cass looks different from how she expected to look at forty, her body further along in its natural expiration. She is a woman who has already seen most of life’s great highlights: a childhood with plenty of laughter and toys, summer nights in cars with sunburned boys, all-nighters in a college dorm lined with books and posters, a flurry of years rushing around in tall heels and short dresses, childbirth, three times, every one a revelation, a pink and wailing infant, eyes, chest expanding, the first precious moments of motherhood, when life reveals its purpose, and all the stages of undress in between from all dressed up to naked.

She has spent nights hunched over library tables, always the hungry student, hours scribbling to meet deadlines in a newspaper office, chipping away at the keyboard and ceiling, weeks sprinting down city sidewalks, chasing news and stories and then, years later, on these same streets, chasing after her children. She has slowed her pace to a waddle as her belly and ankles widened, and years, standing at playground swings, pushing her babies into midair and launching them in their childhoods. At forty, she has lain naked in the arms of at least ten men she thought she loved for a moment, fallen in love with three of these men, married two, and buried her first husband. She has lain on the floor of her kitchen, weeping, begging for respite from each passing minute, slept in rocking chairs next to a crib, nursing each child to sleep, to grow, so content as not to notice as these nights became a decade. She has kneeled at the grave of the husband she mourned and at the altar of the one who came after.

At forty, she is more beautiful than she imagined and more exhausted than she cares to acknowledge. Her eyes have tiny tributaries at the outside corners, laugh lines that she knows result, in fact, from both tears and laughter. She is tall and lean from years of running, miles docked burning baby weight and tamping back the sparks of worry. Her hair is blondish by design, with an ashy, silver timbre, and this, combined with her light eyes, makes Cass look certain even when she is worried. She is stately, if slightly spent, wise, if slightly wizened, exceptionally sexy or elegant depending on the makeup. She has the light eyes of an optimist, eyes that see human nature at its best, if not at its truest. Her smile bears the permanent twist of a woman who has heard more stories than most and lived even more. She has the curves that kindness gives a face, and the angles wrought by hardship. She is lithe but has the heft of a woman who has had and held unfathomable sadness.

*   *   *

Time has passed. The kids are settled. Alice stares down her homework upstairs, writing and rewriting the topic sentence of a paragraph. Her teacher’s question: What is the relationship of Huck Finn and Jim? Fraught, Cass explains. As close as lovers, and as doomed as any other rivals. Pete faces off with “Für Elise,” teetering through the first phrases. From the baby’s room emerge the sounds of a child in the last stage before slumber: the rustle of blankets, a request for water, followed by the hush of slower breaths. The Connor kids wind their way through their evening vesper.

A floor below, the rush of air, barely louder than a whisper. The kids, attuned to this sound, leap from their spots and race to the front door to greet their stepfather, Ryan.

Cass attempts the near-impossible feat of demanding quiet without raising her volume. She follows the kids down the stairs, reaching them just as Ryan greets his waiting fan club. When he enters, he stands still and braces himself for their momentum. The kids stop at his feet, pausing just long enough to let him take off his jacket, and then they follow him, a celebrity and his entourage, as he makes his way to the kitchen.

“Baby sleeping?” Ryan asks. He deposits a kiss on Cass’s cheek.

The baby calls out. Cass sighs. Sleep has been disrupted. It will take double the time to begin the cycle from its onset.

The balance Cass works to achieve is often toppled in this fashion, calm traded for a new energy, the Ryan vibration, but she doesn’t really mind. In fact, she has come to believe it is best for her children. A measure of chaos, she tells herself, has its place next to order. Ryan is her antidote, and she is his better judgment. Their roles are at times so distinct, their functions so opposite in the household that she has come to feel that all families would benefit from this division of labor. She knows she lacks an ingredient in herself, like bread without enough yeast, and that her kids might end up flat were she to raise them without it.

Still, it is not without some effort that Cass makes the transition between the night’s hard-earned quiet and Ryan’s easy disruption.

“Ryan,” she says.

“Hi, sweetheart.” His eyes are tired.

“Long day?” she says. She replaces his jacket as it slips from the hook behind them.

“You say that as though it’s over.”

“Late meeting?”

“New proposal. I thought we were gonna check work at the door.” He smiles, diluting the comment.

“We did say that.” She studies him, tests his facial expressions, replays his last statement. Something’s off—a smell, a glance, eyes too quickly averted.

“Chicken’s still warm,” she says. “Rice is on the counter.”

“Perfect,” he says and kisses her again. “You are.”

They do this a lot, this sweet routine as a kind of penance, a way of acknowledging the goodness of life, the battles they have weathered—alone and together. They have reached the goals they set for themselves, and so they observe this simple rite, the return of the father to the home, the reunion of husband and wife with the same earnest gratitude of reformed sinners.

Cass turns and walks up the stairs to collect the now-crying baby. The rumble of feet as Alice and Pete follow Ryan to the table.

“Homework finished?” Ryan asks.

“Yup,” says Pete.

“Teeth brushed?”

“Completed,” says Alice.

He picks up the lifeless broccoli. “Vegetable consumption?”

“Excessive,” says Alice.

An expectant grin and a perfect pause from Ryan. “Then I guess you deserve ice cream!”

Before Cass clears the top step, before she has scooped up the baby, a cry of delight is followed by a rumble of muffled laughter, then the patter of feet crossing the floor, the rustle of coats being tugged off hooks, jackets pulled over pajamas, then the door and the rush of night as Alice and Pete follow Ryan out the door like rats after the Pied Piper.

“Ryan, it’s a school night,” she calls out.

But now the house is silent, except for the sound of the closing door and the victorious giggles of Ryan and the kids as they gallop toward the empty playground on the corner.

Cass gathers the baby now, listens to the silence. So what if Ryan sometimes stands in the way of a good night’s sleep? Grief had made her dull. Grief had made her boring. Her husband of a decade died seven years prior after fighting an aggressive case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. What her kids need more than anything now is to feel lighthearted. And that is exactly how they seem when Cass finds them in the playground, hands sticky with ice cream, eyes bright with excitement. The school is a quarter mile from the house at the top of the hill they live on, and its playground is a second backyard for the Connors. Its convenience is sweetened by the freezer full of sweets at the adjacent market. Ryan and Pete stand in the dark, racing remote-control helicopters. Alice watches from a bench, calling the winner. The pavement is shiny as the bay, an endless black horizon. Neon lights dart overhead, Portland’s version of comets.

Cass sits down next to her daughter. Alice abandons her duties to feed the baby ice cream. She unwinds his scarf and unzips a garment that looks like something between a sleeping bag and jacket. At two years old, Sam is small and round, the size of a large puppy. He has his mother’s eyes and his father’s temperament, and so, despite his sweet plump face, he has a formidable presence. As the baby of the family, he is everybody’s darling, benefiting from the apprenticeship of his older sibs and the constant flow of attention. He enjoys his ice cream almost as much as the undivided focus of his sister.

Ryan is deep in planning mode, describing a new adventure.

“I have to go away next week.”

“What for?” says Pete.

“Business trip.”

“Bummer.”

“Maybe you can skip school and come.”

“Ryan, don’t taunt him,” says Cass.

“I’m not. I’m totally serious.” Ryan swerves his hand to the right.

Pete takes his eye off his helicopter, and it crashes. And he’s down. That’s all it takes with Pete to ignite an obsession—one endorsement from Ryan, the promise of adventure. He becomes Ryan’s unwitting lobbyist, missionary, and disciple, badgering his mother until that belief takes on the force of revolution.

“One day I’ll take you diving,” says Ryan. “I’ll show you the Great Barrier Reef. The biggest structure in the world made by living creatures. Coral. The best architects on earth. It’s so big you can see it from outer space. We gotta go soon before it’s all gone. Swallowed by global warming. Alice, you in?” he continues.

“No, thanks,” she says. “I prefer to stay where I’m less likely to be devoured.”

Alice takes another lick of ice cream. She is at that special age where magic and logic hold equal weight—and neither wields as much power as vanilla with rainbow sprinkles. She is young enough to be vulnerable to charm but smart enough to recognize manipulation. Reward, punishment, ultimatum, deprivation—these are, of course, the same tacks she uses on her brother. But at ten, she is still at the mercy of the best incentive, the call of the unknown, the pull of adventure.

“Suit yourself,” says Ryan.

Alice feigns indifference.

Cass instinctively tenses. The last time she heard him say, “Suit yourself,” she came home to find Alice and Pete covered in paint, assisting Ryan as he “painted the house,” the living room walls splattered like a Jackson Pollock canvas.

“Guess we’ll just go on our own.” Sometimes the plans Ryan makes are met with some resistance. But he knows how to double defense into a new offense. There is an electric quality to Ryan’s attention and a penalty for dissenters, the ability to shine light into a room and cause the world to feel as though it has suffered a blackout in his absence.

Alice frowns. Even if the prize had no pull before, its withdrawal has given it value.

Cass begins to collect their trash, pack up scarves and mittens.

“We’ll pick this up tomorrow,” says Ryan.

“When?” asks Pete, his face falling.

“Don’t worry, man. We got plenty of time.”

“But you’re leaving Monday.”

“I’ll only be gone for a week,” he says. “And then you’re stuck with me. Forever.”

Cass watches closely now as Ryan leads Pete further. She allows it because she feels it is necessary for Pete to learn how to razz and be razzed, to spar and be sparred with, that relaxation, recreation, and play is as essential for a child as a well-balanced diet. And mostly because she knows Ryan will make good on his promise. Given the choice between a promise-breaker and a promise-keeper, she will take the latter. A few hours of sleep is a small price to pay for her son’s second chance at a father.

“Can we, Mom?”

Ryan shrugs. He knows he’s won now.

“You can’t go on this trip,” she says, “but we can start planning our holiday vacation. We’re due to go back to the Dunmore. I’ve been craving those milk shakes.”

“Hooray!” cries Pete. He jumps up and down. Even Alice is smiling.

Cass concedes defeat once again, but now with open delight. After years of grief, the trade of her will for her children’s joy is one she is willing to make.

Cass walks to her husband’s side, awards him with an adoring smile, the smile of a co-conspirator, a trusted ally. She grasps his hand and imparts, in a grasp, all her love, her thanks, her adoration. He doubles the force of her grasp, as if raising her love in a bet, then tugs her gently toward their home, leading the family they have made, the family they have formed together. It is a perfect moment, its contentment sweetened by the tears that came before it.

Travel plans gain fervor now in the empty school yard as descriptions of pink coral give way to a discussion of diving gear and the current color—blue or purple—of ink on stamps on passports. But now Ryan is ready to release the reins to his partner. Cass commands the group and begins the trip back home, anxious to resume the bedtime ritual, this time aided by hard-earned fatigue and fulfillable dreams of pirates and mermaids.

*   *   *

It is nearly eleven, and Cass and Ryan lie in bed, unwinding. In a faded blue T-shirt and cotton briefs, Ryan looks somehow too carnal for a marital bedroom. Cass wears a short silk nightgown and a gray cardigan sweater, the glasses she wore in college. She reads while he scans his device. Domestic bliss, the modern version. A breath of air rushes in the window. Cass burrows deeper under the covers.

“More travel again so soon.” She is going for disinterest. “Which project is this?”

“The new one I told you about. Second home. Usual bullshit. ‘Hidden Harbor,’ Jamaica.”

She flips the page in her novel. “Sounds exotic.”

He turns to her suddenly. “Why don’t you come? Just us? A quick vacation?”

“You know I can’t miss class,” she says. “I teach every day but Monday.”

“I guess I’ll just have to bring back some of that Jamaican magic. Make us some more of those cookies. We’ll do another staycation. Go back to the Lakehouse. Would you like that, babe?” He kisses her neck, slides his hand from her shoulder to her stomach. “Remember those?”

“Do I ever.”

“Those will take the edge off.”

“Who says I’m edgy?” She pushes his hand away playfully and turns the light off.

 

Copyright © 2017 Galt Niederhoffer.

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Galt Niederhoffer is a writer and producer. She has written several novels, including The Romantics and Poison, and has produced over thirty indie films, twelve of which were selections and award-winners at the Sundance Film Festival. She has produced films that won the Audience Award, Screenwriting Award, Directors Award, and Cinematography Award at Sundance. Niederhoffer has also been published in Vogue, New York Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar. She lives in New York City.

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