Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Back in Fifteen Minutes
I got the call from Michael Corso just after seven. I was sitting down to watch the next DVD in my Lost: Season Two box set. Fall was blowin’ in and I was using all my non-working, waking hours trying to watch all the episodes because I just knew the maple trees in the front yard were going to start dropping their leaves. It had already begun; I was just in complete denial. I wish I’d bought that yard cleaner like I’d bragged I was going to do. Vacuuming was a lot easier than raking, but I would have to wait until spring to get a good deal on one. I drained my glass of Diet Coke and hit the button.
“Steve?” The voice was familiar, but faded in my head.
“Hello?” Curiosity flooded my head.
“It’s Mike. Can you come over?” I had to stop and decide. This wasn’t like choosing which shirt to wear or whether to go to Burger King or McDonald’s. There was bad blood between us that had turned less venomous over the months. It all had to do with Nichole.
“Yeah, right now?” The smoke monster was going to be in this episode. Evangeline Lilly would be lovely again.
“Yes, please. This is important, intensive.”
He liked to pull the thesaurus out of his head when he was nervous. I’d known him long enough to notice that tick. It had gotten me mad enough at him before I became enlightened to know he couldn’t control it, like getting intestinal gas, but this had to be serious; he never would have called if it wasn’t.
I turned off the Blu Ray. Jack and Kate would have to wait. “Okay, I’m on the way.”
I turned on Gansevoort road and headed toward Bluebird with memories of someone I’d lost. He lost and I lost. I just got there first. The seal on the tomb was still fresh, she had no burial insurance and her sister, Rose, had asked if she could be buried in the Oliver family tomb back in the corner of Gansevoort Road Cemetery. It felt awkward; she would be mine in death when she wouldn’t be mine in life. Rose knew how close we were; she knew that Nichole always knew to trust me, many times more than she trusted her husband. The rain had come earlier that day, punctuated the way I felt, leaving small mud puddles here and there.
Nichole had been my first; my first in everything.
We’d dated in high school, broke up when college began (she got into Cobleskil and became a Fightin’ Tiger, I went to Brockport until my father’s stroke, then I came back to take over the family insurance business) and had gotten back in touch with each other as we both came back home to Wings Falls. After the accident, I learned to go home by Saratoga Road instead of Gansevoort Road. When you come across the bridge from Glens Falls and drive down Main Street, you get that option at the light as you stare into a Stewart’s. I chose the one that would not take me past lonely Gansevoort Cemetery.
At night, sometimes I thought I could hear her whispering to me as I drove by. “A girl always gets what she wants!” She loved to declare at the most inopportune moments. When we were at the county fair and I invested twenty dollars to pitch the rings on the bottles so she could get the biggest plush toy, when I was broken from the death of my Mom as sophomore in high school and she threw Ron Burgundy quotes at me until I stopped crying and cracked a smile, finally, that night she came over, revealing she thought her husband was cheating on her and asked if she could stay here if he was. She reached down and grabbed my hand, shaking her head how she should never have let me go. That was something I never told Rose, and especially not Mike.
I pushed it all away. It was bad enough to walk through life without her.
Mike was ruthless, he had been homecoming king and thought the earth should always move for him, and many times, it did. He got out of college a year early, working his way from entry level to office manager for that investment firm down in Saratoga. He bragged to me one night in a low voice during a dinner party we had both been invited to, that he’d gotten the prettiest girl in town and I didn’t. That he had won that great contest between men that went back to the age of flint axes and woolly mammoths. I told him something guttural and immature, completely making an ass of myself and forcing me to apologize to the host later. It was very guttural, but it felt so good to be immature. As I took off in my car, I vaguely realized I’d received a taste of his personality and I was angry at how much I enjoyed it.
Three weeks before the accident, I was out at the Log Jam treating myself to a nice steak, staring at the empty chair across the table from me, when I heard his voice. I looked around, just hoping to see her. I cranked my head above the planter and saw him drinking a glass of beer that was most likely Canadian—he always liked showing off what he thought was his great level of cultivation. His eyes sparkled in the firelight as he drained his glass, then he shifted a little and I dropped fast when I saw Nichole was not who he was eating with. This woman’s eyes were like sapphires in the dim room; her hair a black darker than a killer’s soul. He wrecked any speculation of amity by leaning over and sharing a long kiss with her.
I found out that night he had been seeing this person behind Nichole’s, and everyone else’s, back for months. Not too long after, Nichole had come home sick from her job at the Hudson Valley Bank (“Go with the Green!” was their motto at the time) and caught them in bed that day. Mind cloaked with anger and hurt, she had been speeding, ran a stop sign or two, and pulled out on to Saratoga Road and got t-boned by a semi.
Her funeral had been a month earlier and the wound was beginning to scab over. I never told him that she had been talking to me on the phone when that semi plowed into her car, shattering her entire body. It gave me chills hearing her scream and the impact. Somewhere, I think I heard her body split open at that moment just before the phone went dead—the combination of a wet tearing and popping sounds still haunt my dreams after all this time.
I found him sitting on his porch, a cigarette between his fingers. He hadn’t smoked since high school. I brought the Dodge to a stop behind his BMW. It was tempting to close my eyes and grin and ram into it a few times.
I was civil. I got out, hearing the ticking sound as the Beamer’s engine cooled off.
“Steve.” He looked up at me as I got to the porch and it hit me hard. He was dead scared. He backed this up by shoving the cigarette up to his lips with hands that shook so badly, he missed his lips twice.
“What’s going on?”
“In the house. I found the door open when I got home and I’m dead scared man.” He looked toward the front door and I took the bait. I wondered if I should have brought my gun. A dark smudge was on the lock, the key still procreating with it. Mike was like anyone else here: the key was under the mat. He lived off Bluebird Road near the school, next to the Trail. His street was a loop, with houses on the outside and inside rim. He and Nichole had built a nice house with a big yard, a deck and a pool they had to cover every winter.
I tried to open the door, but something resisted it. I looked down at Mike, but he was gazing out at the lawn jockey holding the little sign designating the residents’ name. He molested it with his eyes.
I shrugged, put my shoulder into the door and saw the dirt. It was dark: nearly down to the clay, genuine New York State dirt. I’d had it on my boots and fingernails enough times to know it by heart. A trail led to the kitchen table. The Corso house reminded me of the shotgun houses I’d seen when I was down in New Orleans during the clean-up from Katrina. You could look through the front door and see the dining room and the back of the house. A smell slapped me around, shoving itself up my nose. It reminded me of the dead dog I had come across one day playing chase back in Jacobi’s woods a kid. It had left its home to go die and went to the big dog pound in the sky underneath a fallen tree. Maybe it had been there for a month, I didn’t know. The flies and maggots were having an All-You-Can-Eat buffet on it. Then the smell of rotted meat hit my nose when the wind shifted and I threw up my PB&J sandwich at the base of a pine tree. This smell was like that. My gorge had changed with time, and I was in no danger of any upheavals.
On the over polished, wood table was a scrap of paper. In Nichole’s rounded scrawl was written: “Back in 15 minutes.”
I dropped the paper back on the table. Behind me, the screen door shut itself behind him.
“What do I do? People can’t come back from the dead.” He raised his hands in exasperation, then let them fall.
“No crap.” I looked around the place, trying to see if anything was missing. I didn’t know enough about his house to know if anything was. I told him so.
He read my intentions perfectly. “Nothing’s gone. I checked my safe and the gun rack in the basement, but everything is tight.” He threw his hands up, and I watched him surreptitiously search the room with his eyes again. They told me he wanted to be sure, and when they came back to me, I knew he was.
I tried to think about all of this logically and could not pull it off. People didn’t come back from the dead. My eyes fell on the picture of Nichole. Her sweet smile planted on her face, caught in midstride as she passed through the finish line of that Ironman she had competed in a few years back. It still hurt after all this time.
“I wonder if Claire is okay,” he looked down at the note again and then out the back door into the woods. Something dawned in his eyes I couldn’t quite read, then jammed his hand into his pocket. He wasn’t groping himself (that would have been awkward and disgusting if he had!), but pulled out his smart phone. I walked to the window over the kitchen sink, brushed aside the thin white curtain and looked out into his backyard where Nichole had diligently grown a nice vegetable garden the fall before she died. Now it was a patch of neglected dirt in the corner of the yard. Like something out of War of the Worlds, one of the Adirondack Power Company’s electricity pylons stood over it from the Trail.
The Trail had earned its title for being a place that was more or less neutral ground; the land was owned by the power company as a route for their fifty-foot tall, alien looking hunks of metal sculpture that carried power lines across the town from the station over near Hudson Falls. Most days during the spring and summer you could step out on to the porch turn on the Yankee game and sip your beer, watching the occasional motor cross bike or ATV zip by beneath them, leaving behind foreign patterns from their tires in the soft dirt of the Trail. There was no one riding out there today, it added to a deadness that made everything seem stranger. We’d said goodbye at the Green Tomato, sharing one last solemn hug before she had gone off to become something and the darkness had come over my life. She trusted me handle all the details of her death in juxtaposition to the fact that she never wanted me in her life. Mike could sell the BS with the best of them; nice guys had no place in this world.
His face scrunched like it was getting squeezed and I turned to the front window. It would be dark soon, fall would be short. The stunted oak in his front yard was starting to get naked, its leaves at its feet. I wondered if the lawn jockey was enjoying the show and if he tipped well.
“Yeah, I know you told me not to call again, but something weird has happened. Has anyone come over?”
Another pause. I knew what was coming. Claire had been fired as a teacher when Nichole had been killed— it had come out about the affair and local gossip had killed her career.
“I know it’s none of my business, but I just wanted to be sure you’re safe.”
His fast contorted in disbelief. “Claire? Claire!” He yanked the phone away from head and I heard a scream. He pressed the button.
“Something’s got Claire!”
I drove us over to her house on Cheryl Drive. It was a white colonial with green shutters near the apex of the loop, where it then ran back into itself. Her door was closed.
“Claire! Claire!” He leapt up the steps to her wooden porch and pulled back her screen door and began to pound on the inside one. I looked up and could see the pylon; then I realized that there was only a thin stretch of woods and the Trail between this house and Mike’s.
The door moved and I walked toward it, not knowing if I should be scared or not. There were small, square concrete bricks that made up the walkway to it. I tripped over the edge of one that had been carelessly placed in the soft dirt and caught myself.
A loud slam made me jump and I looked up at him. The screen door had slammed shut as he began to back away. His mouth was working in silence and I thought he was going to walk off the porch, but his legs remembered how they got there and he backed down the steps. I looked up at the door in time to see it slam shut, but not without catching sight of a ghost behind it. That black hair had turned white, eyes hollowed with madness.
He staggered, then caught himself and sprinted to my car. I followed the path back along the bricks and stole a glance at her side door. More black dirt was on the steps and led out to the backyard. As I went back to my car, I realized Nichole was visiting.
I slid in the car and fired it up. “Let’s go back to your place, call the police and let them do their thing. There has to be a fingerprint somewhere. People can’t come back form the dead.”
Mike’s voice seemed to come from far away. “She was driven mad by what she saw. Her hair was turned white!” As we backed out of the driveway, I thought I heard a gunshot from inside the house. Mike was just staring out the window.
I dropped him off, looked at my watch and noticed the woods across from his house. They were too quiet. This time of year, the crickets and frogs should be conducting a symphony of their unique choosing. It had been fifteen minutes since I’d arrived. She’d always been known to be late.
I saw something in the dying light, something walking up the road in the near dark. I didn’t look: didn’t have to. I put the Dodge into drive and drove around the loop. I saw something in the dark, a figure that was not moving like it was alive.
I didn’t need to see. She deserved her revenge.
Mike died of a heart attack that night, screaming loud enough to get the neighbors to call 911. The next day, I got a call that the tomb’s lock had been broken…only detectives who were called couldn’t figure out why it looked like it had been broken from the inside.
She was right. In the end, she had gotten what she wanted. That was fifteen years ago. My dog died last year of old age, I sold my insurance business last month for a bargain basement price and I changed my will that same day; everything is going to my nephew in New Jersey whom I had only ever talked to twice in my life. He’ll be collecting very soon. I sit here in my chair; my gun feels good in my hand. The leaves are starting to fall again and I have a smile I can’t erase. Nichole has been coming to me in my dreams, and I can’t wait anymore. I need to see her so I can get what I want.
Credit: Christopher Haynes