Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Act I: Today I Buried a Man
I am the Tollman. I sit in this lonely lonely desert tollbooth and collect the tolls from people who pass by. When it is quiet in the night, I hear the voices of people arguing, but no one is near.
I can see for two miles to the West over the hot white sand, and to the East is a dune. I sit in my lonely booth and collect the tolls.
Today someone approached my booth. I could see them in the distance and as they drew nearer, I could make out some details about them. He carried a large backpack, and came from the direction of E-City. Or, The City. The E stands for Earring, but you don’t want to know why. The City is a violent place. Years of moral decay have led men to devolve into a species of violent barbarians, ripping each other apart and wearing their bodies as adornments. I left the violent, violent city a long time ago.
This man approached my booth today and I could see he had walked a long way. He had a scarf around his face to keep the sand out, and shades over his eyes. He looked weary but strong. His gait was sound and each footstep seemed to happen on purpose. As this man drew nearer to my booth, he pulled down his scarf to speak to me.
Then he fell down dead.
I exited my booth through its only door in the rear and circled around to the man. He lay there on his face, dead as the sand that surrounded him.
I studied the scene for several minutes, attempting to decipher what had happened to this man. With no sound answers, I dragged the man behind the dune to the East. It’s only several hundred yards to the rear of the dune and I tugged him back there and put him near the others.
This is not the first time this has happened.
In fact, for the past several years, this has been happening. I will see someone—or a group of people, even whole families—approaching from the West, coming to pay their tolls, and they bridge the distance between the horizon and my booth and then fall down dead. I then take them behind the dune to Hinnom—that’s what I nicknamed the place. The Valley of Hinnom. But it’s not really a valley. I cannot figure out what causes it. I have searched the area around my booth, and have found nothing queer to speak of.
The problem is, I cannot leave my booth for too long—it’s just a weird thing of mine. When I finished putting the man back behind the dune, I scurried back to my booth. I never look at the bodies.
And I never leave my booth for too long.
Act II: The Day My Father Showed Me His Booth
It was the morning of my seventeenth birthday when my father came into my room early in the morning and stirred me from my sleep. He smiled as I resisted his invitation to emerge from my dreams.
“You’re 17 today, my son,” he said with his gentle whisper. “You’re a man.”
I moaned into my pillows, unwilling to rise.
“Today you will come to work with me.” This caught my attention, I remember, for I had always wanted to see my father’s booth. He was a city tollman. It was an entirely different career to work a booth in the city. The city was violent and barbaric, and men had abandoned their roles as humans and taken up animalistic identities. Men wore other men’s intestines as necklaces and used their shriveled, shriveled organs as coin purses. I had never been to my father’s booth before, for it was in the center of the city. He was one of a few men brave enough to face The City and continue to do his job, despite the enormous risk.
We lived on the outskirts of E-City, where people are relatively safe, but still within the dangers of the metropolis. My father and I sat on the train that took us into the city. He was a large man whose figure commanded respect, though he was a warm and generous soul. As I sat in the seat by him, he asked me about my schoolwork and my interests. He asked what I had been reading, and the friends I had been spending time with.
The train ride went by quickly and soon we were walking through the streets to my father’s booth. He walked near me as we strode through the ghetto. On the train, he had told me not to look around once we exited the train car. Not to make eye contact. “Everyone you see today has murdered people,” he stated with dire gravity. “That’s why they’re still alive.”
We entered a heavy metal door that seemed to have been misplaced in a grimy alley. It opened to a rusty, rusty staircase that echoed up and down the metallic corridor. Paint peeled off of everything. I followed my father down about a dozen flights of stairs to another drab looking door. He pressed it open into the bowels of the city. We were several stories underground, where the most animalistic of men dwelt. They were those fearful of the sunlight, addicted to tranq’s and hogs, and unwilling to make use of language. They would shriek or mutter nonsense to themselves in place of words. Many had never heard language spoken. They were animals given over to maddening darkness.
And this is why I admired my father. Few men were willing to collect the tolls from beings such as these.
My father looked back at me and gave a small smile. “Almost there,” he assured me. I could see his booth now; it was on the side of one of the roads that ran through the underground. As I walked, I saw motion in my periphery, darting behind a pillar, or diving under a dumpster, though I did not catch a direct look at the underground men.
We stopped before the door of the booth and my father sorted through his keys, whistling as he found the one that fit the handle. He flicked on the light switch as we entered the booth and the buzzing fluorescent bulb sputtered out light before catching its consistent homeostatic buzz. Still whistling, my father slid open the window of his narrow booth and pulled a seat next to his for me. I sat near him.
It was glorious.
I was 17 and sitting in a tollbooth with my father in the city.
Act III: Today I Buried a Woman
It was three days ago when the scarfed man fell down before my booth. Today, I found a cut on my arm. Don’t know how that got there.
I saw a woman approaching in the distance. I knew it was a woman because her long brown hair was free on the wind, blowing out like a raven trying to escape from her hood. I sat up in my old, old chair and paid close attention to what happened, anticipating a similar fate for this poor girl. I watched to see what happened as she drew nearer.
She closed in on the booth, coming to pay her toll. I could make out her face: slender and pretty. She reminded me of the woman I used to love. One hundred feet. Fifty feet. Twenty. Ten. Then she fell down dead.
I must have blinked.
I knelt by her body as her empty eyes stared into the pale, pale sky. Her hands were marred, as if she came from a fight of some sort. Her fingernails were broken and worn down. I would have wept for this girl, but I have not been able to weep since the night I had The Dream.
I tugged the girl around to Hinnom as the purple, purple twilight gave way to night. Then I hustled back to the booth. It’s getting chilly.
Act IV: The Day I Saw My Father Sawed
My father was a gracious collector of tariffs. Unlike other tollmen who grunt in exchange for the toll, my father would welcome the payer with a grand ‘Hello,’ and engage in conversation with all who were willing.
“Boy, it’s so nice to have someone to talk to,” I remember him saying to me that day. “Usually, I try to talk to the payers, but they’re not big on dialogue down here. It can get pretty lonely being a tollman sometimes. In fact, if it weren’t for your brothers and your mom and you, I’d probably go mad down here!”
I could not picture my father being mad. He had never really gotten angry with my brothers or I, but instead used everything as a teaching moment. My brothers and I knew we had done something crooked when he started out with: “I think there’s a lesson somewhere in this looney episode…” and then his grand voice would expound on this point or that.
It was early in the afternoon (I knew only by the analog clock above the door the time, not the motion of the sun. There was no sunlight there.) when we were in the middle of a game of cards. I was winning. He had just given up a pair of Queens when a finger tapped on the window next to him.
“Give me one second, you dirty rotten cheater,” he said with a smirk. He turned and slid the little window open. “Good af—“ his big voice was reduced to a slur. I looked up to see an iron rod protruding from his stomach. It had been sharpened into a weapon by one of the underground men. The one who was shoving it into his belly, to be specific.
I froze in fear, clutching the playing cards like a shield before me. I watched as my father stumbled backward, trying to find the arms of his stupid, stupid chair that swiveled as he fell, casting him onto his stomach on the floor of the booth. The rod came all the way out the back of his midsection, tearing through the stitching of his uniform shirt thread by thread, like a straw poking through a beverage lid.
I continued to watch in frozen shock as ten skinny, dirty fingers grabbed the frame of the window and pulled their owner up. I got a look at the man—or the boy. He was about my age, with white, white skin like I had never seen before. He had no hair on his body that I could see, and his clothes were rags held together by whatever he found to keep them on his body.
He hoisted himself up into the window, pulling his legs up and then stepping through. He looked straight at me for a second and I saw his eyes: big white orbs with no colored iris, just a burning black dot in the center of each. I tried to speak, still sitting and holding the cards, but no sound came out as my jaw moved up and down.
The boy seemed not to care about me as he snapped his gaze back to my father, who was moaning on the ground. The boy spoke to himself in his own invented language as he calmly knelt down beside my father’s body and pulled a saw out of one of the many folds of his rags. It was a rusty and rancid old thing, with cracked and crooked teeth beneath a thin sheet of metal. He began sawing at one of the ankles. Blood filled the dirty floor of the booth, splattering onto the boy’s rags.
He cut through the foot and placed it by the body. He moved onto the other one and set it by the first. I had slid to the floor and crawled back against the wall, never taking my eyes off what had been my father. He continued moaning and gurgling until the boy had completely severed both his legs and moved up to his shoulders. I had heard stories from the boys at school about people in The City doing things like this, but I had never accredited them into the account of plausibility in my head.
I remember sliding my way along the wall once both my father’s arms were removed from his torso, and the boy was pulling a dagger out of his cloak.
Blood was everywhere. Everything was blood. There was no distinction between this object and the other because it was all blood. Fleshly tissue lay about the floor, soaked in blood, and the boy leaned once more over my father’s torso. He put the blade into the stomach, and I turned and floundered for the door. I realized that even as I fumbled with the knob, I smeared my father’s blood about the handle. I don’t know how or when it had gotten on me, but I later realized I too was covered in it.
I made it out the door, tripped down the step, and stumbled back toward the stairs we had come down.
Then my memory goes blank.
I never went home again.
I wanted to be as far from that city as possible. I know I became a tollman in the desert, but I honestly have no recollection of the process.
Act V: Today I Ran From My Booth
Today began the same way as many before it. I was in my booth waiting for someone to pass by, so I may collect their toll, or maybe figure out why people walk up to my booth and fall down dead. Gall, it’s the creepiest thing.
Nothing was out of the ordinary, except that I was dusting out the booth and airing out some clothes and saw some scratches on my shoulder. I don’t remember getting them. They didn’t hurt, just some short red streaks down my arm.
When I had finished cleaning up a bit, I sat. (This is what I spend most of my time doing…sitting). I sat and thought. I was enjoying the breeze from my faithful fan, wondering how something visible can propel invisible air forward, onto my face, when I saw a person approaching in the distance. They always seem to march on the horizon and slowly grow in size until they are about a hundred yards from me. I watched this play out once more, but when the person reached that point of descent from the horizon, something was pointedly different.
I stood up and ran out my booth.
Act VI: The Days I was in Love
Five years ago, a woman came to my booth. I saw her approaching from the horizon and thought nothing of it. I slid my window open and held out my hand. Rather than put her tariff in it, she shook it.
“Boy, it’s a hot one today,” were her first words to me. Small talk. We were in the desert. Of course it was a hot one.
I remember that she wore baggy travelers pants, a tough canvas jacket, and a scarf around her head. She had long brown hair with a gentle wave in it that made her head seem like a waterfall of bustling liquid chocolate. She was beautiful.
She proceeded to ask me what it’s like sitting in the desert booth all day. I listed off a few niceties, but I seemed to be boring her.
“No, what’s it really like sitting in here all day every day?” she cut in. “What do you think about?” Her eyes were not solid objects, they were liquid pools of laundry detergent, because that always seemed to be the richest shade of blue. She looked at me without blinking as we talked. Her head seemed to tilt forward whenever she listened, and the corners of her mouth dug back into her cheeks in a sly grin. She leaned against the booth, and I remember thinking about how strange it was since I sat two feet higher than her. I guess her need for human contact was greater than her sense of awkward conversation. In time I realized that she was lonely. And a while after that, I realized I had been lonely too.
We were two lonesome souls who found each other at a desert tollbooth.
That first day, she leaned on my booth talking to me until the sun sank below the sand. I invited her into the booth for the night, and she stayed. She also stayed for the one after that, and the one after that, and the 716 after that.
She loved to talk, telling me the sad stories of her childhood on the outskirts of the city. We realized we had probably seen each other at least twice when we were kids. She shared her thoughts about the world, about the desert, about the road. She showed me her grandmother’s old silver ring which she kept on her right ring finger and never removed. Her heart poured forth her weaknesses and exposed her desire for a home built in the heart of those that she loves, if not in a geographic location.
I told her I can be her home.
Almost more than she loved to share, she loved to listen. I told her about my father, and what a great man he was, and that he didn’t deserve to die. Out of everyone in The City, he did not deserve to die. I never told her how it happened though. Or that I had seen the whole thing. I would tell her about my lovely mother and my brothers, and how I missed them all awfully. And she would sit and listen with that same head tilt, showing that she was eagerly anticipating the next words to dribble from my lips.
I loved her. And she loved me.
We would take walks around the booth beneath the effervescent ceiling of stars. She initially made fun of me for not wanting to stray too far from the booth. “Come on, take a risk, you chicken!” she elbowed me in the side. But after a few months, she too came to realize the importance of staying near the booth.
And a few months after that, she didn’t want to wander too far from it either.
Act VII: Today My Mother Got Her Wings
Although she was a bit more hunched over than I remember from years ago, my mother had the same unmistakable gait as the day I left home. She was quiet and gentle, the perfect companion to my father’s eccentric warmth. She walked in a manner that was sure of what she did, though the age in her legs was now showing.
For years, I have been watching people approach my booth and fall down dead outside of it. And for years, I have not felt compelled enough to try and find the cause or actively try to put an end to it. There is something cursed about the land around my booth, and I was not going to let my mother go near it.
I ran out to her. I was running faster than I had since grade school on the playground. I waved my hands at her, desperately trying to stop her from coming any closer to the booth. I closed the gap between us. Seventy yards, sixty yards.
She stopped walking.
I ran close enough to see her well-wrinkled cheeks peeking out from behind her sunglasses. She seemed to be in good enough health thus far. I kept my eyes fixed on her, terrified that at any moment she could become the next victim to the jinxed place. I even began muttering under my breath: “don’t fall down, don’t fall down, don’t you die on me, don’t…”
I ran to her as her sweet voice met my ears. “Honey, what’s the matter?”
I panted for breath.
“What were you runni—“ her voice turned into a gurgle and she was dead on the ground.
I fell to my knees next to her, still heaving for oxygen. My chest burned like an angry squirrel was running around inside of it, clawing at my organs.
This was the first time I had seen my mother since I was 17 and now her body lay dead before me. When my body began to receive air once more, my gasps turned into sobs and I collapsed on my mother’s thin frame. We were a painting. Her blood spread into the sand where she lay, and I on top of her, mourning the enigmatic death of my second parent.
Many people had fallen dead before me in the past several years, but now my mother lies still beneath me, and I’m far away from the booth.
Act VIII: The Dream
The night before my lover left me, I lay down for the night and was instantly taken up in a dream I have still not forgotten. It began in the booth and my hearing was amplified. I started to wander away from the booth, and every crunch of sand beneath my boot sounded like a thousand needles racing down a metal door. The dune rose before me, thrice as tall as when I am conscious, and there was a purple haze all around it that contributed to an aura of eeriness. But I was not afraid.
I approached the dune and found a door at its base. I drunkenly stumbled through the door and suddenly the location changed. I was no longer in the desert near my booth, but was somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Not the nicer outskirts where my family had lived, but the run-down ghetto where crime was nearly as rampant as the downtown. I was walking down an empty street, and now I was holding a gun. Then from the other direction down the street walked countless men in business suits. They looked like films I had seen from before The City had decayed. The men wore expressionless faces and black suits and ties and looked straight ahead. They walked in a rhythm without distraction or hesitation. I bumped into one and then another. Then I was in the midst of them, still trying to walk the opposite direction like a slippery, slippery salmon swimming up a waterfall.
There is this tangible feeling of angst and worry, that I am supposed to be getting somewhere but the business men are pushing me back. I begin to fill with this violent longing to get past the parade of men.
Then I remember the gun in my hand. I shoot one of the men in the head and suddenly they all stop walking. They stare at me, and now they are no longer men in suits, but the hairless animal who murdered my father. Their handsome eyes are replaced by his all-white eyeballs with a pitch black pupil in the center, each staring directly at me.
I shoot one, then another, but they do not die. They do not even flinch. They circle around me and close in on me. I run out of ammunition, and I am defenseless. The angst turns to fear and helplessness.
Suddenly the monsters freeze. Their unblinking white eyes stare at me for a second more, then turn their attention down the road where they came from. The road fades into blackness, and out of this thick, thick blackness comes an aqueous platform. It is a stage made out of water, but it is staying in a rectangular shape. As it fades from the darkness and its origin becomes clearer, I see that it is less like a stage and more of an altar. Rather than ornate golden intricacies, the waves of the water seem to have splashed up and frozen in complex designs around the altar.
The white-eyed creatures part before it, and I sense an invitation to ascend the blue steps and look at the object upon the altar. It is glowing.
I am now full of curiosity as I ascend the steps and behold before me the ritual of the underground men.
My father’s bloody, bloody body lays on the table, cut into ten pieces, identical to the last time I had seen it. I am stricken with the same feelings of fear, horror, and shock from the day of my seventeenth birthday, but also with a feeling of rage and anger. The angst fades away and becomes fury. I turn and am about to begin slaughtering the boys below me on the road, but I wake up before any sort of vengeance is had.
I still remember the details from this dream as vividly as the morning I rose to find that my love of nearly two years had vanished.
I don’t know where she went, or why she left, but she disappeared. As if she was never here at all.
Act IX: Today I Examined Hinnom
My mother’s body is not like the others. It is not one I can merely drag behind the dune and think nothing of. She is my mother. And here is her corpse lying in the sand!
Familiar feelings of petrified shock blend with a growing sense of urgency to return to the booth. I pick up my mother’s body as gently as I can. Her face has purple bruises on it now and her glasses hang loosely off her cheeks, smashed to pieces.
I felt tears stream down my cheeks as I walked back to the booth with my mother dripping from my arms. Her nose and mouth were bleeding, and it ran down onto my sleeve.
It was not until I was nearly back to the booth that I began wondering why, after all these years, she had come to see me now. Perhaps this was how long it took for her to find me.
I made it back to the booth and tried to open the door with my mother’s thin body still in my arms. When that failed, I set her down on the sand and ran inside.
I was at a loss. I had no idea what to do. I wasn’t sure why I felt such urgency to act, but I knew I had to find the source of this death. Standing in the booth, I looked down at my right hand. It had been bruised across the knuckles as well. I wasn’t sure how that happened, but I returned my mind to my mother.
The desert was cursed, and I had to find the source. I resolved to return to the Valley of Hinnom and look for clues. In the years since these bodies first began appearing, I had not looked at the older corpses. I would avert my eyes and rush back to the booth. But now, in honor of my mother, I had to go once more behind the dunes and scour the dead.
I exited the booth and bent once again to lift my mother’s frame. She hung limp as a wet napkin across my arms, and I walked toward the dune. Each step carried closer the echoes of dread I had felt in my dream all those years ago. I felt as if I would discover something dark by looking at these bodies which I myself had placed there over the years.
I rounded the dune and before me lay the rows and rows of bodies.
For the last time, I set my mother down as gently as I could, and fixed her clothes to cover her properly. A bona fide ceremony.
I made a wide arc around to the far corner of Hinnom, where the first bodies lay. I looked at them from a small distance, expecting the decrepit limbs to suddenly start moving again.
Minutes passed and I deemed it safe to move toward the bones. I bent down next to the first body, it was clearly the oldest of the lot, and I brushed some sand away. I looked closely at the cartilage of the limbs. There was nothing unusual that I could see. I moved up to the head. It had patches of brown hair running like a chocolate river down into the ground. I scooped more sand away from under the head. My fingers scraped a thin cloth. I pulled it up and stared down in confusion. It was a silk scarf. I knew the pattern well.
Without thinking, I reached across the body and violently jerked the right hand out of the sand.
There was a silver ring on the third finger. Then I knew. This was a hand I had held for many days and nights. And this was a scarf with whose scent I had become well accustomed.
These were the remains of my lover.
Act X: Today The Mystery Was Solved
I sat back in confusion. The amalgamation of emotions nearly paralyzed me. I looked around as if someone in the desert were playing a black, black joke on me. Then something stung. As I rocked back onto my fists, a small, small streak of pain ran up my hand and I remembered the mystery bruises on my knuckles. And then the scratches on my shoulder and arm. Some pieces in my head began clicking together and I walked back around to my mother’s still body.
I knelt down beside her and looked at the bruises on her face. Her tender left cheek was bruised and her nose was broken. Bits of her smashed sunglasses were splintered into her temples and forehead. I looked once more at my now trembling hand.
Could I have beaten my mother? My hands quivered more and more violently as the reality set in. Then the still, dead hand of the woman lying next to her caught my attention. Her nails were scraped down to their beds, and she also had bruises on her face and body.
Is that where the peculiar scratches on my arm came from? I pulled back my sleeve and realized it was so. The woman had tried to defend herself with her bare hands against a crazed tollman in a flash of violent rage.
I looked beyond and saw the same was true of the man next to her, and the one beyond him.
My whole body began seizing as I looked out over the entire plot of bodies, hundreds laid neatly in rows, and I realized that I had killed them all.
I dismiss the entire idea as madness. I would remember committing murder. Wouldn’t I?
Then the dream comes to mind. I remember the emotion of waking up with a need for vengeance unfulfilled. I recall the bitter madness that set in as I choked my lover to death while she dreamed. It all flooded back into my head.
She never left. I killed her.
And ever since that morning, my brain flashes hot white for a moment while I kill these people coming to pay their tolls. The ground was not cursed, except by an insane tollman disturbed by his past and too much time alone in the vast screaming hot desert. I am the curse.
But now I’m feeling itchy. I need to get back to the booth. People may soon be coming to pay their tolls.