I sighed as I saw the toll booth looming up in front of us.
My wife and I had driven down this road a thousand times in the ten years we've been married. It was actually the place we took our first date, and we love to drive down it on Sundays and feel nostalgic. Despite the number of times we've driven the long and winding route, the toll booth always surprises me.
It sounds weird to say that your first date was a drive, but I think it was pretty sweet.
I'm a photographer, I have been since I was nineteen, and I often shoot weddings and family photos for people in the area. I've got a fantastic eye for locations, and my photos have been featured not just in peoples living rooms but also in magazines that debut the beauty of North Georgia and the Carolinas. The Appalachians have been my home since I was born, and I know how to bring out her beauty in my photos.
I was twenty-two and on my way to a wedding when I spotted a car on the side of the road. A young woman was sitting on the hood, waving her hands at me, asking if I would stop. I rolled my window down to see how I could help, and I remember her relived look to this day. She said her car had broken down and was wondering if I could help her out. I'm no mechanic, and my car knowledge stops at an oil change, so I offered her a ride to the wedding I was attending so she could call a wrecker.
She agreed and ended up hanging out with me for the whole wedding. The wrecker couldn't get there for about three hours, and I was the only person she knew, so we talked between photo shoots. I got her some food, weddings usually have a little extra, and this one was more of a country union than a black-tie affair, and we sat around and chatted as I took candid shots. We discovered that we actually had a lot in common, and when the wrecker called her, she told him to just drop it off at her mechanic.
I drove her home afterward and invited her to dinner with me later that week.
I know what you'll say. It wasn't a real date, but it meant something to us, and we've always considered it our first date. We even went back on our first anniversary and put a marker where her car had broken down. It may be a little macabre, but we put a wreath there to commemorate her little coop that had died on that spot the day we met. We still keep it up, and we stop at it sometimes so that we can remember how we came to know each other.
The spot where her car died is about two miles from the toll booth.
The toll booth is an oddity. It's just a random toll booth out in the middle of the woods. You'd put fifty cent's into the basket, the booth is never manned, and head on your way. I have no idea who comes out to collect the money. I don't imagine that it makes a lot of money out here, but it's probably some senator's nest egg for when they put him out of office. We always keep change in the car for just such an occasion, not minding paying a little toll to see the road that started our happy life.
Today, however, I couldn't find fifty cents in the cupholder.
It has been a busy week. We had just put a down payment on a new house, my wife had just started a new job, and I had just finished shooting for a big wedding that had more than paid for the down payment on a new house but left us a little light otherwise. We had cashed in our change jar that sat in the cupholder, something to get us by till payday, and we had forgotten to put some change back to pay the toll with. The drive was kind of our date night this weekend. We had a picnic in the backseat, and we were going to go up to the lake where the wedding had been held on that long-ago day. The lake was where we had our wedding, and we went there sometimes to picnic or swim or just enjoy a quiet afternoon together.
"What's the matter?" Carol asked.
I dug a nickel out from between the seats and weighed the pathetic little pile of change. Five pennies, two dimes, and a nickel were all I had managed to find under the seats. The arm hung stoically across the road, little more than a wooden suggestion than a real barrier. I had thought many times that I could probably just drive through it and be done with the insipid toll, but such things were a little too rebellious for me.
"Have you got any change?" I asked, doubting she did but wanting to be sure.
"Nope," she said, looking in her purse before exclaiming "ah-ha" and dropping another nickel onto my palm.
"Well, that's a little better, but not quite fifty cents."
"Just get some out of the change cup."
I shook the cup at her, reminding her that we had recently traded it in.
"Oh," she looked contemplative, "well, what shall we do, my dear?"
I considered turning around, maybe just forgetting the whole thing, but a new idea suddenly bubbled to the surface. I pulled onto the soft shoulder of the road, the car protesting as much as my wife. I was sure that my car's wheels would bog down at any second. The shoulder of the road is soft turf and seed grass, and I expected that my tires would spew up earth and stick as I maneuvered around the barricade. I'd have to sheepishly explain to some highway patrolman how I had gotten stuck.
To my surprise, though, I drove easily around the barrier.
I laughed and wondered why I hadn't simply done this before?
"What are you doing?" my wife asked, half laughing but half agast.
"We've given this thing fifty cents loads of times. I think it can give us a pass just this once."
We both laughed as we drove away from the lonely little toll booth, but I think even then, I felt a slight twinge on the back of my neck.
I would remember it later and realized I had been warned.
We drove down the familiar road, taking in nature's bounty and chuckling at our daring. The trees were ablaze with early fall oranges and deep, healthy greens. The sky was a perfect robins egg blue, and I just knew that the lake would be wonderful today. We could watch the sunset, maybe have a little fire before driving home, and snuggle in bed at the end of a perfect day.
It was a good plan, but someone had a different one.
As we drove, my wife watched the leaves with interest. My wife is an unofficial leaf looker, though she would never admit it, and our house has many pictures of beautiful foliage. As I drove, the road winding onward, I saw he lift her head from the car window and squint at the passing colors. We were both getting on in years, no spring chickens now, but the look she was giving those leaves was decidedly prudish.
It was like an old maid who simply could not believe Ms. Tyler let her daughter out in THAT skirt.
"John," she asked, sounding perplexed, "does something seem off about the trees?"
I looked at the trees, the oranges and reds and greens looking completely natural to me, and I told her so.
"It does, but it doesn't. It's like seeing trees on television. They look kinda glossy, recorded even. I don't know how to describe it. They just look a little weird."
I brushed it off, thinking maybe she was seeing things. It had been a long week. We had been through a pretty stressful time, and it was enough to make anyone a little jangled. She kept watching the trees, but I had put my eyes on the road again, wanting to be there already.
We had driven for about thirty minutes, though, when I had to slow down.
Sitting in the road, white and brown with a glossy oak arm, was the tollbooth.
I stopped and looked around, thinking someone might be playing a little joke, but there was no one around. The tollbooth looked exactly as it had before. It was simulated wood grain, and the walls were painted a dark brown and creamy white. The arm was a simulated oak with a glossy finish. It looked exactly like the tollbooth, but it couldn't be.
"Maybe they thought they'd put up another one?" my wife asked, smiling but clearly confused.
They were getting a little greedy, weren't they?
I pulled around this one, too, watching it disappear in the rearview mirror as we made our way down the road.
My wife was still looking raptly at the trees as we drove past, her attention becoming unhealthy. When she asked me to take a look, I glanced over to see the usual reds and oranges and greens, but something did seem a little off about them. Had they become even more vibrant? The foliage looked artificial, almost neon, and it battered against my eyes as I watched it go past.
"Okay, there is no way you can tell me THAT was just my imagination?"
I didn't answer her. I just wanted to get to the lake, so we could have our picnic and all of this would be normal again. This was weird, yes, but it was just a strange phenomenon. We would make it to the lake, and everything would be okay. When we drove here next weekend, or the weekend after that, everything would be just as it was. I edged my speed up a little, wanting to get past these weird technicolor trees and into the deep woods I knew were coming.
We had driven for another half hour when my breaks screeched against the pavement.
It couldn't be.
I had been driving this road for ten years, and it was always just the one tollbooth. My wife seemed startled, too, leaning forward to look unbelievingly at the little booth. It looked exactly like the other two, but that was impossible. We had passed it twice, and I was sure there was only one tollbooth out here. There would be no reason to think a second one would make any difference; there was so little traffic out here.
"What the hell?" my wife asked, and when I pulled around the arm this time, it was a little more aggressively than I'd meant to.
"Maybe," she started, pausing as she looked a little nervous, "maybe we should just pay the toll."
I didn't say anything. I had been too mad to even acknowledge the prickle on the back of my neck this time. Stupid, money-grubbing jerks! They hadn't figured they could line their pockets enough with one tollbooth, so they had added two more? This was unbelievable! I had a sense of humor about the first one, but if they thought they were going to gouge me for another toll
they had another thing coming! I was going to write my congressman, my senator, and the freaking president if they thought they could
gouge people like this. What about tourism? What about local beauty spots? What the hell happened to bringing people in so they could...
I stomped on the breaks and turned to yell, "WHAT?" at my wife as she stared out the window. Normally, she would have chastised me for yelling at her, I don't think I had yelled at her more than a couple of times our whole marriage, but she was too shaken to even take notice. She was looking out the window, staring at the trees with the strange leaves, and pointing with a shaky finger.
"L l l look." she stuttered, and I turned to see what she was babbling about.
The leaves were still eye-destroyingly bright, but this time they were also melting off the trees. Not regular melting, either, but like wet paint dripping off an oversaturated object. I could see them dribbling onto the ground, pooling on the grass as the verdant green lawns became spin art.
I put my eyes forward, racing the engine as I tried to reach what I knew was ahead as fast as possible.
The tollbooth came into view again, but I didn't stop this time.
"What," my wife said, getting nervous as I didn't slow down, "what are you doing?"
I gunned the engine, revving to seventy on the straightaway.
"Stop it, stop, don't do this."
The engine growled as I nudged it up to eighty.
"John!" my wife screamed, but it was too late.
I crashed through the wooden arm and laughed maniacally as the wooden pieces cascaded off the hood and flew to either side.
I had made many mistakes that day, but damaging the booth was the worst.
My wife screeched when we hit the arm, but one look at me had reduced her to silence. I glanced over at her and immediately felt sorry for what I had done. My foot came off the ignition, and the car slowly spun to a stop in the middle of the two-lane road. I had damaged state property. I was sure there was some sort of camera on the booth somewhere, and it would be easy enough to see me ramming the arm. I thought about driving back to the booth and seeing if there was a number I could call to report the incident, but finally just decided to keep going so we could make it to the lake before dark.
As I drove, I realized that my wife had been silent this whole time.
I turned to tell her I was sorry, to apologize for getting so nuts over this, but she wasn't paying attention to me at all.
She was looking at the countryside as it rolled by.
"Hunny? I'm sorry about all that. I just let it all get to me. I'm sorry for yelling, I'm sorry for acting like a psycho, I was just so...."
"The trees are wrong, John."
Her voice sounded on the edge of hysteria.
"What?" I asked, craning my neck around.
"They're all dead. They're all dead, John."
I turned right, wanting to see what she was talking about, but when I saw the trees, I wasn't sure why it had taken me this long to see them.
The trees, so vibrant and colorful before, were now sickly and forlorn. The vibrant colors had oozed right out of them, and the leaves hung limply from the trees as their bark hung pale and peeling. It wasn't just the trees either. The sky looked yellow and sick. It made no sense. What the hell was going on? This was nothing like how the road usually was. It was nothing like how it had looked when we'd first seen the tollbooth. I put my foot back on the ignition, and we kept rolling towards our destination.
It only got weirder the longer we drove.
The longer we drove, the more I expected to run into that tollbooth again.
The longer I drove and didn't encounter the ramshackle booth, the more paranoid I became.
The world outside didn't help much.
The sky became darker and darker as we drove. The leaves began to drop from the trees in droves. The limbs were skeletal, the bark crumbling from the long fragile limbs, and the farther we traveled, the more desiccated the trees became. We should have come to the deep woods by now. We should have come to the lake by now. We should have seen another car or seen a deer or seen something!
My wife stopped looking out the window, and I kept glancing at her to ensure she was okay. She just sat hunkered against the seat, rubbing her shoulders as she tried not to notice what was going on outside. I should have been worried about her, I should have stopped to make sure she was okay, but I was feeling on the verge of mental collapse myself.
We never made it to our destination, little as I would have wanted to get out if we had.
As the sun began to set, I realized how much worse it could get.
"Hunny," I whispered, not sure how long it had been since one of us had spoken. It felt like days, weeks, but my mind railed against these ideas. We were just a little lost. A little lost on a road that we had driven so many times we could have set the mile markers. I wasn't sure what was going on here, but I was sure that we would come out of it ok.
"We shouldn't have driven around it."
"What?" I asked, confused by her answer.
"We shouldn't have hurt the tollbooth." she said, turning towards me and looking afraid, "We should've just paid the toll. Now it's mad, and it might never let us get off this road.
"That's nonsense," I said, but it lacked conviction. I had been out here at night before, driving home after a day on the lake, but I had never seen it this dark. The trees no longer looked to be the old pines I had come to love. The trees I could see in my headlights looked more like maples with a thick, dark sap running from them. If I looked too long at them, some of them even seemed to have faces. I always looked away when I noticed this, afraid to meet their gaze, but I could feel them looking back at me sometimes, challenging me to meet their eyes.
As much as I wanted to tell her she was wrong, I couldn't argue that we seemed stuck, and it all started after we drove around the toll booth.
" Quick," I said, "dig under the seats and see if you can find another fifteen cents."
She looked at me in disbelief, "What?"
"Fifteen cents," I nearly growled at her, "that way, if we see that toll booth again, we can pay the toll and get out of here."
She moved slowly, like someone in a dream. She began to search under the seats for change, and as she searched, I kept driving. I was beginning to believe that something outside the norm might be at play here, and the farther we drove, the more I also believed we were being followed. The moon hung overhead, a bright yellow moon like a kid's Halloween drawing, and by that popcorn yellow beam, I could see things running in the woods. They loped along like big dogs, their bodies oddly elongated and their legs thick and long. I never got more than a quick look at them, but that look was enough.
"I think I see a quarter in the track of the seat, but I can't reach it. Can you pull over so I can get it?"
I gritted my teeth, but a quarter would get us there for sure.
I pulled over slowly, my lights still glaring into the woods, and told her to please be quick.
My wife stepped out, getting down beside the car so she could reach below the seat. I glanced around nervously, watching the woods for signs of the creatures. My wife was saying how she almost had it but that it kept slipping through her fingers. I growled at her to be quick, and when I looked back to the tree line, I saw one.
It was like a mountain lion that had been dipped in tar.
It was like a massive cat with black ridges of overlapping plates.
I imagined I could see the headlights reflect off its grinning mouth full of razor-sharp teeth and its claws clicked impatiently on the edge of the pavement.
"Carol," I whispered, not taking my eyes off the creature.
"Almost got it," she growled through gritted teeth.
The creature didn't seem to have eyes, but its head turned menacingly towards the car as Carol spoke.
As the quarter came free, I reached down and grabbed her by the collar of her T-shirt, lifting her into the car. My wife isn't large, maybe five feet, but it wouldn't have mattered if she were a giant at that moment. I pulled her back into the car and pushed my foot down on the accelerator as her door bumped shut, and we got back on the road.
If I had hesitated even for a moment, we'd both likely be dead.
As it was, I clipped the beasty in the side of the head instead of full in the side.
The creature's chest would have caved in the front of my car, but its head whipped heavily to the side as it broke one of the headlights on my car.
I barely noticed the other creatures in hot pursuit as we flew down the road at seventy.
We were ding ninety as we barrelled forward, but I could see that pack of nightmare hounds right behind us. The rear lights lit their chitinous faces hellishly, and I took the hairpin turns with wheel screeching accuracy. I'm no NASCAR driver, but the sight of those creatures behind me was enough to push me onward. If they caught me, we would both be dead. If I crashed, we would both be dead.
Seemed like either way, our options were limited.
They followed us for a long while, too long for animals that size. I was driving ninety most of the time, but they kept pace as easy as if we were going twenty. I was keeping ahead of them, but only just, and I felt them bump the back bumper more than once. They seemed intent on forcing me off the road, but they couldn't quite hit hard enough to do the job. My wife shuddered every time we got hit, and I found myself barely able to keep it on the road after every successful collision.
After some indiscernible amount of time, I looked in the rearview mirror to find that we were alone again.
A few minutes later, I saw the tollbooth come into view again, but not the one I was used to seeing.
This tollbooth was black, the paneling looking like the skin of those creatures, and the arm looked like an unprocessed tree trunk.
I didn't hesitate.
I dropped the money in the basket, whispering "sorry" as the arm slid up to permit us.
We pulled through the turnstile, and it was like crossing some kind of barrier into another world. My grandmother had grown up in Ireland and had sometimes told me stories about people who crossed the barrier between their world and the realm of Faye. Grandma always said that people could cross into the fairy realm without realizing it, but I knew all too well when I crossed the border out of whatever place I had been in.
It was like passing under the coldest waterfall that I could imagine.
We got home without incident, but it's the craziest thing.
We had voicemails from our friends, a client, and even my wife's new job, asking where we were and why we had been gone for so long. It seems that even though we left just after lunch on Sunday, we didn't return till Tuesday night. The car is still damaged, so I know we didn't imagine it. The car is damn near out of gas, and the oil shows that it's almost due for an oil change, despite having been changed not even a month ago.
I don't know what the hell happened to us, but I know I'll be keeping money in that cupholder from now on.
Whether we ever choose to go down that road again or not, I will always have money to feed the tollbooths that may appear in my life.
You never know where they might take you if you don't play by the rules.
About the author
Writer, reader, game crafter, screen writer, comedian, playwright, aging hipster, and writer of fine horror.
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