Put the change in the tray because I don’t want to smile at you. The toll operates without need of smiles. Ding. That’s right. Just keep on driving that black SUV. Don’t notice me. I don’t exist. I’m not paid enough to exist. Subsistence is cheap, but only comes in one dirty, uncomfortable flavor.
The night is cold and the moon is new. The wind darts back and forth between my booth and its twin neighbor. I hear it dancing along the pylons, whistling around them, trying to cover them with its icy breath. I’d be next.
A cavernous silence surrounds the toll. Were it not for the occasional animal call, rumbling engine, or manic burst of chilled air, I’d think sound had abandoned the toll for a more interesting spot.
I cough, and the air catches it, amplifies it, multiplies it, and sends clones skating across the countryside. The echoes persist for a time, fade out, fade back in, and return to me, though they’re now sharp sneezes.
I peek out of the window facing the northbound lane. Behind the toll, to the south, stands a bright streetlight, illuminating the toll’s entrance. Beyond it floats an onyx abyss, waiting to swallow all comers. The darkness is impenetrable, standing as strong as a solid wall at the end of the bridge. I know what it guards: a sprawling metropolis full of bright lights, hustle, bustle, and traffic. At three in the morning, they are all alien to all but the city. I yearn to return to the urban carnival, if only to enter my apartment and collapse upon the couch unconscious. I’m a fool for taking such a late and lonely shift. I turn my head.
To the left, or north, lies, if possible, an even darker mass of raw night. No lights adorn the rural section of the toll road, mainly because the feeble hick town connected to it can’t afford them. Despite years of being directly connected with the prosperity of the city, the small town has seen little rise in revenue. The city steals the townsfolk away with its higher paying jobs, football team, luxurious malls, and private schools. I boldly support funneling surplus commuter funds into installing lights on the north end. At least then I could see the vehicles I’m about to ignore approach from a greater distance. There’s no shame in preparation.
Another playful breeze blasts through the northbound lane, taking with it a few of my face’s skin cells. I duck back into the booth and fiddle with the temperature dial on my personal space heater. The ancient device buzzes in contention and sparks out of protest. Ozone tickles my throat and I sneeze, which echoes off into the distance. When it returns, it sounds more like a cough.
Huddled in front of the heater, arms crossed and knees slamming together, I mourn the death of my common sense. Man was not meant to brave the elements for six dollars an hour, yet here I stand alone and knock-kneed, offering commuters with more money and better jobs cheap passage.
Two bright orbs cut through the rural abyss, washing my booth in fluorescent daylight. I squint my way to the magic button that raises the toll arm. I hover a finger over it and try to squeeze into the least visible corner of the booth. I hear brakes squeal, I hear an engine idle to dead, and I feel my pulse quicken. I don’t want to give anyone change.
“Just put it in the tray,” I say from inside the booth, voice weak from hours of little use. I count away five minutes before peeking out of the window.
A black SUV sits, its driver window is closed.
I lean out of the window and smile, which tears open a spot on my chapped upper lip. The waltzing breeze takes a few swings at the wound. Every blow connects.
“Can I help you?”
Though I don’t blame the driver considering the weather, not rolling down the window is an insult to a toll worker.
“Look,” I say, letting my painful smile drop into a frown. “I can’t give you change if you don’t roll down the window.”
The lack of response goads me on. I yell “Roll down the window,” my last word echoing off of every surface for miles. A thick cloud of steam flows out of my mouth. It rises a few inches in the air before freezing. It hovers a moment and then plummets to the ground and shatters. I look down at the shards just in time to see them melt back into steam. The vapor rises a few inches, freezes, and falls back to the ground, shattering again.
Bewildered, I give the SUV’s window three good knocks.
“Hello? Are you seeing this?”
The glass splinters. Cracks spread from the center, creating an elaborate web pattern. The window suddenly blows outward, covering my face with a fine gray powder. Momentarily blinded, I stumble backwards and trip over my space heater. I hear it slide across the floor and slam into the wall. The opposite door of the booth catches me. I thank it and feel my way to the remnants of my only source of heat. I turn the knob and the coil buzzes ominously. I can’t see a thing but I begin twisting the knob back and forth until the buzzing ends with a loud pop. The heat dies away.
“No,” I yell, breaking off the knob and throwing it out of the window at the SUV. The vehicle’s engine turns over and revs high, lurching forward. I lunge halfway out of the window, but much too late. The toll’s arm rips off with an unnerving shriek. I stumble outside and, despite my clouded vision, manage to catch sight of the SUV’s red taillights fading into the bleak black mass.
I let out a growl of frustration and stumble back into the booth. I reach under the desk and grab a bottle of water out of my cooler. Something in my lumbar region pops as I lean back. I raise the water bottle and upend it over my left eye, washing away the powder. It stings but I man up. I ain’t got time to cry. The right eye gets the same treatment. After a few minutes of blinking, I can see properly again.
The drawers in the desk are hesitant to move, laboring my pulls. The center drawer shoots out after a vicious tug and nearly rams into my stomach. The regulation book I need slides to the front. Dust clings to the front of it, obscuring a bit of the toll company’s logo. Instead of a large letter P, I see a circle with a small stem descending. I turn to the “In Case Of...” section and find an article titled “In Case of a Breakthrough.”
Before I can start reading, something connects with the side of my head and ricochets out of the northbound window. The plastic object bounces into the adjacent toll lane. I look over my shoulder and see the heater knob. Perplexed, I leave the booth and pick it up, stare at it, and then hop forward on one foot. I launch the knob as far as I can off the side of the bridge. Less than a second later, the knob finds my head once more. I use my heel to pivot around, catching sight of the knob just as it hits the ground. With a quick leaning swipe, I grab the knob off a bounce. I squeeze it with all my strength, not stopping until it’s no longer visible between my fingers. When I open my fist, I hold mere dust.
A certain switch, long buried under years of developed humanity, flips on. Something primeval stirs inside of me and my senses heighten. Angry and confused tears fall from my eyes, leaving cold trails on my cheeks. My eyes dart back and forth, as does my head. A shiver that could never be manufactured by cold runs down my back. With teeth bared to the world, I reenter my booth, putting away the book and looking towards the south for what my senses have already warned me about.
The SUV’s lights pop into existence. They approach the toll at a speed I deem a threat. I pick up my coffee mug and lean out of the northbound window. Once I feel the vehicle’s in range, I toss the mug in a low arc. It connects with the SUV’s driver’s side-view mirror and shatters. The mirror, casing and all, fades to dust.
“Yes!” I yell as I raise the northbound toll arm. “Just go on you bastard. I’ll keep throwing crap at you until you don’t exist!”
Instead of running through the open toll as I expected, the vehicle stops with its driver door facing the northbound window. This altered behavior takes that certain switch beyond its breaking point. I throw a tantrum, completely thrashing my booth. I pull the monitor from the wall and slam it to the ground. The phone offers no resistance as I yank it off the wall. Turns out, it makes for a good bludgeoning tool. I pummel the northbound door until it’s covered in dents and the receiver is hanging by a single wire.
Frustrated and out of breath, I stand there, huffing and growling, staring the SUV down.
“What the hell do you want” I ask, voice loud and dripping with bloodlust.
The driver-side door opens. The cab is completely empty.
“Oh, you want to take me somewhere, huh? Well I’ll be damned! If it’s not my apartment or a Burger King, you can count me out!”
The SUV sits, door ajar.
I yank open the northbound door and hang onto the knob, using it as leverage to launch my lower body towards the door. My left foot meets the door and slams it shut. The foot begins to press in on the door before it ceases to be, a cloud of dust falling over my leg. A desperate, guttural laugh begins at the back of my throat as I fall to the ground. The SUV launches, leaving deep skid marks on the concrete. Still laughing, I walk back into the booth and wait, knowing the danger has yet to abate.
The breeze whistles between the booth windows but I yell a few curses at it and it leaves. My eyes fix on the wall of night to the north, waiting for the SUV to return. The wall clock ticks off the seconds in my head, which I count individually. Three hundred forty two seconds later, the headlights appear at the end of the bridge. They come much faster than before, so much so that, by the time the SUV has blown through the toll, I’ve only half turned around. A small glimmer of hope blossoms at the back of my mind.
“Maybe,” I say aloud, “that’s the end of it. Maybe I’ll never see it again.”
My ears, ready to spring alarm, pick up the distant rumble of an engine. I turn around, facing south, and watch as the two headlights appear in the distance. The clip of the vehicle is much slower, more methodical, as if it knows it’s won. It leisurely comes to a stop in the northbound lane and the engine shuts off. The driver-side door is missing. I give it a long stare before exhaling a sigh. I lean over and raise the toll arm.
“Take me to your leader,” I say, opening the northbound door. I enter the vehicle, plopping into the seat behind the wheel.
The engine starts, idles for a moment, and we’re off. I don’t bother putting my hands on the steering wheel. It’s done a pretty good job driving on its own. As we near the northern abyss, its headlights flicker off.
“Hey, wait!” I yell over the noise of the rushing wind.
Blinded, I feel a cold breath on my shoulder and my consciousness leaves me. When I come to, I see the toll in front of us, fast approaching. The SUV is headed south, towards the city.
“Wait! Why are we going back?”
The SUV comes to a stop next to the southbound door of the booth. The knob turns and the door slowly opens. A hand carrying a small space heater peeks out. I follow behind it. I see myself smile, raise one leg, lean back, and throw the space heater at me.
“No,” I squeak, trying to scramble out of the vehicle.
And all was dust.
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