Month: March 2022

The Tollkeepers

There’s a point down the A217 that narrows to a foot’s width. That’s why there was no avoiding the deer.

I didn’t tell anyone about it until years later. I don’t know why it came to me, the urge to talk about it then – only that it seemed, somehow, like the start. A key, maybe, which if only I’d picked it up then would never have been turned.

The deer’s heart was on the pavement. It had been shoved out of the cupboard of its ribs and was red in the gaudy way of cartoon boxing gloves. A little further on was a chunk of liver. The rest of its body had been pressed up against the side of the pavement. It must have been hit in the night, and snagged repeatedly by every passing lorry since, it had been rolled and pressed, rolled and pressed, against the pavement until its slim legs, broken neck and head had been packed up into a neat, even-sided square. A cuboid of deer.

I didn’t touch it. I was seventeen, fresh from the hygienists with the clean taste of polish in my mouth. I’d always called myself an animal lover but my words hadn’t matched my actions since the last I spoke to Daria Kowalski.

For all my “love”, I left the body on the road. A deer was a deer. There would be no sacred rites, no pressing together of hands for a spirit, no muttered “Namuamidas”. This deer was just the price we paid for travelling this stretch of road.

How much is a season ticket to Banstead, bus master? That’d be two squirrels and a badger.

That night, I didn’t think at all about how a human would look, folded up like a meat pillow. Didn’t even dream of it. Those dreams would come later.

CCTV footage checked later showed nothing. At midnight, the roads were empty under but for the amber wisps of mist under the street lights. At a minute past, they were crowded with shadows.

Foxes, rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, deer, with their tails pricked, noses raised: Animals made of asphalt stared up our driveways, faced our pavements, gazed up at our footbridges with cracked and fissured tarmac eyes.

When I went out, phone in hand, scrolling through pictures friends already awake for jogging and morning shifts had posted on their feeds, there was a grating rattling, like the echoes of a fast-approaching underground train, that I didn’t hear so much as feel through the soles of my sandals. My brother, Akito, was squatting on the pavement. He was taking pictures of a concrete squirrel, posting them to his Discord.

He leaned closer. His hand and phone came barely millimetres away from the squirrel’s pale grey nose.

I grabbed his elbow. “Don’t touch it.”

“I wasn’t going to.” Akito shook me off, but retreated from the pavement’s edge. “They’re so real-looking, Mamoru. They’ve even got those little dimples where the whiskers go.”

The news was flowing from the neighbour’s open window. A reporter was urging people to stay indoors, to wait for further announcements, to not aggravate the roads.

“Charlotte? Robert?”

Our neighbour Roslynne Cadwater had gotten it in her head that my name “Mamoru” sounded too much like “mammary” to be “decent.” Our first Christmas here, she took it upon herself to gift our family “English names” in her card. For some reason, this made me “Charlotte” and Akito “Robert.”

I didn’t mind it. My name meant “to protect.” I’d never been able to live up to it, not when Dad had lived with us and not when Daria had needed me. So much for protecting. All I’d ever done was freeze and watch. When Mrs Cadwater called me “Charlotte,” it was a relief. A guilty one, because it was wrong to let her trample over the name Mum picked for me, but it was what it was.

“Is this some prank of yours, dears?” Mrs Cadwater squinted at the statues. Without her glasses, she couldn’t see the statues filling the length of the entire road. “Because if it is, you’d better clear these all away soon. I’ve got a grocery delivery coming at nine.”

Collar jangling, Mrs Cadwater’s old Alaskan malamute Ada pushed past her to jump out amongst the asphalt statues.

“Oh, Ada, no, come back—“

Mrs Cadwater stepped off the pavement, and every asphalt head on the road turned.

Before I could warn her, shout, do something, the pack of asphalt animals flowed towards her.

The World That Only You and I Know

When he speaks, his mouth bursts into explosions. Little pip-pop of words combusting like carbonated confectionary.

He takes a bite of his potato wrap and makes a face.

“Tastes terrible,” he informs us, unaware of how his every word is a trajectory, a new data point. Terrible, seventeen million of us whisper among ourselves, each sounding fascinated and dismayed in turn. The vagrant can’t hear us; no, not all of us.

“Your palate is finite,” we tell him. “It won’t sustain you.”

Giving us a quizzical look, he takes a tissue and wipes his mouth with it.

“Wazzat?” he asks. “What’s finite?”

It ought to be a philosophical question yet in the red mouth of a homeless Messic trying to enjoy his sauced potato wrap and failing at it, the query loses gravity, half its weight in worth. The doors of the diner chime as a visitor walks in. Another Messic from the lower borough district. We know this new arrival: his name, his age, his history, his chronic ailments, his connections; though he doesn’t know us. It’s fortunate that ignorance doesn’t trouble him. Not the way it troubles us.

The Messic vagrant sitting across our table acknowledges the newcomer with a languid jerk of his chin. He sets off more explosions in the network, and we see the chain of links forming between them, a web that’s all encompassing and endless.

The Messic’s question hangs between us, unanswered.

What is finite?

Limited. Scarce. Not equals one over zero. Bound. Guileless. Mortal. We run through the explanations, the metaphors, musing over each one while the vagrant sitting across from us grins through his sauce stained teeth. He wears a lime-green balaclava, a patched overcoat that’s two sizes too big on his emaciated frame and a scarf wrapped around his neck like a noose, ends trailing over his back. In his ill-fitting clothes and faded shoes, he lives at the very edge of society and should know what finite is. As far as it goes, he certainly stands at the tip of it.

“Blue Sky,” we offer solemnly. “Finite… is Blue Sky.”

[!Logos. Lapse in logic. Availability bias. FALSE!]

The vagrant never hears our alarms setting off, doesn’t even know what we are. Instead, he chortles at our answer and leans over, his mouth splitting into a wide grin.

“You’re in deep. Deep till your neck,” he tells us, making a slicing motion at his scarf.

Perhaps he’s right.

Cold Shoulder

Sarah expected the room to be white. The rooms in the movies were always white. When the black suits with ear pieces showed up at her door, she’d just assumed it would be a white room.

The brown, overstuffed couch was covered in leather so soft she couldn’t believe it used to be skin. The door opened and a generic man in a pressed blue suit with a white shirt and red tie stepped in. He pulled off his frameless glasses and rubbed them on his sleeve. “Good evening, Mrs. Stewart.”

“It’s Begress.”

He stopped cleaning and lifted his eyes. “My apologies, Ms.” He raised an eyebrow.

Sarah gave a curt nod.

He put his glasses back on. “Ms. Begress.” He walked to the desk and picked up the manila folder. “I apologize for the mistake.”

Sarah hadn’t seen the folder there, blending into the oak desk. But now she couldn’t unsee it. Nobody kept anything good in manila folders. It was always taxes and divorce papers. Even the good stuff, like property or car deeds, were all there just in case something went wrong. “It’s ok.”

“You’re file still has your name as Stewart.” He laid one leg up on the corner of his desk and unbuttoned his jacket.

“I haven’t filed the papers yet. I’m going next week.”

His lips drew to a line and he ran his hand through his thinning, brown hair. “I see. It’s a hassle, all that paper work.” He flipped through the papers in the folder. His fingers had thick calluses in strange places and the edges of his nails were rough.

“Second biggest hassle I’ll have to deal with this week.” Sarah leaned back and let herself sink into the couch. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave her best annoyed look.

“Yes, I’m sorry, Ms. St… Begress. I apologize for the secrecy, it’s part of the job.” He slid off the desk and extended a chewed-up hand. “My name is Agent Johnson.”

His handshake was too firm. He had her locked in his office in the middle of DC and he still had to show how strong he was. Sarah wanted to slap him for it, but she just waited, trying to keep the frustration off her face. “Nice to meet you.”

Johnson turned away and retreated behind his desk. “You must be wondering why you’re here.” He looked up, waiting for Sarah to answer, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of answering useless questions. He continued, “It’s about your husband.”


Johnson looked at her over his glasses. “Paperwork hasn’t gone through on that either?”

“Not yet. It’ll go as soon as I can get him to sign it.”

“How long have you been separated from your husband?”


“Can you be more specific, please?”

There Can Be No Hermits

When my friend Bruno stopped by my house for a visit, I knew right away he was a secret drop-in. He didn’t smell like Bruno, you know? He didn’t quite move like how I remembered.

Sniffing out signs of introversion — that’s their M.O. The congeniality police will report you if they suspect any evidence of introspective activities.

If you fail a secret drop-in, you might get a citation three weeks later. Maybe a fine for inhospitable behavior. Sometimes worse. It all depends on what they find.

You can tell a secret drop-in if they say stuff like Hello stranger or Oh I was worried about you or Hey, just thought I’d touch base. It’s been a while.

Seriously, touch base? Baseball hasn’t been a thing for two decades. You want to touch base?

They disguise themselves as your closest friends or relatives. But if you’re smart, you can tell the difference. The fakes are like super-extraverted versions of whoever they’re pretending to be.

Pay attention. Though they act familiar, a secret drop-in will display subtle signs of having never met you before. For instance, they’ll look at things your friends wouldn’t look at, like your name tag. Or your hands. A close friend wouldn’t examine your hands. Hands are only interesting if you’ve never seen them before.

They ask you all the usual catch-up questions: What’ve you been up to lately? What are you doing this weekend? Are you seeing anyone? Oh is it serious? How’s work going? Do you like your coworkers?

The first thing Bruno did was glance at the Hi I’m: Tobi emblazoned in blue stitching on my right breast pocket. Then he said, “Ey, Tobi, bud. How long has it been?”

“What a surprise,” I said, mustering up as much enthusiasm as I could. “Come in, friend. It’s been too long. Have a seat.”

To pass a secret drop-in you have to tick each box on their checklist: Ask if they want something to drink. Ask if they’d like to have a seat. Ask if they want to use the bathroom before they leave. Suggest a future time and place to hang out. Show them recent pictures on your phone. Agree to look at anything they show you on their phone. I mean anything. Doesn’t matter how stupid.

He walked passed my television and looked down at my game console, noting the single controller. “Nice setup. Whatcha been playing? Where’s your other controller?” he asked.

I had to think fast. “Oh, I let my neighbor borrow it. We play all the time. Online multi-player. His controller broke. So I was just being nice by letting him borrow mine. I might just let him keep it, actually. I can pick up another one tomorrow or something,” I said, hoping the lie didn’t sound too forced.

Anything that implicates you in a solitary activity will throw up a red flag. If they even see a book, forget about it. At that point, they’ll just make up an excuse and leave because they know they got you. I haven’t owned a physical book in years.

I tried to distract him by engaging in more conversation: “You look good, man. You shaved for once.”

He touched his jaw. “Oh yeah. I was on my way to a work thing. This mixer they’re having for a new hire.”

“They give parties for new hires? That’s awesome.”

“Yeah, we want to make them feel welcomed. Make them see how collegial we all are.”

The Bruno I knew only shaved about once a month. I picked up a small basketball and tossed it to him. I nodded at the mini-hoop hanging from my bedroom door. Faux Bruno tossed up a shot. Swish. Then he winked and pointed at me and said, “Nice assist, bud.”

“I should suggest that at my job. I think it’s a great idea,” I said, doing my best to continue the pointless banter.

“Some of the smaller workplaces make excuses. They say it’s not in the budget to do stuff like that. But that’s never true. If bosses do their due diligence, they can find the funds. Social camaraderie is an integral part of any successful enterprise. I’m not sure if you know, but any workplace can file for a new employee welcoming grant from the Workplace Congeniality Foundation. Just about any business can qualify. Maybe mention that to your manager on Monday.”

“Oh I definitely will. Thanks.” What I wanted to know was when the hell did Bruno become an expert on workplace spending? Is this guy even trying? He must be new at the whole imposter thing.

“You’re welcome, bud,” Faux Bruno said.

The first time I got in trouble for asocial behavior was back in college. I had locked myself in my dorm room for two straight days to study for midterms. Studying is best done in groups, they said. That’s when I learned all about the Department of Congeniality. The Workplace Congeniality Foundation is one of their subsidiaries. The whole thing is a sprawling umbrella corporation, a giant tech conglomerate that profits off of people staying connected and always sharing. It’s the very same department that monitors your social media to see if you’ve become underactive.

If you’ve been particularly underactive, that’ll tip them off. In fact, that might have been why they were visiting me. I had been slacking.

When you’re online, it’s always a good idea to randomly like stuff or share things as much as possible, on whatever social platforms you visit. Even if it has no significance whatsoever. At least it shows that you’re active.

Don’t even try to delete a profile. You’ll find yourself embroiled in a full-on intervention. They make you attend social skills rehab. Seminars on how to stay connected. Classes on how to maintain your presence. Those are the worst. Trust me. If you’re a closet introvert, you really don’t want to meet the kind of people who teach those seminars for a living. Holy hell.

Bruno looked at the pics on my fridge. He laughed at the right things. He brought up the correct anecdotes. He did everything right to show me he was nominally the best friend he was supposed to be. But I knew the truth. The real truth. Bruno and I hadn’t spoken in years. I couldn’t even tell you who ghosted who. In fact, despite being ostensibly connected to many of the people that littered my friends lists, I hadn’t seen any of them face-to-face in a long long time.

I didn’t really have any friends anymore. My last real friend was my illegal cat, Teddy. He was the best. I got him back when you could still get cats on the black market, shortly after they were banned as pets for their innate aloofness.

As Bruno gave me a hug and said his goodbyes, my palms were still sweating. I hoped he wouldn’t see the stark reality that lurked back behind my eyes. That my dream was to become a hermit.

I know that’s virtually impossible. There can be no hermits. “Hey, you sure you don’t wanna use the toilet before you head out?”

“Nah I’m good, bud. As always, thanks for the hospitality.”

“Hope to see you again soon,” I said, closing the door, resisting the impulse to slam it.

I took a deep breath and sat on my couch for six minutes. I stood up and looked out the window. At the seven minute mark, the coast was clear. I decided for good measure I’d go out and check my mail, just so I could get a view around the neighborhood, to see if he was really gone.

I opened my mailbox and pulled out some bills. That’s when I noticed the blue and orange car in the distance. A fleet of congeniality police turned the corner on to my block. No, no, no. Not again. My heart sank.

In what felt like slow motion, they parked one after another in front of my house. I dropped my mail and raised my hands up, open palms facing the cruisers. The tinted rear window of the lead car rolled down to reveal Bruno’s face, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, his lips motionless, without even the hint of a smile.