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.