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.

It reminded me of an old hunting painting, a sea of Beagles overwhelming a bug-eyed fox. The animals surged over Mrs Cadwater, under her, around her. She disappeared under a mountain of limbs and snouts, twisting and biting and snatching. Teeth and legs interlocked. The pile of animals became a writhing column, growing past the pine at the front of Mrs Cadwtaer’s house, then it straightened, with shoulders, a waist and a head.

A giant with the shiny grey skin of a summer-baked road lifted its crown of a dozen pairs of antlers. There were tarmac fox-tails at its shoulders, squirrels at its hips. It dripped hard rolls of black bitumen from its neck down its torso and stood waist deep in the road like it could wade through the tarmac. Its single head had four faces: A cat, a fox, a rabbit and a deer.

Looking back on it now, it’s not so strange that the Tollkeepers were human-shaped. The roads were made by humans. The wilderness doesn’t lay down bare stone paths for wheeled things to run down. That the Tollkeepers should inherit something from us was only their right.

All I could see of Mrs Cadwater was rags of her green dressing gown between the giant’s concrete fingers. Then the Tollkeeper threw its head back, opened the jaws of its deer face wider than any deer’s mouth should have been capable of stretching, and tossed something down its throat: Something green and pink, and red, compressed between concrete fingers into a cuboid.

The Tollkeeper didn’t speak with words. I felt the press of its intent against my feet. A tremor in the pavement put its words in my bones: Toll paid–two weeks of crossings.

Then it sank back down into the road surface, tarmac closing over the tips of its antlers with watery ripples.

Suddenly the whole road in front of our house was empty. The asphalt animals were gone. The only animal I could see was Ada, who was shaking behind our laurel hedge, ears pressed flat to her neck, too frightened to make a sound.

And that was how the Tollkeeper of the A217 received its first toll.

Helicopters and small anonymous grey planes flew overhead. Akito and I walked westwards along the A217, Ada on her leash, looking for how far this went.

The roads were clear of animal statues up to the nearest petrol station, where at the crossroads junction they sprung up again. Mrs Cadwater’s life was apparently worth only that much.

Akito took photos to share then put his hands in his pockets. “Can we call Mum?”

Mum was on a business trip in the motherland, wining and dining partners. We left her a message with her hotel receptionist in Shinagawa, Tokyo. A half hour later, she called back, not with reassurance, nor with any promises that we were all going to be okay. She knew better than that because that was what she used to say about living with Dad, and look how that turned out.

“If the situation’s like that, it’ll only make things worse if I go back for you,” Mum said, and I appreciated how she no longer lied to us to try and soften our world. “I’m going to pull strings to get you out of there, but you’re going to have to do your part on your side. I need you to tell me that you can take care of yourself and protect Akito. Tell me that, Mamoru. Promise me.”

“I promise, Mum.”

Mrs Cadwater who had called me “Charlotte” had been swallowed by the road. There was no relief from my name anymore.

There was a closeness to the air. Not like a storm, but like I was standing somewhere so narrow that my own breath was bouncing back off the walls, maybe even the middle of a great tarmacked fist.

“What are we going to do?” Akito asked, once I’d checked our savings (if we exchanged what we had still in yen, there’d be enough for tickets), passports (needing renewal) and the route to Heathrow (twenty miles to the fifth terminal, a seven hour walk if we followed main roads).

Ada pressed her raw sausage nose to the back of my neck. There were no avoiding roads, not even small ones.

I folded my arms and looked Akito in the eye. “We’ve got to wait for people to pay their tolls.”

Akito’s face whitened.

We had to wait for more “accidents.”

We had to wait for more people to die.

I don’t know who came up with name “Tollkeepers,” but the news was using it like a word that meant something to most people by the end of the third day.

By the end of the week, we knew three things about them.

One: The Tollkeepers ruled our roads now, and to drive along or even cross them, needed payment in blood.

Two: They didn’t eat animals. Cats and foxes could flit between their grey counterparts at dusk without even a twitch of a concrete ear. The army tried spraying the length of Battersea Bridge with blood gathered from slaughterhouses, and all it did was paint the bridge a red that turned Cola dark before the rain washed it clean.

Three: Each Tollkeeper had its territory – a unique set of a main road and its off-shooting lanes that it presided over and never abandoned.

Two weeks after they appeared, a crowd-sourced map of the country was created online, drawing out the boundaries of each Tollkeeper. Photographs were added from social media, and then came the all-important labels. These labels marked the roads that were open because their tolls had been paid and for how long they’d be open for.

It didn’t feel like any sort of world’s end like I knew it should have. We had power and communications. All the books and movies implied that human sacrifice and looking at our neighbours like meat we could offer up happened after electricity died and civilisation with it, but our lights stayed on. The Grid operated. Food and medicine rations came to us by drones, (or by helicopter, once tolls had been paid along a road large enough for one to land on), and our telephone lines stayed intact. The Tollkeepers rose and sank back into our roads like river creatures, but they didn’t mess with the gas, or water or sewage. A celebrity comedian made a joke that the Tollkeepers were more considerate than the neighbours he was planning to feed to his local roundabout for stealing his water. He disappeared from social media shortly after that. Still hasn’t returned, actually.

I watched and waited. When the third week began and the statues sprouted down the A217 again, I got through to the Japanese Embassy. I’d a speech ready on a notecard should they pick up. Mum had e-mailed that morning with the number of a contact of a contact of a contact, somebody with their neck caught tight enough in a noose of obligation to be useful. They could arrange us virtual passports that’d replace our dead physical ones. They were wary about sending us passports by drone. Drones were being hijacked for supplies everywhere.

A month in, and we were all speaking a new language. We had new words and concepts and assumptions for our land divided by roads, and became practised at using it.

A “thumb-pricking” was the little drop of blood you could use to clear a small road for five minutes. The death of an animal on an opened road was a “toll-reversal,” because that’s what it brought about. The death of a human was “toll-in-advance.”

We couldn’t get out of this country soon enough. I didn’t want to become someone who thought this world was normal. I didn’t want that for Akito, who had become thin and withdrawn, and wouldn’t leave the house without me or Ada.

August crossed into September. National online chatter turned to schools, and how they’d manage children who had gotten class places outside their Tollkeeper territory. Internet pundits were suggesting that the elderly could “volunteer” for the nation’s future and that the terminally ill could be offered up in exchange for “privileges” for their surviving families. Akito and I would switch on the TV and wouldn’t be able to tell him what was news or satire.

It all kept coming back to blood.

Who would pay it? What price would we think too much to keep a Tollkeeper territory’s roads open? The M25 had opened for a paltry week after twelve people were finally paid to it. Different roads charged different tolls, but at some point, some day, we would run out of the elderly, run out of the terminally ill, run out of prison lifers and paperless immigrants.

Would we go through group after group of people we were prepared to believe were a little less human than the rest of us? Happily scraping down some cold-hearted scale that we were perfectly content to call “reasonable” until it was us they came for next?

I told Akito that. I shouldn’t have. He started having nightmares that we’d be dragged out of our beds and tossed to the road in our sleep. He was already afraid enough of the so-called “poachers.”

As communities became more insular, divided and defined by their roads, there were rumours that some people were learning to raid neighbouring territories when roads were open, to steal the unwary elderly and children of others to store away for sacrifice.

I told Akito he didn’t need to worry. Mum and I were going to get him out.

“When, sis?”

Yeah, good question. When was I going to stop watching? Stop waiting? When was I going to put actions to words?

We had money, we had passes, but the only blood I had was what was pumping hard and fast through my own veins, and it wasn’t enough. I’d calculated the figures, added up the different tolls needed at every road for every route we could take to get to Heathrow Airport. The “thumb-prickings” needed by some roads were more like “spoonfuls,” and humans didn’t come with a handy tap to shut off an open wound when we were done with it.

The answer came soon enough. The government had to get the country running, and convince all the elsewheres pulling away from us (and more importantly than our people, our economy) that our Tollkeepers weren’t a terminal illness they should be afraid of catching.

Blood banks, of course, and compulsory donations. It was obvious once the Prime Minister announced it, because we all knew that raiding hospital blood banks and pumping their contents through London’s streets had been how the capital had been re-opened for business.

The idea was for everyone over seventeen to donate a pint and be given a pint to take home for their own daily use. Once we’d donated, we’d be given a code to redeem online for some drone food delivery as a reward. The only reward I cared about was a blood bag I could carry at my hip to get Akito and me to the airport.

I almost didn’t go. I froze on the doorstep on my allotted donation day, watching neighbours file out along the pavements or heave out creaking bicycles. The roads had been opened in our Tollkeeper territory three days ago by a child who had thrown a scooter amongst the asphalt animals. They’d fallen into the road mid-tantrum, trying to push their own mother off the pavement to retrieve their toy. There wasn’t much sympathy. As Mum said, Jigoujitoku. You get the consequences your actions buy.

“Lock the door,” I said to Akito, stepping away, remembering my promise to Mum. I had to do my part. “Don’t answer it unless you hear it’s me. You still remember the sailor’s knock?”

“’Ship and a biscuit, no worms’. Yeah, yeah.” His knuckles on Ada’s collar were white. “Call when you leave the donor station.”

It was a one hour walk eastwards through opened roads. Rasping, probing things licked my soles from the under the tarmac as I went. The Tollkeeper and its pack were always there.

The donor station was in a church. A queue wrapped five times around it in a jostling spiral. Two hours later, I was having my arm swabbed and was sitting in a chair with a tube running from my arm. I didn’t look at the dark, yet bright, liquid flowing through it, finding it easier to pretend that it was something that happened to others, not me. I looked around the room, at the nurses, the chairs, the donors, until my gaze caught the eye of a pale-haired girl in the chair next to mine.

Daria Kowalski.

I flinched–so did Daria–and looked away.

For a long time, not a word passed between us, then just when I thought I might close my eyes and pretend to sleep, Daria said, “I’ve worked it out.”

She didn’t raise her voice to be heard. She didn’t have to. I was so used to listening to Daria, for Daria, in that way friendship tunes us, that my ears picked up her voice through the donor station’s hubbub like a birdwatcher could spot their favourite warbler.

“It’s not on you.” She picked at her arm-rest. “It’s all on that jackass I was going out with. I should have been blaming him for beating me up–not blaming you for not being able to do a thing. You were my friend. Not my bodyguard.”

When I spoke, I sounded like I’d swallowed dust. “I just sat there in the corner and watched.”

“He threw you into that corner. I remember it now. You didn’t let him punch me. You hit your head on the kitchen counter. I heard it. I thought for a moment he’d killed you, actually.” She laughed. “But it was easier to blame you than…him. I’d pinned so much on him–and I was so angry! At me, mostly. And you, you were my best friend. You were a practically a piece of me. I figured I could make you into the piece of me that I could cut off and forget, so that I wouldn’t be mad at…well, me…anymore.”

I said nothing. I couldn’t think of any words I could trust not to let me down.

Daria took a deep breath. “How’s Akito?”

“He’s fine.”

“There are crazies in our territory talking about making a community ranking chart of who should be given to the roads to pay the toll if we have to.”

“That’s gross.”

“Are you getting out of here?”

“As soon as we can.”

“We’re going to Gatwick day after tomorrow.” She was glaring at the blood flowing out of her as if she could intimidate it to flow faster. “My uncles in Poland did a whip round for tickets. After Dad does his donation appointment, we’re going.”

“Good luck.”

“You too.”

I didn’t look at her, but I heard the rustling of her blanket, so I extended my hand. I caught hers, and held it, and we held each other, both of us unforgiving, both of us unapologetic, both of us ashamed, until her donation finished first.

Then her hand slipped out of mine, and Daria was gone.

My own donation finished ten minutes later. After an hour of form-signing, I had a stainless steel flask hooked to my belt by a carabiner. The flask was supposed to be recyclable, to reuse at my next donation.

I don’t think it was my imagination that the hunger of the road was louder underfoot with the fresh blood at my hip, but for the first time since this all began, I didn’t think about the road as I walked.

I flexed my hand, and thought of Daria and the night I opened her door to a man I shouldn’t have, then watched the consequences in a concussed daze from a corner.

I thought of Mum before she and Dad separated, those days when Akito was only two and I was nine, and I’d hidden behind my bedroom door, frozen in the door’s shadow, and had only been able to watch as Dad put a ceramic ash tray to wherever on Mum he could reach.

Each time I’d promised to protect–my friend, my family–and each time I’d frozen in place, and only been able to watch, my words unreliable, my promises water.

Dusk was darkening the day. As I turned into my road, I saw figures down it, large and dark, moving purposely. They were carrying something that was struggling and shouting between them.

Akito. That was Akito’s voice. Shouting into the street before a length of tape muffled it.

There were strangers over there–two of them–-and they were taking away Akito, poaching him from the territory.

I froze, suddenly heavy, suddenly everything impossible to move under the crushing thumb of what I knew I had to do, and I knew with a distant horror that I was watching–-just standing there watching, again.

A shadow sprang from behind the tree-cover just ahead of me. For an instant, lamp-light gleamed–on a black nose, on a wet topaz eye, soft ears.

Then the deer was gone, plunging across the road and into the dark. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, I had my hand on the flask at my belt.

My eyes on the poachers, I unclipped the flask, testing its weight. Then I took off my shoes, peeled off my high socks and slipped the flask into one of them.

Ada was dead in our driveway. I shouldn’t have been as pleased as I was to see that, but all I thought then was that there wasn’t any knife wound, no sign of a weapon, when I rolled her over. The old dog’s heart had probably given out at last from one final fright, but her death hadn’t been violent. I pushed her under the laurel bush and covered her with dry leaves.

The poachers were cocky. Talking loudly, they’d stopped on the road corner to check the local map on their phones. One’s arms were completely taken up with Akito, whose mouth had been taped and his wrists and ankles bound with skipping ropes. The other’s hands were occupied with his phone.

I went for him first, swinging the sock with the steel flask in it with the hand that a few hours earlier had held Daria’s.

The man dropped. Shadows poured slick from a head that had turned suddenly into a deflated football, and from the road our Tollkeeper emerged, its four-faced antlered head breaching the concrete. Its giant hand, knuckled with mice and hedgehogs, curled around the poacher’s body and lifted him from the road surface.

I don’t know what happened to the second poacher. I didn’t care to see where he went. He dumped Akito on the road at the Tollkeeper’s feet, and ran whilst his partner dripped from the Tollkeeper’s fingers, pressed down into something compact and cuboid.

Akito was shivering. He didn’t even cry out when the tape snagged at his chapped lips. He let me carry him back to the pavement out of the Tollkeeper’s shadow, balled up small and scared against me with my clean hand in his hair.

My other hand gripped the sock with the flask full of blood inside. I’d checked it already for leaks. That wasn’t my blood staining it.

Actions came with consequences, with pain, with prices, but to act was to pay, to endure, and to live. This was the world of the Tollkeepers’ roads, and for all that I might leave the country, their world was never going to leave me.

I looked up at the Tollkeeper. I met its tarmac eyes, those of the deer face that it had turned towards me, and the blank curl of the deer’s soft stone lips. The hungry approval of a toll paid in advance whispered through the bare skin of my soles.

Tomorrow, I would leave with Akito for Heathrow. I would pay with blood to cross every road yet to be paid for.

The Tollkeepers would watch that I did so, every step of my way.

Mina Ikemoto Ghosh is a British-Japanese writer who will always fight the udon noodle’s corner in the best ‘men’ boxing ring. She was delighted to learn you could knead homemade udon noodles with your feet (wrapped in a plastic bag) and would recommend it for therapy.

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