|Bill Soughton was a stout man of sixty years, whose expanding width seemed to be compensating for his diminishing stature. On this night, just as every weeknight for the past thirty years, Bill worked the lonely tollbooth that stood at the single entrance of Amaranth Island. As usual, Bill sat in his booth listening to an old radio, which played more static than music, and staring down Falls Bridge: the only thing connecting Amaranth to the mainland.
It was a gorgeous night. The clouds, which had spent all day obscuring the would-be shinning splendor of autumn, had descended into a luxuriously thick ground fog, revealing an elegant full moon. The other end of the bridge was nothing but an obfuscated skeleton in the density of the fog; the mainland itself could not be seen at all. Bill had only a moment to reflect on the notion that this lovely little island was all that there was in the world, before a pair of headlights burst through the mist, shined down the length of Falls Bridge, and illuminated the little tollbooth. If Amaranth was the world, an outsider had arrived.
At first, Bill didn’t think the vehicle was moving, but as the car’s shape gradually began to gain definition, he realized that it was. But why was it proceeding so slowly? Before He realized that he was frightened, the hairs on the back of Bill Soughton’s neck stood up. He felt a moment of panic and imagined a maniac, behind the wheel of what Bill could now see was a Cadillac, loading a great big gun full of great big bullets with his name on them. Suddenly he felt very silly. It was the fog! No one in their right mind would be speeding down a narrow bridge like Falls on a foggy night like this. Bill let out a little chuckle, more from relief than humor, and leaned out of his window to collect the Caddy’s fifty cents when it rolled up to his booth.
“Those high beams make it harder to-“
The words caught in Bill’s throat. The car was totally empty. The Cadillac’s radio was playing classical music. The jazz coming from Bill’s radio blended with the music from the Caddy, creating a wickedly perverse piece of dissonance: The symphony of a lunatic, Satan’s final movement.
All the fear he had felt upon watching the car approach, slammed back into his bones so hard that he began to shiver. The moon, so elegant a moment earlier, now looked demented and no longer perfectly round. It loomed over him in the sky, an engorged spectator to the horror playing out below. Now the tollbooth felt smaller, a shrinking box; a coffin. The picturesque fog on the water instantly became a sea of restless spirits, no longer jostled, but antagonized by the waves below. They were waking from their tortured dreams, rising up. They would look upon Bill with the empty holes which now served as their eyes and…
And something was in his tollbooth with him.
There was a soft, wet, smacking sound coming from behind him. The sound almost reminded Bill of someone trying to get a bad taste out of their mouth, except this was slightly different. The sound was slower and more subtle; it was almost coital in its nature.
The cold sterile light of the florescent bulbs in the booth begin to flicker unsteadily, their guttering strobes keeping rhythm with the psychotic din of the two radios. Bill felt sapped of his strength. He was horribly cold and nauseous as if he had been notified of a death, in this case his own. A soft moan, feeble and laden with despair escaped his throat when he saw the reflection in the glass panel before him.
The nights humidity coupled with the kicked up dust of an untold number of passing motorists left the window grimy and fogged up. It was impossible to distinguish the features of what stood behind him but what Bill could make out accelerated his already galloping heart. Hope poured out of him in every cold bead of sweat running down his brow. A dull ache throbbed in his left shoulder. He clutched his chest with numb fingers.
Whatever it was, it was tall. Perhaps a foot and a half taller than Bill, its head was cocked at a harsh angle so it could fit in the booth. All though broad in the shoulders and seeming to have a large frame, whatever stood behind him was dramatically emaciated. Bill saw no sign of muscle or fat but could just make out ribs and other bones on its pale skeletal body. He could not bring himself to make sense of the distorted reflection of its face. As if by some deeply instilled self defense mechanism, his mind slammed the door on the coalescing picture of the creature’s visage.
The bulbs continued to flicker, now even wilder. Their hum grew louder, like the gears of a giant machine that would grind Bill up and digest him. Bill was aware of It moving towards him as that grotesque smooching sound came closer. He was now shaking so violently he could no longer hold his head straight. Bill’s heart strained and thudded spasmodically in his chest, he felt it throbbing in his ears. He closed his eyes and meant to pray but could not remember a single verse or snatch of hymn.
The thing behind Bill was so close it was almost touching him. The wet smacking sound was right in his ear and the thing making the noise was so cold, Bill felt warmth he didn't know he had being drained away, taking his concept of cold to deeper frigid depths. He felt It reach passed him casting its icy shadow across his arm. Bill heard a soft click on the counter in front of him. His mind tried frantically to recall what he had left on the counter. His pen? The fork he ate his lunch with? Bill desperately wanted to lunge forward and leap through the tollbooth’s window. He’d hit the ground running, never looking back, not stopping until he reached the closest building. If he couldn't make it, there was always the water. Bill would gladly take the sixty foot drop and welcome the freezing waves below; jumping off a bridge was preferable to the sadistic horror he felt breathing down his neck. Perhaps as a younger man, he would have had a chance, but in his heart Bill knew he could not make it.
Bill stole himself, preparing to be struck or stabbed by whatever was taken from the counter. His frantic mind seized a prayer from his scattered thoughts. A fragment of a psalm, lacking context, Bill whimpered into the night.
“Shadow of death…”
And then it touched him.
Bill never heard himself scream but felt the jagged blast of his cry ripping through his raw battered throat. Bill screamed until he was hoarse. He screamed until his throat was ragged and there was blood in his mouth. The creature's hand had barely grazed his elbow but its touch, so cold and vacant seemed to encapsulate the horror of its presence. When his senses returned to him, Bill opened his eyes and saw the window was no longer reflecting anything behind him. The lights no longer flickered and there sound had returned to a vapid hum. The Cadillac still sat idling before him and the two radios were still on but his own was now in the midst of a commercial break. The Cadillac’s speakers issued forth a bitter sweet piano piece, Bill thought Rachmaninoff or Liszt.
Even though he believed whatever had come into the booth had left, it still required a sizable portion of Bills nerve to turn around and look behind him. As he suspected there was no one there, the half door of the tollbooth was only slightly ajar. For just an instant, Bill flirted with the idea that he imagined everything, and then he heard the Cadillac switch into gear and begin rolling forward.
Bill turned slowly to look in the cars direction, it pulled forward before he had a chance to see if there was anyone inside and continued rolling into the island at the same lazy speed it arrived. Suddenly, he had the idea to take down the license plate. He had yet to give any thought of what he would do with it but taking the number down seemed like the least he could do. Bill memorized the number but very quickly forgot it when he looked down to the counter to grab a pen. The number plate suddenly seemed less important. Something else had caught Bill’s eye.
Its edges were worn down and smooth, its silver luster had been almost totally smothered by the dismal no color of tarnish and wear but placed on the counter beside Bill’s pen and fork was a fifty cent piece.
Bill took the coin into his hands and distractedly rubbed it as he watched the Cadillac sink deeper into the fog. All he could see were the brake lights as the big town car paused before turning left onto Main Street. Bill reflected on the night and considered what would be worse, staying on an island with whatever it was in his booth, or waiting around to collect its toll when it was ready to leave.
Bill looked down the length of Fall’s bridge and decided it was a nice time of year to take a holiday on the main land.
Note: This story was originally written for the resurrected stake and garlic contest here at Writing.com. While I liked the original, and it did OK in the contest (it's in my portfolio, and only half as long as this version, in case anyone wants to read it) I decided to trust the reviews and criticism I received. So I rewrote the story according to the advice.
As writers we can be stubborn, after all we spend a lot of time in worlds we have absolute control over. My first instinct is to resist critics. Really, no one but sadists enjoy being criticized. But I would feel secure saying that 99.9% of the feedback has SOME value. I could never be a fair judge of which version is better, all I can say is I'm happy I took the advice of the people kind enough to not only read my work but write reviews of it as well.
The story above is no where near perfect, not even close. I may rewrite it AGAIN. For a while there it seemed I forgot rewriting a story doesn't mean trashing the original. You get to keep them all. So with the zealous fervor of the person who has gotten religion I preach to those thick skull'd, thin skinned writers like my self: take advantage of the criticism and be glad for it, I know I am. Then again, I've always been a bit of sadist.
Thanks for your time