Excerpt from short story, The Toll
He stood up slowly, shedding hot sand in noisy sheets. He squinted towards the horizon again. The little building was still there, “About two days away,” he estimated aloud. So he started walking, and a short time later he started counting.
He’d miscalculated. It took him almost four days to reach his goal, and when he finally got there he had no idea what he should do next.
He stood there staring dumbly at the tiny white building. It wasn’t a house after all, it was much too small. It seemed to be rectangular, and much of its front was made up of a large window that had shattered long ago. It gaped at him like the gum-filled smile of a senile old man while a drab curtain at one end fluttered like a loose tooth in its socket. As he got even closer, he could see that the brilliant white he’d been following was nothing more than a hastily done paint job nearly scoured away in places by the wind and sand, revealing the pitted metal underneath. Spiny plants struggled to grow along the building’s edges. A large cockroach crawled from beneath one of these plants and disappeared under the booth. He called it a booth because that is precisely what it was… a toll booth. He stifled a laugh, not noticing the lone tear that started to course its way down his rough face, evaporating somewhere near the corner of his mouth. He brushed the dust from his pants, his movements becoming harder and harder until he was pummeling his legs savagely. Finally his legs buckled and he fell to the ground. The world seemed to spin around him, faster and faster, as motes of color floated in the silvery sky before his swollen eyes. He didn’t know what it was that he’d expected to find but he knew he wanted it to be more. More! Then his chest heaved in uncontrollable sobs. Was this how his life was destined to end? He had survived the initial conflagration, a Mideast nuclear war waged for the most part with warheads purchased from the money-starved “nee countries” of the former Soviet Union. A war that ended much more quickly than it had begun, since all sides succeeded in annihilating one another. Then came the enormous clouds of chemical and biological fallout from the weapons which were either deliberately launched or that just ignited by themselves in some sort of terrible chain-reaction. These combined with the radioactive fallout to create a “soup” that the Devil himself would have tried to run from… if he could. If anyone could. Then Mother Nature seemed to have had enough and tossed her hat into the ring. The ozone layer winked out of existence over most of the planet. He remembered most seeing birds and insects falling from the sky, trailing wisps of smoke behind them like the downed planes in those old World War II movie reels. Nothing was spared. Well, almost nothing. He was here, and he had seen other survivors… some even human. Mostly however the survivors have been a few isolated cacti, some cockroaches and beetles, and some rats. Once he thought he’d seen the silhouette of a dog off in the distance, but it loped off over the horizon long before he could reach it. Too bad, it would have made a handsome meal for several days.
“You should not lie upon the hot sand that way,” a voice said. “The heat will suck the very marrow from your bones.”
Startled, he looked up in the direction from which the voice had come. There was a man standing in the booth. ‘Now I know that I have truly gone mad,’ he thought.
“Come on, up. Up!” The man in the booth urged him pleasantly.
He followed the man’s advice and stood up, albeit shakily. He took a feeble step towards the booth and the man inside produced a gun from beneath the window.
“You may stop there my friend,” the man in the booth said. “I can see you very well at this distance.” The man in the booth eyed him critically. “Oh, you do look most terrible. You must have come from a long way.” Then he smiled again and spread his arms wide, “But then, any way is a long way from this place!” The man in the booth chuckled, then his eyes narrowed suspiciously and his smile disappeared into his thick beard. “What is your name, wanderer?” He asked.
A minute passed. Then another. Another minute was about to pass into oblivion when the man outside the booth finally spoke. “Ranglal,” he said. His own name sounded unfamiliar to him. His mouth felt strange forming itself around the alien sounding word… it had been so long since the sound of his name had reached his ears. “My name is Outram Ranglal.”
The smile returned to the face of the man in the booth. “Outram,” he said. “That is good. My name is Yadrama. Just Yadrama. Just as you are now just Outram. I believe that under these unusual circumstances we can make do without much formality, is this not so?”
Outram only shrugged. The specters of starvation, thirst, and insanity were all inside him, battling ferociously for the privilege of being the cause of his demise, and here he was having a conversation with an armed lunatic in a tollbooth! Well, there was a question that he’d ask of the Devil himself right now. “Do you have any water?” He then took another step towards the booth and pitched forward, gritty unconsciousness covering him like a blanket of hot sand.