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The Toll

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The Toll

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Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor, 2019

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
Sub-Genre Tags: Gothic
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From Cherie Priest, the author of The Family Plot and Maplecroft, comes The Toll, a tense, dark, and scary treat for modern fans of the traditionally strange and macabre.

Take a road trip into a Southern gothic horror novel.

Titus and Melanie Bell are on their honeymoon and have reservations in the Okefenokee Swamp cabins for a canoeing trip. But shortly before they reach their destination, the road narrows into a rickety bridge with old stone pilings, with room for only one car.

Much later, Titus wakes up lying in the middle of the road, no bridge in sight. Melanie is missing. When he calls the police, they tell him there is no such bridge on Route 177...




"What nobody ever tells you about gardening is ... how many things you have to kill if you want to do it right." Daisy Spratford jammed her spade into the earth, slicing a worm in two. She used the small shovel to toss one half toward the bird feeder, and the other toward the water fountain full of murky green water and the fish that somehow survived there, in the overgrown backyard of a house called Hazelhurst. "No one says how many bugs, how many beetles ... how many naked pink things that might be voles, or might be mice. I don't know the difference, when they're little like that. They all look the same until they get some hair."

"It don't matter anyway," said her cousin Claire. She didn't look up from her knitting. She didn't change the tempo of her foot, which leaned back and forth from heel to toe and back again, rocking her chair in time to the clicking of her needles.

"It matters to the crows, and the cats. It matters to Freddie, over there. It's a service I provide them. It's a kindness, is what it is."

"Not if you're a mouse." Cameron sat on the porch's edge, his feet maybe dangling right in front of Freddie, the resident king snake, for all he knew. He wasn't bothered by Freddie, and he wasn't particularly bothered by the thought of doomed pink rodents, writhing on his godmother's spade. But he liked to be contrary. He shrugged at both old ladies. "Or a vole, or whatever. I was just saying, it's all a matter of perspective."

They gave him a flash of stink eye.

"Perspective." Daisy's drawl made the echo sound like a sneer. "My perspective is, I like having tomatoes come summer--and squash and cucumbers, too. My perspective is, I got pests enough without letting the stub-tailed pinkies grow up to be long-tailed brownies and breeding more of their kind. They don't stay in the garden, you know. They duck under the house, and get inside the walls."

"And inside Freddie," Claire added, lifting a needle for emphasis.

Daisy shook her head. "Not enough of them." She stabbed something else with her spade, but it might've only been a root, or a clump of clay. "We'd need an army of Freddies to get them all."

Cameron didn't look. He wasn't squeamish, but he didn't care what Daisy was killing this time. He liked summer tomatoes, too, and he didn't know anything about gardening--except for what Daisy told him, when she offered up her weird lessons while he looked on, sipping lemonade he'd mixed up with a splash of Jack.

His godmothers, each one past eighty years of age, surely knew about the Jack. They knew about everything else that went on within a hundred miles, so the whiskey wouldn't come as any surprise; but they didn't hide the bottle, so that was as good as permission.

The ladies had no trouble putting down their tiny feet when the fancy struck them.

Seventeen was plenty old enough to drink, in Cam's opinion. Seventeen was almost old enough to vote. Almost old enough to go to war. Neither activity sounded like something he'd go out of his way to do, but some people placed a lot of importance upon such things. Cam placed most of his importance upon clandestine sips of Jack.

Daisy adjusted her sun hat and shook a bag of seeds. A smattering sprinkled into her canvas-gloved palm.

Claire's needles tapped together, full speed ahead. "It's gonna rain."

"So what if it does?" Daisy wiped a smear of sweat from her forehead, though it wasn't very warm. Certainly not as warm as it'd be in a month, or in another month after that. Hell, the mosquitos were barely even out. It was barely even spring.

She glanced at Cam. "When the rain comes, I'll need help getting inside."

"You know I'll take care of you, Miss Claire. You feel the first sprinkle," he vowed, "and I'll whisk you off to the parlor."

"That's a good boy. Mostly." She peered down at the project dangling from the needles. It was finally taking shape--green and gray. Not a mitten or a scarf. Not a blanket for a baby. It was already too warm for any of those things, anyway.

The town of Staywater was always both too warm, and not warm enough.

Cameron wondered if it was just him, or if everybody felt that way. Hazelhurst had air-conditioning units in half its windows and gas heat that came up from the floors, but he couldn't remember the last time he'd heard either one of those systems running. God only knew if they even still worked.

His swinging feet picked up a rhythm. Claire's needles followed along, unless it was the other way around.

One-two. One-two. One-two.

If this weather was some kind of sweet spot, it could stand to be sweeter. He thought about taking off his shirt--a striped button-up with long sleeves, rolled up his forearms. He thought about going inside and getting a sweater.

He thought about.

The needles pulled the yarn, loop by loop. Claire's foot leaned.

"He's wandering again," Daisy murmured.

Claire murmured back, "He's bored."

"It's a boring town for a boy his age. In another few years, he'll kill time down at Dave's place--whatever they call it now--and he won't have to reach into the cabinet, feeling good about stealing. He does feel good about it, you know."

"He kills plenty of time at Dave's already, but I don't think they serve him. He goes down there to see that woman."

Daisy clucked her tongue. "She's trouble. Anyway, she's too old for him."

"She agrees about that, so it's one thing we got in common. Someday, we should tell him who she is, and what she's done. He might not believe us, but then again, he might. Might make it easier for him to leave, when the time comes for that."

Daisy snapped, "You hush your mouth."

Cam stared into space. His feet kept time with Claire's lone foot, pumping against the weight of the rocker; but Cam's heels knocked against the lattice that screened off the porch's underside. It was thin with dry rot, and flaky with old lead paint. It cracked under the percussion of his heels, but he didn't stop.

"We may as well get used to the idea," Claire said. "He's growing up, and he might not stay. It'd be best if he didn't. You know it as well as anybody."

Copyright © 2019 by Cherie Priest


The Toll

- frankyash


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