SPECIAL NOTE: The Toll will be one of two books included in next month’s Creepy Crate.
Florida has long been known as the setting for many a strange and inexplicable happening. So it’s no wonder that when newlyweds Titus and Melanie hit the road for their honeymoon cabin rental in the Okefenokee Swamp, a wetland nature preserve bordering the Georgia-Florida state line, they instead enter into a deep south nightmare. Shortly before reaching their destination, the couple encounters a dilapidated one-lane bridge...
Much later, Titus awakes in the middle of the road, his car behind him. There's no bridge in sight and Melanie is gone. In a panic, Titus contacts the police who bring him to the nearby town of Staywater, Georgia—and inform him that no such bridge even exists.
In The Toll, Cherie Priest casts a bewitching Southern gothic spell, bringing a small, eerie town to life. Staywater seems like a typical small town, if a bit on the stagnant side. But 17-year-old local Cameron is starting to realize that there’s more to his home town–and his adoptive godmothers, Claire and Daisy–than he once believed. Cameron’s and Titus’s tale soon intertwine as Staywater’s secrets threaten to take down the town and all of its inhabitants.
This Southern gothic tale is spun by a master, keeping you spellbound as things get stranger and stranger. Want a chance to read the brand-new novel? The Toll is one of two titles included in the August/September Creepy Crate.
Read on for an excerpt of The Toll, one of two books included in the August/September Creepy Crate.
The swamp sprawled out for miles to the east, and the line between water and earth was broadly smudged. He could hear it, running and dripping, swirling someplace down below the bridge, and alongside it.The road itself wasn’t damp. It hadn’t been raining.The road was only narrow, and narrowing even more, down to a sliver of a single lane up ahead—pinched as if corseted by the woodslat bridge that didn’t look sturdy enough to hold a bicycle, much less a vehicle.
This couldn’t be right.
Beside the bridge, he saw a sign half covered in moss and mud. He approached it, and moved a handful of foliage to read the black letters on a civic yellow background. “‘Caution, one lane bridge. Watch for oncoming traffic,’” he said under his breath. “No kidding.” Under the main sign was a smaller one that said, Speed limit: 5 MPH.
From inside the car, he heard Melanie’s voice. She was yelling a question, he could tell that by her tone... probably asking if he saw anything on the other side of the bridge.
He waved one hand in her general direction but didn’t look back. He was staring ahead, trying to see past the moss, the shadows, the looming shrubbery, and the interlaced canopy of the trees.
No matter how hard he squinted, he couldn’t tell what awaited over there.
The bridge’s farside landing was distant and overgrown, and the scenery wobbled and wavered. It must have been the sun, streaming through the layers and layers of leaves. It must’ve been the breeze. It must’ve been a trick of the distance—an optical illusion, like a weird spot on a rural road where you can put your car in neutral and it’ll roll up a hill. Or that’s what it looks and feels like.
He could see his side of the bridge just fine; he was practically standing on it. He could run his eyes along the boards, to the weird, raised ridge in the middle, and over the water. But about midway, his eyes lost the thread and everything uttered.The air moved like gasoline simmering around a car’s tank. Like heat rising off a summer sidewalk.
He took a step forward, then another. When he reached the spot where road became bridge, the word “trestle” sprang to mind. It made sense, didn’t it? This wasn’t a modern, metal bridge made for cars, and with that ridge ... no, two ridges ... right down the middle, like tracks ...
Behind him, he heard the electric hum of the SUV’s window descending. Melanie hung her head out and yelled, “What are you doing?”
Over his shoulder, he yelled back, “This old stone bridge used to carry trains. You can see where the rails used to be.”
“It’s made for trains, not cars!”
“Then why are we driving over it?”
An entirely reasonable question. “Because this is where the road goes.” Then quieter, so she couldn’t hear him: “This is where the road ends.” It didn’t really end, and he didn’t want to scare her. He didn’t know why it might scare her. He didn’t know why he was scared.
He put a foot on the bridge, as if that’d be enough to test it.
It felt solid enough, so he jumped up and down, and then strolled a few feet onto the main structure. It was old—surely older than the road, except that the road must’ve been train tracks at some point, too. He looked back at the strip of asphalt, but didn’t see any hints left over. Any old tracks had been pulled or paved years ago.
So why hadn’t they replaced the bridge, while they were at it? “You’re going to get hit by a car!” Melanie shouted.
“There aren’t any cars!” he shouted back.
He didn’t hear any cars. He didn’t see any cars, either, but he couldn’t make out anything at all on the other side, and that was stupid—the bridge wasn’t that long, surely no more than a dozen car lengths—and there wasn’t any fog, or smoke, or anything else obscuring his vision. But no matter how hard he stared, all he saw was that curtain of deep-green plants, vines, mosses, and tree trunks that all ran together in a pattern. If there was anything coming from the other side, maybe it couldn’t see Titus, either.
“This thing is a lawsuit waiting to happen,” he muttered.
Down below, something splashed and swam away. He looked over the edge and saw nothing but a trail in the water where a tail might’ve vanished, or a snake might’ve gone for a dip.The water itself was brackish and thick, more sludge than spring, and it pooled rather than owed. Vivid yellow algae broke up the darkness, decorating the fallen logs and spattering the water’s surface with specks like pollen, or tiny petals.
He put his hands on the rail and tried to rattle it, but it wouldn’t budge. Old shit was built to last.
One last time, he looked out to the other side. One last time, he saw only the swamp, clotting the view in a way that wasn’t quite right, but was quite complete.
“Fuck it,” he declared, and stomped back to the car. “What?” Melanie asked through the window.
“I said, ‘ fuck it.’ Let’s go. There’s nobody coming—and if we do manage to hit someone, it’ll be the slowest crash ever. It’ll be like bumper cars. Everything will be fine.”
“What if the other car isn’t going slow? What if we get smashed head-on, and we drive right off the bridge?”
“Have a little faith.” He climbed in instead and started the car again, then pulled back onto the road at a slow crawl. He kept the crawl rolling as he approached the edge of the bridge. He tapped the brakes for one final hesitation and pushed one toe onto the gas pedal.
“Here goes nothing,” his wife breathed. She tested her seat belt with one hand, and clutched the oh-shit bar with the other. She was overreacting, that’s what Titus wanted to tell her. But he didn’t, because if he’d been the passenger, he would’ve done exactly the same thing. He tried to reassure them both when he said, “The bridge used to carry trains. It can carry us, just for ... for however long it takes.”
They drove at a creep. A tricycle could’ve passed them on the left.
It still felt too fast.
When all four wheels were on the bridge and past the yellow-lined road, everything seemed very loud.The tires grumbled a loud echo, and the engine strained at a higher pitch. Every sound was vivid in their ears: every bird caroling overhead, every hard shelled beetle bouncing off the windshield. Every creak and moan of the bridge itself, straining under their weight.
Titus held his breath and tried to keep from blinking.
The stone sides of the bridge were so close to the SUV doors that he was half convinced they’d lose a side mirror at any moment. If he hung his hand out, he could brush the guide rails as he passed. If he sneezed and tweaked the wheel, they’d jump the side and land in the swamp.
No. Old shit was made to last. That could be a mantra, too. If he said it enough times, it would magically become true.
He refused to fantasize about that last option and instead stared straight ahead, his eyes watering and fingers clenching, unclenching, on the poor abused steering wheel.
“This is weird, isn’t it?” Melanie whispered.
“It’s definitely weird.” Maybe it was a fog, or some peculiar swamp miasma—some haze that kept him from seeing what ever was waiting on the other side. “It’s just swamp gas,” he explained, as if that wasn’t total bullshit. “Swamp gas” was the goto excuse for strange lights and hauntings since time began, or since scientists came up with the term. Jesus, was there even any such thing?
The air vibrated before him, as he propelled the SUV board by board across the bridge.
“How long is this damn thing?” he asked aloud, and wished he hadn’t, because it only meant Melanie would answer him.
“Really long, I guess.”
He let out a small, choked laugh.
She beat him to the punch. “Please don’t say, ‘That’s what she said.’”
They drove at a creep. A tricycle could’ve passed them on the left. It still felt too fast.
“I wasn’t going to.” But he’d been thinking about it. “Do you ... can you see anything? Is anybody coming, can you tell?”
She shook her head. “No ... it’s just ... all I see is the trees, and the air. You know what I mean? You can almost see the air.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“You’re not going to tell me it’s stupid?”
“No. I can see it too. Swamp gas, that’s all,” Titus repeated, but it could’ve been chem trails from a UFO for all he knew. He swallowed and gave the vehicle a little extra nudge of fuel.
Threat of collision be damned, he wanted off that bridge. He wanted it long gone in the rearview mirror, and when they reached the campground, he would drag out a map and pick out a different route for the return trip—because he couldn’t stand the thought of driving over this damn thing for a second time.
“I think we’re almost there,” Melanie said. She sounded hopeful, but not certain.
“We’d better be. How much longer can this thing ... ?” he started to ask, but the clatter of the boards beneath the wheels was loud, and the air was thick with swamp gas, since that’s what he’d decided to call it—and he was sticking with it. “This bridge. It can’t go on forever,” he concluded.
“We have always driven on the bridge,” Melanie intoned, undoubtedly quoting or parodying something Titus wasn’t familiar with. She did it all the time. He hated it, because he didn’t know when she was letting fly a thought of her own, or when she was deploying a line from some movie she expected him to recognize.
“Shut up. Don’t say that.”
“I was only—”
“I don’t care.” He chewed on his lip and blinked away the water that’d collected in his eyes. “I don’t like this. Something’s not right.”
“It’s just a bridge!” she said, but her pitch was wrong, too. It was almost high enough to call “shrill.”
The timbre of the rumbling shifted, and the boards that passed for a bridge lane seemed wider—the shape of them sprawling, spreading, expanding.The noise of the wheels changed, from a raucous vibration to a low-frequency hum—or not like that at all, Titus thought. It wasn’t exactly a hum or a rolling thud like thunder; it was more like the sound an animal might make. A huge animal. An angry animal, cornered or hurt. Maybe hungry. Maybe hunting.
He shook his head, trying to chase out the idea of it. He wondered anyway, What kind of animal? If it is an animal, what does it want? His mind wandered away from the whiteness of his knuckles on the wheel, the noise in his ears, his foot on the gas pedal, pressing harder.
He was going faster now. Faster than five miles per hour, that was for damn sure. Fast enough that the engine whined and the slats on the guardrail were a blur.
Melanie said something. He didn’t hear her. She said it louder, and he didn’t understand her.
For the first time in his life, he properly understood the term “tunnel vision”—unless this was something else, and he’d had it all wrong, all these years. Through the windshield he saw only a fixed point somewhere directly ahead, a vague circle with no details, no colors. Only motion, and everything around the point was in motion too. A tunnel, yes. For tunnel vision. A rotating tunnel, like you’d find in a funhouse—but it wasn’t any fun at all.
Titus took a deep breath.
Melanie was still shouting, unless she was whispering.
He took a second deep breath. His eyes didn’t just water. They burned.
He closed them.
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The Toll is Cherie Priest’s latest horror novel, filled with Gothic horrors, butt-kicking old ladies, and that particular Floridian strangeness. You can purchase The Toll here, or subscribe to Creepy Crate for your chance to have it delivered to your doorstep. Filled with boldy drawn characters, spooky creatures, and unforeseen consequences, The Toll is one of our favorite horror novels of the year.
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