“That will be $9.80,” I said, as I glanced at the driver’s ticket. The toll booth felt like a refrigerator tonight, and I shivered.
The driver cursed as he unfastened his seatbelt and fumbled in his pocket for change.
“Where does this money go?” he asked. “Certainly not to the roads. I almost broke an axle on a pothole back there.”
There was a short spiel I was supposed to deliver in response to this sort of query, but I didn’t bother. I wanted to get this guy out of here, since I was waiting on a particular vehicle.
He gave up on correct change and handed me a ten dollar bill. He didn’t look at me. They never do. I gave him two dimes, which he tossed on the passenger seat. He pulled away without refastening his seatbelt.
“Drive safely,” I called after him. Sometimes people flipped me off. He didn’t.
I sipped my coffee and kept an eye on the road. This was a small interchange and I usually worked it alone. Some nights, an hour would pass between cars. There were plans in the works to automate it, but for now it was still my domain.
Finally, the silver SUV I had been waiting for approached. Marshall looked as surly as ever. He yelled at his wife for not having the toll ready, and she cringed. The black eye had healed, but she had finger bruises on her arm this time. She thought it was safe to expose them, since she was in a vehicle. She didn’t know I could see them from my elevated booth. In the back seat, their little girl stared ahead with dead eyes, clutching her stuffed elephant.
Shelly used to have an elephant like that.
Marshall paid the toll and drove away. I picked up the controller from my tote bag and activated the drone in the bed of my pick-up. It lifted into the air and followed them.
This was no toy for a hobbyist, with a limited range and only twenty minutes of battery power. This was a top of the line model that could travel as fast as a car and stay in the air for hours. With the funds earmarked for a daughter’s college education, one could purchase a kick-ass commercial drone with all the bells and whistles.
Shelly used to call me from her dorm room every Sunday evening. If she had a paper due or a test the next day, then it was a short conversation. Other evenings, we talked for over an hour. She would tell me about her classes and the crazy girl who lived across the hall. I would tell her about the people who had passed through my booth. I worked at a busy interchange back then, so things were always lively. Shelly and I would make each other laugh, and I would try not to let on how much I missed her.
For years, it was the two of us against the world. I worked every bit of overtime I could get and socked away the money toward her future. When she was little, I would come home from work on Christmas and tell Shelly that Santa had passed through my booth, but I didn’t make him pay the toll. She would stare at me with those solemn, brown eyes, trying to figure out if I was telling the truth. I had the same eyes, and so did my mother. I had hoped for a grandchild with those eyes one day.
That first Sunday after she disappeared, I waited by the phone, willing it to ring. I stayed up all night. In the morning, I tried to convince myself that she could still be okay. There could still be a reasonable explanation. After the second Sunday with no phone call, I knew she was dead.
Her boyfriend Bobby claimed they had been arguing in the car. She had insisted he stop, so he let her out at the side of the road. That was the last time anyone ever saw her. Her friends said she had been planning to break up with him, and they had been afraid of how he would react. The police were convinced he had killed her, but they had no evidence. Not even a body. There was nothing they could do.
I drank. I stopped showering. My hair started falling out. When I used up all my leave at work, my coworkers donated more for me. It was mostly the ones who had kids of their own. I had become someone for them to pity and fear, and they hoped that if they were generous to me then it would somehow buy them safety for their own children.
I was walking to the liquor store one day, because I was too drunk to drive there, when I heard a scream behind me. I turned and saw a teenage boy barreling towards me, and I stepped out of the way. Then I saw the big brown handbag held against his chest, and the elderly lady down the block, shouting and pointing at him. She had begun to sob. Her whole life was probably in that purse.
I don’t remember doing it, but apparently I stuck out my foot. He went ass over teakettle and slammed into a garbage can. I stomped on his hand and yanked the bag away from him. In that moment, I realized that I wasn’t powerless. My daughter was gone, but I didn’t have to let that nasty little piece of work she had been dating get away with it.
I skipped the liquor store and went home. With a little digging on social media, I discovered that he was holed up at his family’s cabin, working on his Masters thesis. #bored #stircrazy
I knew that area. There was an interchange near it that was difficult to keep staffed because it was remote and solitary. Bobby would need to pass through it in order to get back to the city. I called my supervisor and told him I was ready to return to work, but I wanted a quiet posting for now. He was ecstatic.
The next day, I bought the drone. I didn’t have much of a plan at first. I thought maybe he had buried Shelly near the cabin, and I could catch him visiting her grave. No such luck. He mostly stayed indoors, which wasn’t a problem for the drone since he never closed the curtains. Why bother when there was no one to look in but squirrels and deer? He played video games for hours on end. He ate Hot Pockets. Sometimes he opened his laptop and stared at the screen for awhile. Then he went back to Grand Theft Auto.
I was nervous the first time he passed through my booth, but he didn’t connect the tollbooth lady with Shelly’s mom. I had met him once when I visited Shelly at school. He probably thought he had been charming, but I had found him smarmy. He didn’t quite hide his disappointment that Shelly was skipping going to the game with him and hanging out with me instead. I didn’t tell her how I felt about him, though. I was afraid she’d get defensive.
Maybe if I had said something. Maybe if I had worked less. Maybe if she’d had a father. So many what ifs.
I was frustrated and trying to figure out my next move when he brought a girl back to the cabin with him. They had a glorious weekend together, until they had a fight. She went to his car with her backpack. It looked like she wanted to leave, but he wasn’t going to let her go. She got in his face, yelling at him. He shoved her, knocking her off her feet. She got up and ran down the road to the highway, and tried to hitch a ride. Finally he relented and drove her back to the city. By the time he returned, I had gotten off work.
In the gray light of dawn, I waited in the trees beside the highway. When he got close, I dropped the drone down to eye level in front of his car and slowed it down. He slammed on the brakes and skidded to a stop. I landed the drone in the middle of the road. When he got out of the car and walked up to it, I slipped up behind him and hit him in the head with a rock. He dropped like a sack of potatoes.
There was an old quarry nearby with cold, dank water. No one ever swam there. It was the sort of place people snuck to in the middle of the night to dispose of old appliances. I drove his car there, put it in neutral and pushed it in, with him in the trunk.
As I watched it sink, I expected to feel better. Elation. Vindication. Something. But all I felt was empty.
I went back to my life. I got up every evening, showered, made coffee, and dressed in my uniform. I drove the hour to work. At this time of year, I was driving into the sun, but I barely noticed. I had put my affairs in order and was waiting to be arrested.
It took over a week for anyone to notice Bobby was missing. The sheriff asked me and the four other workers at the interchange when we last remembered seeing him. I kept my answers vague, like the others. Eventually they figured out he had an ex-girlfriend who had also disappeared, and the detective on Shelly’s case came knocking on my door to ask if I knew what had happened to Bobby. I expressed mild shock, then said something about karma. He was too professional to say anything, but I could see he agreed.
The detective knew I worked for the Turnpike Authority but he didn’t seem to know I had transferred to a different interchange. I didn’t enlighten him. The sheriff didn’t make the connection, either. I don’t think either department was trying too hard to find Bobby.
I didn’t get arrested. I was left wondering what to do with the rest of my long, empty life. Then I noticed Marshall, and his wife with her arm in a sling, and his daughter with the solemn brown eyes. They passed through my booth the first weekend of every month. It was easy enough to follow them with the drone and find out where their cabin was, and to surveil.
I saw him hit his wife. I saw their daughter hide under the bed. I saw enough.
Since another disappearance would be suspicious, I thought I’d make it look like a hunting accident this time. During the season, drunken idiots with weapons were common in these woods, so occasionally people got shot. My dad used to take me hunting when I was growing up. I was good with a bow.
Would Marshall’s wife make better choices after he was gone? That was out of my control. All I could do was give her a second chance, something Shelly never got.
Once it was done, I already had another target in mind. He was a long haul trucker who passed through on a regular basis. I had seen him at a truck stop nearby, picking up a prostitute. The girl was obviously underage. When she got out of his truck, she was crying.
I have a purpose now. I don’t know how long I will be able to continue without getting caught, but I have a good feeling about it. I go to work every day. I mow my lawn. I pay my taxes. No one notices me.