Pay the Toll


The day after Christine broke up with Dean she bought knives. A seven-piece stainless steel set, on special in Argos for Christmas. Their silicon handles ranged in rainbow hues from scarlet to purple, and from butcher’s cleaver to paring knife. They were as keen as razors. She sheathed them in in their clear plastic block, handles out, ready for action.

Then she called her Mum.

‘Isn’t it bad luck?’ Her only comment, about the knives, not the break-up. Christine knew the silence about Dean, a well-mannered boy, could not hold. This close to the holidays was no time to lose a man.

‘Says who?’

‘My Granny told me… I can’t remember why exactly.’

Christine rolled her eyes, mobile phone tucked under her chin as she hunted through her rooms, lit up by blinking cheerful decorations, for Dean’s crap to chuck into her break-up box. He hadn’t even earned a drawer, yet he’d managed to litter her place with a dozen items, including mismatched socks, a phone charger, deodorant, and a copy of Gastronomica. His proprietary ease in her space should have been a warning sign: he’d made himself at home, and then told her how to run it.

‘Couldn’t you give him another chance? You’re so judgemental, Christine–‘

There it was… she couldn’t just sympathise and leave it alone. ‘So it’s my fault?’

‘We can’t all be perfect.’

Christine’s face flushed hot indignation, remembering her mother’s unwavering devotion to a heartless bastard. She loved a crown of thorns.

‘Right, I’m hanging up before we’re no longer friends.’

‘Oh, I remember now! You pay a penny if you get knives as a present.’

‘Yeah, a gift to me for knowing when to end a toxic relationship. Bye Mum, gotta go.’

Christine dropped her phone on the counter and the newness of the knives attracted her attention. She pulled out the chef’s knife, its sturdy grip a startling aqua. In the blade’s scalding reflection a slice of her ‘resting bitch face’–as Dean termed it–glared back at her.

She recalled how every time Dean prepped a meal in her cramped kitchen he had complained about her mismatched assortment of blunt implements.

‘Jesus, Chrissie, if you paid what you blow on one special edition video game you’d have a quality set of knives for life!’

She jammed the blade back into its slot with a snort. This coming from the pretentious areshole who spent more on one bag of coffee beans than most people forked out for a meal-for-two deal.

At least she’d have more time to game with her online friends. Nothing salved a disappointed heart during the holidays like shooting heads off bad guys.

And thanks to Dean Christine could check another box in her ‘grown-up’ list. The knives were good quality and practical. They wouldn’t demand special attention or require replacing. They signalled an end to mediocre and good-enough.

Later, crossed-legged on her sofa, she posted a photo of her new investment on Instagram, with a washed-out filter which gave it a 70s vibe.

‘Slice and dice!’ she captioned.

After thirty minutes, while watching a movie on her tablet, Christine heard a ping. Dean had commented on her picture.

‘Ugh. Kinda tacky. U check they sharp? LOL.’

‘Come over & find out!’ she typed furiously.

He responded with a smiley face with a tongue sticking out.

She imagined sawing it off with the bread knife. How he would gag and choke, silenced by his own gore.

At that moment a comment appeared, from @IsliceUdie. ‘U pay the toll?’

‘?’ she replied, flicking back to her film.

After a few minutes: ping.

The user posted a link to a video called Pay the Toll.

Curious, she looked up the video: unsteady and grainy, shot at twilight in a wooded area. A semi-circle of six people wearing eyeless silver masks over dark robes waited in the gloom. Three of them held long knives pointed upward.

The group sang an eerie, off-key melody.

‘Snick-snack, the knife slips, snick-snack, your life drips.’

The knife holders whirled to face those without blades. Their voices screeched, high and insistent. ‘Pay the toll! Pay the toll! Or lose your soul!’

One of the empty-handed proffered a coin to a blade-bearer. The payment accepted, they bowed to each other. The second one presented the toll and it was taken.

The third, however, held both palms up, empty.

The five prowled around the lone debtor, now all bearing knives, their robes swaying, their voices strained and cracked from the force of their screams:


The dissenter’s mask shook from side to side, hollow hands stretched out, pleading.

One broke ranks and slashed across a bared wrist. Blood whipped outward in an arc, and zipped a red line across the mask of another. The wounded person staggered, howling. Another companion hacked into the second exposed arm. Flesh furrowed red.

Christine recoiled from the screen with a gasp of disgust.

The wounded person dropped, and the rest fell upon the prone form. The faint light squinted off the dipping knives.


Then only wet noise and panting. Moments later they stopped and unfurled like ugly petals from the crumpled ruin in the grass. Their shoulders heaved.

A low wind moaned through the shivering trees.

The group formed a wall, and turned in unison to the camera. They raised their blades, wet with lifeblood.

‘Pay the toll,’ they murmured, and drifted toward the screen.

Christine flung the tablet onto the cushion beside her, unwilling to touch its surface. Less than a minute remained. She’d let it run out.

The five silver masks slunk closer, singing their discordant tune. As they drew near Christine discerned embossed glyphs on the masks. As if they replicated an ancient, corroded coin. Its burnished codes burned bright and scorched a siren song.

The dazzling discs crowded the screen. ‘Pay the toll!’

Their voices rose in a dirge of fierce longing.

Christine scrambled away from the tablet and backed into her kitchen.

The chorus became a searing pressure, impossibly loud.

Christine clamped her hands over her ears. Why wasn’t the video ending?

The handles of the blades beckoned.

The screen darkened.

She glanced down. In her right hand she grasped the fileting knife.

She felt its heft; its promise; its lure.

It demanded a fee for the purity of its precise function.

‘Pay the toll,’ she whispered.

She reached for her purse, hoping, she had the means.


Published on 29 December 2020 as part of the Sinister Horror Company’s 2020 Advent Calendar.