The Followers

The Followers

by Janet Haigh

We watch the two of them move up the hill. Swaying like boats, they collide then drift away and back together in the early morning dark. Dressed in T-shirts, green and grey, and mismatched charcoal pants, their faces are all but identical. Two boys this time. They hand a bottle back and forth, swaggering up past the palm, to the white spear of the monolith on the hilltop.

My night vision is good. I turn away to look back across the abandoned bowling green and out to sea. The water below the cliffs roars through the night and, far over the lurching surface, I can still make out the irregular chunks of coal ships. In the past, they might have looked to the obelisk for navigation—truth be told, it’s a beacon on many levels—guiding lost souls to shore or to other lives as fate would have it.

Beside me, my brother, the angel, can’t take his eyes off the hopeful sight of another set of twins approaching the doorway. It’s been over thirty years since we fell into our respective roles and it’s been no picnic, trust me. Kind of like jury duty, only hotter. Rolling his shoulders to release tension, his wings shift, the feathers ruffled by salty wind straight off the ocean. No halo but he towers over me. He got the better part of the deal, surely?

I’m sceptical of a change. Really, what are the chances? Running my tongue along the double row of serrated teeth I got out of the bargain, I suddenly start to snigger uncontrollably.

He looks down at me in shock.

“Stop it, Addie!” He retches. So undignified. “You’re making me sick.” His voice sounds like pan-pipes; a chorus of notes combined to speak as one. It makes me shiver. The chime of his words is a reminder to be ashamed of the layers of black, gelatinous flesh that encase me, wobbling with every chortle.

“Not my fault.” I mumble, swiping a curtain of saliva from my chins. Absentmindedly, I toy with my horns and think of plucking chickens.

We’ve each adapted to suit our different environments, I can’t very well help the scales or slug-like exterior I’ve developed, any more than he’s earned the gossamer wings and buttermilk skin. But I have friends. Even in the darkened underbelly of Hell, I’m no longer in the habit of being judged simply on my appearance. Mirrors aren’t exactly in high demand down there, it’s been quite liberating.

Stretching out my fingers, I contemplate the full horror of gnarly nails and bulbous joints covered in blue-black skin. I wonder what might happen if we got lucky enough to bag replacements tonight; would all this physical wonder disappear in an instant?

What happens then? Back to the daily grind of life on the up-top?

A car rounds the bend, headlights bouncing over us for a second, and slides on up the road. The old bowling green is more desolate than it was thirty years back, its low concrete walls are crumbling and the clubhouse is gone, scrubbed away with saltbush. It seems more appropriate to our cause now.

On the hill, the lads have reached the spire and slouch at its base, staring back out to sea, oblivious to the danger. If they happen to glimpse us in the blustery dark, there are no recognisable features, just shadows and bulk. They might mistake us for lumps of concrete or scrub. I’d made the same naive assumption, long ago.

Peter moves his feet beside me. “Now.” he flutes, eager to go.

I hesitate, filled with sudden guilt. “Give them a minute. There’s no rush, is there?”

He stares down at me, seething. “That’s our only chance.” He stabs a finger in the direction of the hill and righteous anger radiates from his eyes with a physical heat.

I study my blackened hands again. It’s amazing what you can get used to.

Even through the booze, they sense us before they can see us. Jittery like horses, they rise to their feet, gulping the air.

“You’ve been called.” A statue come to life, my brother dwarfs them. He used to be short.

I smile around his shoulder apologetically but, on reflection, the result is probably less than effective. Shutting my mouth with a clack, I meekly tuck my hands behind my coal-dust girth.

He presses his coin into the hand of one and I undulate forward to do the same with the other. Instinctively, the boy recoils but I grip his wrist firmly and peel back the fingers to force the ancient metal into contact with his skin.

Peter’s eyes flash over them, ruby in the darkness, but the boys are already moving, throwing the coins at us as they run. They won’t go far.

Stretching his wings to full span, my sibling is suddenly aloft. Ignoring a shriek of terror from down the slope, I slide over to inspect the abandoned tokens in the dust.

A moment later, he returns, filling the sky above, a struggling shape in his arms, and I chew my nails and squint through the updraught.

“Heads or Tails?” I shout.

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Janet Haigh
Janet Haigh had several stories shortlisted for national competitions and, to date, have been published in the Newcastle Herald, Aurealis and Coastlines Literary Magazine. Most recently, my work has been selected for inclusion in the speculative fiction anthology Sproutlings, due to be published in February.

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