Saul said that Melissa said that my butt was the size of Texas. That’s how it all started. I’d been hot on Mel for weeks, and she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Now I knew why.
This was back in the day, of course, before everything else that happened to us. Before Saul’s aneurysm left him stone cold on the gym floor at the age of twenty-two; before Mikey started having seizures. And me… well, you know all about me. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it.
Anyway, Mel’s comment hit me like a wrecking ball. My body image has never been great, and my success rate with girls during that period was poor to say the least. If I’d fumbled one more pass, I’d have been spending the next season on the bench. Mikey reckoned I should take up marathon running, but I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. Knowing Mikey, I doubt it. Then Saul said there was this mountain behind his dad’s new place; mountain or hill, he wasn’t sure which. It was high, for sure. He’d seen hikers going up it, poles in their hands, backs loaded up like Sherpas. We should take a trek up there. The views back over Wetherton would be jaw-dropping. How hard could it be? Unless I didn’t think I could make it?
He sure knew how to play me. The three of us agreed to meet at Saul’s dad’s place that Saturday afternoon, rain or shine.
“What is that?” Saul said when he opened the door. He wasn’t pointing to the 40-litre hiking pack strapped to my back, because he didn’t have to. There wasn’t any missing it.
“My mom said I should be prepared. You know, in case. We get storms and shit at this time of year, in case you haven’t noticed. You want to get caught out up there?”
Mikey stepped into the hallway too, mock-fainting as he saw my baggage.
“The mule is here! The mule is here! Saul, I told you we needed a pack mule. Dude, this is too funny.”
They made me take half the contents out, but I insisted on carrying it with me. My mom would kill me if I let that bag out of my sight. There was a compass clipped to the front, and a zip pocket you could reach without having to take it off. It even had a water bladder sown into the lining and a tube that attached to the strap, so you wouldn’t have to mess around with bottles. We could have scaled Everest wearing that thing.
Once we’d emptied everything but the snacks onto Saul’s bedroom floor, we followed him outside to the yard. I could see what he meant about the hill. It wasn’t that high, not really, but the sides were steep. I could just about see a path that edged its way gradually up the incline, zigzagging from side to side so that nobody fell off any cliffs. There were no walkers I could see, but it looked pretty well-worn. Like Saul said, the views from the top must be incredible.
“So are we doing this or not?” Saul turned to face us, his arms outstretched like he was showing us his own personal mountain. “Think your fat ass can make it up there?”
No way I was backing out after that. To say I had a point to prove doesn’t do my bruised ego justice.
The trail started near the back of Saul’s dad’s place, so we climbed onto a stack of his patio chairs and dropped over the rear fence. I don’t have to tell you that I wasn’t quite as agile as Saul and Mikey, but I managed it okay. It gave me a little extra confidence for the walk ahead, you know? Standing at the foot of the incline it sure looked a long way up.
Worst part on that hike up was the boredom. I mean, yeah, it was hot, and my legs were aching after ten steps. But I could deal with all that. When you’re young these things seem easier, somehow. Life still feels like something you can conquer. We were huffing and puffing like a trio of steam engines, but none of us let up the pace, or asked to rest. I could feel the sweat soaking the back of my T-shirt, sticking the bag to me like a shell. When the guys weren’t looking I’d wipe my brow with my shirt. I caught Mikey doing the same, and we grinned. It felt like an actual adventure, like a mission to explore a lost island or something. Real Jurassic Park shit. If we’d stumbled upon a velociraptor I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised.
We saw the top of it first, before we really knew what it was. There were a few shrubs at the crest of the hill – not trees, nothing more than five or six feet high – and our first sighting of it was peeking out from those, like the point of a spear. I was out of breath and sweating like a pig, so I may have been hallucinating, but I’d swear that the air around it was shimmering. Like it does above the asphalt in the middle of summer.
It took us another five minutes to get there, the path criss-crossing back and forth until I had no idea which way was north and which way was down. It was the scale of the thing that surprised me most. From below, it had looked tiny, maybe eight or nine feet high. The truth was closer to forty.
“Whoa. You think they let King Kong climb that thing?” That was Mikey. He was always trying to turn every situation into a joke. My pops said he was compensating for the crappy life he’d been handed. His dad had walked out on them when he was five, and his mom was banned from half the bars in town.
I wanted to collapse on the ground real bad, but somehow I stayed upright, swaying a little. We stared up at it. There was an audible hum in the air.
“Do you think it’s a radio mast?” said Saul. “It might be, you know. Or maybe one of those electricity pylon things.”
“There would be wires,” Mikey replied, serious for once. “Pylons have wires coming out of them, you know that. You see any wires?”
He was right, though – it looked like a pylon. Four-sided, broad at the base, four legs tapering upwards to a point. I’d assumed it was made of metal girders bolted together, but thinking back I don’t recall seeing any joins.
“It’s the Eiffel Tower, that’s what it is.” This was Mikey, of course. “You know, like they have in Vegas.”
Saul turned on him. “You dumbass, the Eiffel Tower’s in France. Don’t you know anything?”
“But I’ve seen it in Vegas, how do you explain that? Huh? Did I dream it? Who’s the dumbass now?”
They kept bickering, but my attention was drawn elsewhere. I could hear a tiny clicking noise, like a chattering, from my back. Taking the pack off, I opened it and took out the compass.
“Guys. Look at this.”
For once they stopped the idle banter, turning to see what was worth interrupting them for. All three of us stared. The needle on the compass was going crazy, spinning one way then the other, switching back and forth at random. It wasn’t on a steady plane either, and at times it would get stuck, before its manic gyrations set it spinning again. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Wait a minute.” Saul took a handful of coins out of his pocket. “A compass works like a magnet, right? You think this thing is magnetic?”
Then he threw them into the air.
We argued about what happened next for several months afterwards. Saul swore that the coins were ripped from his hand by an invisible force, like a Star Wars tractor beam or something. Mikey said he saw Saul throw them towards the tower. As for me, I wasn’t sure what I saw. All I knew was that one moment they were in Saul’s hand, and the next they were spinning around the metal structure, about ten feet off the ground.
We stood and watched them for a minute, our jaws wide open. Like the compass, they didn’t seem to obey any pattern, but there was something entrancing about it. The way they glittered in the sunlight, tumbling over each other, speeding up and slowing down as whatever it was that was doing this pulled them into its orbit.
“Does anyone else have anything metal?” Mikey said eventually. “I don’t think I do. Maybe my belt buckle?”
After five minutes we’d managed to gather a handful each: coins, buckles, keychains, a bottle top. Mikey even added the St Christopher medal that used to belong to his dad. On the count of three, we threw our arms back and pitched our fistfuls at the tower.
The effect was dramatic. My throw was weak, while Mikey’s went hard and fast to one side, but as soon as anything came within about ten feet of the structure it snapped sideways, pulled into the same path as the coins. And everything started to get really fast, really quickly. The more knick-knacks joined the swirling mass, the faster it moved, spinning and spinning around the hub of the tower. They moved further out too. Our objects had become a near-invisible blur, but before we knew it they were zipping around our heads, buzzing at us like a swarm of hornets. I felt something clip my ear, a warm trickle down my neck. Mikey was screaming, Saul was shouting “Down! Down!”, but all I could do was run, as fast as my tired feet would allow, the slope pulling me down and away from whatever it was we had found.
After a minute or so I stopped and looked back. The entire hilltop was in motion now, quivering, blinking in and out of focus. The hum was louder too, and there was a strong smell in the air, like a burned electrical circuit, or a spent firework. I was about to call for Saul and Mikey when the air snapped: a bright flash that left me blinded for a few seconds, a sudden rush of air like a giant intake of breath. When my vision faded in again, everything looked normal. The pylon was still there, peeking above the bushes, but there was nothing around it. No shimmering. Saul and Mikey staggered down the path, neither of them grinning, neither of them bold.
Of course, we talked about nothing else for months afterwards. In the end my mom wrote to the local council, asking what the hell was up on that hill. My dad reckoned something had gone wrong with the electrical grid, but when the letter came it said that the pylon there was disused, out of commission for over ten years. It wasn’t connected to anything at all. No wires, as Mikey would say.
I tell you, though, there was something weird about it all. As I said, Saul was the first of us to go. He just collapsed one day – his mom gave me the details in an email, we weren’t really talking much at the time. They said it was an aneurysm the size of a tennis ball, when they did the autopsy. Then Mikey called me up, saying he was having these seizures, and nobody knew what they were. He said he lost whole hours at a time, frothing at the mouth, his body convulsing beyond his control.
And as for me… well, you know my story. I wouldn’t be locked up here if everything was just peachy, would I. I have trouble getting a grip on reality sometimes, you know? Like none of this is really here. Or it is, but it keeps shimmering, like a mirage. Those times with the blade, I didn’t know it was my own arm I was cutting. Can you credit that? How can a man do that to himself and not know it?
The funny thing, though – the really strange thing – is that since that day I keep finding stuff. Coins, a belt buckle. Sometimes they’re in my pocket, or under my pillow. A bottle top in my laundry basket. And then, about a year ago, it was a St Christopher medal, just like Mikey’s.
Now, you explain that to me. Am I going crazy? Or am I still up on that hilltop, watching those knick-knacks hum and swirl around me, waiting for the snap to come?
Ian Steadman is a writer from the south of England. His fiction has been published by Black Static, Unsung Stories, The Lonely Crowd and Speculative 66, and he has a story forthcoming in The Year’s Best Body Horror. He also occasionally manifests on Twitter as @steadmanfiction. Find out more at www.iansteadman.com.
If you enjoyed The Hill at Wetherton, leave a comment and let Ian know.
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