Niall knew what people said about him. They said he was slow, simple. Not right in the head. They looked at him staring off into space, at the girders on the local building site, at the opaque water of the canals, and then they gave him a slap on the side of the head and told him to stop lollygagging. Stop staring at nothing, they said. He wasn’t staring at nothing though. He was watching the gods.
He knew they were gods because his mother had told him, before she died. Look and you’ll see them, she’d said, listen and you’ll hear their laughter. Water, and wasteland, steel and stone, all of them echo with the gods’ laughter, because the gods know we can see them but we choose not to.
Niall chose to see them, but he didn’t think the gods had noticed. The grey ones scurried away if he came near them, heads bobbing. Maybe they thought he’d tread on them. They were very small after all, even if they could fly, although he didn’t suppose being trodden on would kill a god. Maybe it just hurt.
There were no gods around today as he walked along the dusty path alongside the canal, although if he listened closely and ignored the sound of the flyover he could hear them singing in the distance. It didn’t bother him that he couldn’t see them, he knew where to find all kinds of gods. Sometimes, if you crept up just right, you could get really close before a god noticed you. It wasn’t a good idea if they had baby gods with them, though. Then they’d stare at you and scream, and sometimes even attack.
The path wound away from the canal. He kicked at a brown stone, watching it bounce twice before it plopped into the water, and then followed the route to the flyover where the white gods lived.
The flyover roared like a monster made of concrete and steel and drowned out the gods. They lived among the girders underneath, and it was only a short swoop from there down to streets that were full of litter and abandoned takeaway. Niall hopped over a sagging chain-link fence onto the uniform grey of the pavement, following the path upwards alongside the traffic. The sun shone in his eyes and made it difficult to see. That meant he was going the right way.
At the top he paused to look over the railing at the road below. Hardly any traffic was moving and the parked cars looked like forgotten toys. He closed his eyes and leaned further, straining to hear. After a moment he caught it, the strange harsh noise that the flyover gods made when they were talking to each other. He could make the noise too, but he could have been saying anything and didn’t want to offend them, so he didn’t.
One of the gods moved, bursting out with a whirring of wings. Niall watched it fly to the roof of one of the buildings below. He thought it was watching him.
“What?” he asked. The god hopped to the street, investigated a bin, then flew back up again. As Niall waited it flew out again, followed by two more. Now it looked like they were all watching him.
“What?” he asked again. They turned their backs, shutting him out. He wasn’t worthy. Tears filled his eyes and he wondered if he should have brought bread again, or some crisps. Maybe the gods were angry because he hadn’t brought a gift.
“Look who it is. It’s the ‘tard!”
The voice was quiet even though the owner was shouting. Still at the bottom of the hill, a group of older boys were approaching, breaking into a run. Niall wanted to flee, like he did in the playground, but he knew they were faster than he was. There were no teachers here to save him from a beating. A portion of chips wheeled through the air towards him. The polystyrene dish fell at his feet and splattered his shoes with curry sauce.
The gods had noticed his danger. Barely a moment passed before they were thronged around him, a feathered carpet between him and the other boys. They accepted the offering at his feet eagerly, even though he hadn’t been the one to bring it. The other boys slowed and eyed the gods with suspicion. Niall could see a future of scrapes and bruises in their pinched-up faces, and he pressed himself against the rail.
“What are you doing, retard?” one of the boys asked. “We won’t hurt you, will we, Steve?” There was a nudge in the ribs and a snigger, and Steve answered with a mumble around a mouthful of chips.
One of the gods snapped at the boy who’d spoken as he drew too close. He aimed a curse and a kick at it. The white god gave a harsh cry as it launched into the air.
“Stop it!” Niall moved without thought. He snatched a slippery handful of chips from the ground and threw them at the boys.
Having finished the rest of the offering, the gods went after this one too.
Steve screamed as white bodies flung themselves at the tray in his hands. Others went after the leftovers that Niall had thrown. The cries of boys and gods mingled as Steve and his friend scrabbled away and fled back down the hill.
The gods settled, searching the ground for scraps. One perched beside Niall on the rail and fixed him with a beady eye. Niall’s heart swelled with love and then, as one, the gods took flight.
C.L. Holland has a Bachelors degree in English with Creative Writing, and a Masters degree in English, and was a winner of Writers of the Future for 2008. Her secret identity is that of a humble officeworker. She has an evergrowing collection of books and expects them to reach critical mass any time now.