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Outcast

It always feels the same. Just another day, standing, waiting to go to work. The van should be here any minute. Not even light yet, there is a chill in the air.

The other guys are here too. We’re not really friends, but they’re OK. Just normal guys, happy to have some work, some income for their families.

To the other people driving by, or standing at the bus stop, we seem to be some sort of exotic creatures. Let out of our cages for the day, what could we be up to?

But it’s always been like this. I suppose I get it, my people don’t always help themselves. There are certainly enough lazy people in my community. It’s so frustrating, I want to slap them up the back of the head. Things are getting better, but they don’t change quickly, of course. It takes time, so much time.

Still, it starts to get to you after a while, being looked at with suspicion all the time. People crossing the street, jumping when they haven’t seen you coming. You start to feel low, to feel less, maybe even to feel nothing.

I’m determined not to let that happen, to fight it. It’s all in the mind, the power of positive thinking. I am me, not some character created in a bigot’s mind. I am more than my skin and clothes. 

On some days the anger builds, and I feel ready to explode. It all seems so unfair. After all, what do they want from me? If I was sitting outside, smoking and drinking they would be judging me, but why on my way to work?

Here comes the van, at least once I’m inside I am with my own. But that’s the problem, I don’t feel like I belong here either. Constantly floating between two foreign worlds, what an existence.

We are jammed in to every available space, there are no seats in the back, of course. It’s a warm, stuffy and rattly ride to the site. Some time to chat, to smoke, maybe just to zone out.

Our work assignments come as an unpleasant surprise every day. There shouldn’t be any real shock, of course, the shock would be getting a good job. But that’s not what we are for. We are for the shit jobs, the shit that no-one else wants to touch, we have the right camouflage after all. 

Anger is my enemy, it creeps up on me and, before I know it, my mind is whirring. Every slight I have ever received, all the words and looks, every rejection. Then I have to remember, the positive mindset I am trying, desperately trying to construct. It’s OK if it slips, occasionally, it’s all about how quickly you catch it and shore up the foundations again.

As we rattle along, I begin to look at my co-workers. We are a right mixture. We are young and old, energetic and lazy, sharp and dull, honest and not so. There are people here who, with a little encouragement, could grow into something. And there are others who would always be standing with one foot on the bottom rung. Am I just being arrogant, thinking that I deserve more? What makes me better than them? And that is always what gets me, maybe I’m not.

There’s that self-doubt again, I get the feeling that today is going to be a tough one. One of those days where positivity is a struggle and it’s just going to be a matter of pushing on through. But I mustn’t give up yet, the sun could still shine on my day and brighten my mood.

All of a sudden, we are here. The van crunches to a halt and the order comes to get out. Surprisingly, the sun is actually shining, the warmth on my skin feels like golden honey flowing over me. I stand for a few moments, hoping for some energy to flow into me. 

But the peace and solitude doesn’t last long. Mr Novak looks in a bad mood today, he’s over by the office barking orders. All of a sudden, he looks at me. The shiver running up my spine is like ice, this can’t be good. Why is he staring at me?

‘Ondrej!’

Who’s shouting? It’s Michal, the site supervisor.

‘Ondrej, come here, now,’ he shouts. He doesn’t look happy either, please God I can’t lose this job.

‘Yes, Michal, what’s happening?’ I ask, trying to sound upbeat.

‘The shit’s really been hitting the fan today. Novak is out for blood. Looks like somebody is going home early today,’ he says shaking his head.

My worst nightmare, losing the job I hate. There is only one thing worse than having a job you hate, having none.

At that moment a huge argument seems to have broken out. Two voices, shouting and screaming. Anger being vented.

‘I’m no thief Novak, who’s been telling stories? I’ll cut their fucking head off!’ it sounds like Jan the leader of our work gang.

‘No stories Jan, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Now take your shit and fuck off of my site!’ Mr Novak is shouting, but seems calm. He is in control, after all.

And that’s that. Jan slopes off, hurling some choice words over his shoulder, and then he’s gone. It takes that long for such a change. Jan’s been one of the gang leaders since I started working here, and for a few years before that too. 

I think everyone new he was skimming a few materials here and there, but he must have pushed it too far.

The atmosphere is thick now, everyone is waiting to see what happens next. Is there anyone else in the firing line?

‘Right, Ondrej, your up next,’ says Michal.

‘You’re fucking with me, I haven’t done shit,’ is my diplomatic reply.

‘Just go and see Mr. Novak, now,’ he orders.

The walk over seems like the walk through no man’s land. Leaving relative safety behind, crossing a zone of emptiness and approaching hostility. The anger builds inside me as I walk. By the time I approach Novak I am ready to burst, there is no way I am leaving quietly, I’ve done nothing.

‘I’ve been watching you for a while now Ondrej,’ Novak says.

A grunt is the best that I can do.

‘I watch everyone here, who takes what, how much. Everyone skims a little, some assholes too much and they take the piss. But you, never, as far as I can tell. Are you honest, or just smarter than the rest?’ he asks.

‘I’ve never stolen anything from you Mr. Novak, honestly,’ I can hardly breath as I say this. What is he thinking?

‘I believe you Ondrej. Can I ask you a question?’ he asks.

‘Of course,’ I say.

‘Where do you see yourself going with this firm? What do you want for yourself?’ he asks.

What is this a job interview? I can’t help but chuckle a bit.

‘What’s so funny?’ he asks with stern eyes.

‘Sorry. It’s just hard to explain. What do I want for myself? Actually, maybe it’s not so hard. A chance, that’s what I want. A chance to prove that I am worth more. More than a ditch digger’s wage. A chance of some dignity, to hold up my head, to show my family that there is another way,’ I am lecturing him now.

Sheepishly, I stop and avert my eyes. 

But I can still feel his stare burning into me. I decide to meet it, to see what is in this man’s heart. And when I do, I see hope. I can’t explain it, but I can see it.

‘It won’t be easy you know? Not all of the men will accept you. You will have to be tough, but I have a feeling you’ve always had to be,’ he says. ‘I need a new gang leader and you’re it. You’ve been here a couple of years now, keep working hard and we will see what you can achieve and where you can end up,’ he says so matter of factly. He can’t know what this means.

I’m speechless. All I can do is nod and smile. My heart feels like it is going to burst through my chest. Finally a step, forward, up, somewhere.

So this is what it feels like, pride. 

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© Neil Hayes and neilhayeswriter

Another Day: Fiction

When I wake up, it feels like the world has stopped. No movement, only my breath. Stale air in, stale air out. No change, only stagnancy.

From my point of view, nothing much does change. The same journey every day, the same job, the same tasks. “Clean this, move that, do it better, do it different”, says the boss. Yes, even all in one sentence.

All I want is a surprise, just something small,along the way. Someone to treat me differently, a chance encounter or even an adventure. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I honestly don’t think that I have ever had an adventure. Even when I was young, my parents were so careful. And now, that seems to be ingrained in me. Approaching 30 and still treading water. I spend so much time thinking, and worrying about it. But it seems so hard to make the change. I can only watch so many motivational videos before I have to think, maybe I am just one of life’s failures.

We are told we are all special, but I don’t believe it. We are certainly unique. But what can we do to make ourselves exceptional, to shine, to be remembered? Well, people will remember this day. They will remember my name. I will not disappear.

Standing here, looking out of this window, I can already feel it. Maybe I won’t be around for much longer, but I know that I will finally be noticed today. Click.

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© Neil Hayes and neilhayeswriter

Aware

It’s so good to be out today. Alone, focused and present. Walking home, slowly, today is photo day.

The landscape is frozen, solid. I have to focus on each step, the path is like ice. But it is so quiet, even in the middle of the day. Today I am looking for nature, not people.

I’m wrapped up warm but the chill is still penetrating all my layers. I have to try to keep moving, but not miss anything.

So far, I have a few shots, but I don’t feel like there is anything special.

The river is covered in snow. Footprints are crossing from one bank to the other. The place seems devoid of life.

There is one patch of unfrozen water, on the other side. It seems to be some sort of water inlet, there must be some water movement. It’s still strange though, the water shouldn’t be any warmer there, and it isn’t moving so fast. You would think that some birds would be there. If it’s warm, why not?

Above it, on the bank, is a small concrete block. Some sort of control mechanism I suppose. This is what I love, finding the details. It’s covered in some sort of design. Is it art? It’s hard to tell from here.

It’s a long way to the other side but I have to get closer. Actually I could do with the walk. I’ve been standing around for a while and even my bones are shivering.

When I reach the other side I feel better. I have warmed up after the walk, or the skate, I’m not sure what you would call it.

This block is fascinating. What is it covered in? Is it graffiti? Is it natural? Maybe some sort of weathering, or a strange combination of the two. Whatever it is, it seems to draw me.

Details seem to jump out at you. A face, a hand and when you touch it…

I can feel the pores of the concrete, its skin. It feels like I can even sense a feeling.

OK. What the fuck? That was just too creepy.

And the ground shifts, or is it me? It’s me. As I fall, I throw my camera over my shoulder. Then brave myself for the cold. I take a deep breath and plunge under water.

I recover quickly, only because it is shallow here, close to the bank. Lucky, since I swim like a bag of sand. I say it is shallow, but it still rises under my arms.

Confusion reigns, it’s warm. I know there is no reason for this. I suppose I should be grateful, otherwise I would be struggling. But the water is as warm as a bath. Why?

Anyway, for now I need to worry about how I am going to get out of this. The banks are deserted. I can either climb onto the ice, which seems sketchy. Or up the bank, but that inlet is the only area of bank with no ice.

I have to edge forward and be aware of the slippery boulders which form the bank of the river. They also slope upwards towards the bank, it would be easy to fall.

I’m next to the hole now. I might have to wait for help, I don’t see how I can get any purchase to drag myself up.

I turn around to look at the other bank, there must be some people around. As I do, I feel a warm gust of air on the back of my head. So that’s why it isn’t frozen here. I still don’t know why. There is nothing here. These are just channels from one arm of the river to another.

As I turn back to the hole, I get that feeling again. A presence. I can’t help but move forward, drawn towards whatever this thing is.

I feel something brush my leg and it is as if my bones have left my skin behind. I’m stumbling now, slipping back down the slope towards the ice, the frozen part of the river.

When I get close to the ice, it takes my breath away. So cold. This is how I should have felt when I first fell in. I struggle a little closer to the bank, and it is almost as if there is a line where I cross into the warm water. It isn’t a slow transition, it is instant.

It takes a few minutes for the warmth to permeate my body and for me to stop shivering. I’m OK now, but I want to get out. I don’t know what this is, I just know that I want no part of it.

I start screaming for help, panic is beginning to take over. Where is everybody? Earlier, I was wishing for no people, now I’ve never wanted to see another human so much in my life.

Time to take a few deep breathes. Whatever touched me before would have been as boring and everyday as a carp enjoying the warmth of this area. This isn’t Star Wars. There is no creature here living in the depths, scavenging on lost and discarded items.

I have to laugh at myself and my imagination. But as I get closer to the bank, there it is again. Nothing physical but a feeling. A sense of something, lost.

As I move closer, once again, I seem to feel so many emotions. One minute sorrow, of an unimaginable degree. Then anger, ferocious anger at the unfairness of the world. And also malevolence like I could never imagine.

And finally, as I approach the hole, joy. A rapturous joy like I have never felt. It is flooding through me, what could make someone, or something feel like that? Maybe a dream coming true. What you have been waiting for, finally approaching. Another soul to add to your collection.

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© Neil Hayes and neilhayeswriter

Back Home (Inspired By Stephen King)

I should have trusted my feelings. I new something was wrong, could feel it. Now I can smell her scent. Hear her descending the staircase. I feel sick to my stomach.She is still so beautiful. Emily, such a sweet name, but I know better.

“I feel so much better for that. This city is filthy,” she says.

As she sits next to me, I can smell her newly washed skin. Her arm around me feels so alien. But I know how she can be, I mustn’t react. I must play along, for now.

“It’s so good to see you honey.” She smiles a sterile smile.

Sickly sweet, my cuddly bunny. But a bunny with teeth.

I thought this moment would be a long time coming, and hopefully never. But here she is, out.

“Have you missed me?” she asks.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about you for a moment,” I reply.

And I mean it. This woman has haunted every waking moment of my life for the last two years. I just haven’t been able to shake her, even when there were high concrete walls between us.

“Because I’ve missed you. I know you didn’t mean those things you said,” she says.

As she slips her arms around me every muscle in my body wants to tense. And I want to scream. But I must force myself to relax. But it’s too late.

“What’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy.” She looks sweet and disappointed. I used to fall for this act, many times in fact. But not anymore.

“I guess it’s just the shock. And I’m worried. You’ll be in so much trouble.” My mind is spinning now. How do I get away from her?

“I don’t care. I couldn’t live without you any longer. I knew you would find someone else, if I didn’t get home soon.” She’s getting angry now.

“Has there been anyone?” she asks, her eyes are growing fierce, her jaw set tight.

“Of course not. How could there be?” What am I saying? Who could believe this bullshit?

“You’re lying. I could always tell. Who is it? That bitch Lydia from next door?”

Jesus no, this is getting out of control, so quickly.

I don’t even see it coming, she hits me so hard the left side of my face explodes with the pain. And then she is on me. All I can do is curl into a ball and try to hide from her blows. Her punches and kicks have grown, if anything, more powerful.

Is it the pain or the shame that is the worst? I never was sure. I am the man, after all. Why do I let her do this to me? I know I am stronger, but she can be savage and the terror seems to overwhelm me.

“Look at you. Lying there. Why do I love you? How can I love such a weak creature?”

I can’t speak. I know that anything I say will be wrong. But so is saying nothing. My insides feel like they are contorting with the tension and the indecision.

“Maybe it would be best to just put you out of your misery. That’s what they do with dogs, isn’t it? When they are past their usefulness.”

She has never threatened this before. Of all the times, as far as she went, I only felt on the edge of death when she went too far. When her temper was out of control. But this is worse, she is deciding. I can see it in her eyes. She is weighing her options.

A knock at the door.

She looks out of the window, to check who it is. Maybe it is the police.

“It’s her,” she says. “The bitch. Now it’s time to end this. Two birds with one stone.”

It all happens so quickly, I am frozen to the spot.

Emily opens the door with on hand, and with the other she has Lydia by the hair, pulling her through the door. She is on her like a cat, hissing as she pulls hair out in clumps. Now attacking her eyes, scratching and gouging at them. Lydia doesn’t know what has hit her.

It’s almost like I am outside my body looking in. Just an observer unable to intervene. That’s what the fear has always done to me, made me impotent.

But this time is different, there is someone else involved. This time as I watch, seemingly from outside, I see myself move. Get up and creep forward, there is something in my hand. Something heavy. The clock from the mantelpiece.

As I swing downwards I seem to reenter my body, just before the impact.

A sickening thud, followed by a grunt and then silence.

Emily is slumped over Lydia now. Is she breathing?

I’m still holding the clock. The bottom edge is covered in blood and matted hair. I can’t drop it fast enough when I see this. Revulsion overcomes me.

Lydia’s face is a mask of horror, contorted in shock and pain. I remember how it felt, the first time. But, in time, it almost becomes expected. And accepted.

I don’t want to touch Emily, but I have to. As I pull her of and lay her to the side of Lydia, I can sense that she is gone. There is no longer the presence that was so strong. So intent.

Lydia is shaking now, sobbing uncontrollably. As I help her to her feet she clings to me.

“I’m sorry,” I say. It seems meaningless but I have to say something.

“How did she get out?” Lydia asks.

“It was on the news, that three people had escaped. I prayed she wasn’t one of them.” I still can’t believe it myself. How did she do it?

“Do I look OK? My eyes are burning,” she says with concern.

“She got you pretty good, but I think it’s just scratches. Can you see OK?” It looks worse than I am letting on, but I hope she will be fine. There is no point in panicking her now.

“Yes, it seems to be fine. But my face is so sore,” she almost whimpers. “You had better call the police.”

It’s good advice but I can’t deal with this. What have I done? Now I start to sob, I can hardly breathe. Why? I should be happy, it is over now.

My emotions are running wild. I put my arms around Lydia, I need to hold someone. And she hugs me back.

As I look at her lying there, that’s when it hits me. How dangerous that woman was. Not just for me, but for everyone she touched. And the first surge of happiness begins to flow through me. It is over, finally.

Now I can live, I deserve it.

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© Neil Hayes and neilhayeswriter

Echo: A short story

I sometimes wonder if I am cracked. It almost feels like places are speaking to me. Not every place, but ones with a history. But not what most people would think of as historical.

An abandoned factory, for instance, seems to resonate with past events. Just imagine the stories it could tell. Peoples’ blood, sweat and tears seem to impregnate those walls. Whereas, when I enter a church it seems like the emptiest of shells.

Today, I am exploring the former. A factory, abandoned for how long? I love exploring places like this. As soon as I enter, it feels like there is history here. This place is amazing.

The windows are almost all destroyed. Cracked and dirty, but allowing the occasional shaft of sunlight to illuminate the dust that hangs in the air.

The roof seems to be the home to every flying rat from within the nearest few miles. So, of course, the floor is covered with a fair amount of their history; as well as what was left behind when the factory closed.

But it is the machines that draw me in. I can feel the past here. How many hours did men spend standing at these beasts of the industrial age? Men who knew no other life, perhaps had no other option. But, perhaps, were happy with their lot; or perhaps not.

This space is cavernous and, in early winter, the air is cold and bites the lungs. But the sky is clear and has that deep blue which makes the world a brighter place.

It is so silent here now. But, once, there would have been a tumult; day in, day out. I can almost hear it now. No, I can here it now. I tell myself it is just my imagination, but I swear I can hear it.

The incessant repetition, as machines hammer and bend metal into shape. The shouts and calls of the workmen, struggling to make themselves heard. After a lifetime in this place, the silence of nature must have been terrifying.

If it is my imagination, it is so vivid at times, it feels so real. But I am not a believer of superstitions. There are no ghosts here, only memories.

But then there is another feeling, one of loss. I know men would have died here. Without knowing it for a fact, it would have happened. Lives lost, families torn apart. Their pain, their loss, still echoing through time.

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© Neil Hayes and neilhayeswriter

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