Front Porches

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Robert shuffled onto the front porch, pulling the wooden door shut with an ancient creak. Patches of the floor boards were still painted, having survived another winter of freeze and melt. His chair, as weathered as the porch, he had brought out that morning, one item of a very short and meticulous To-Do List, which he had left undone after lunch.

He set his bulk down, slowly, and adjusted himself. The sun was out, warm against his tatty flannel. He absorbed it, letting the heat gather within his layers. It would take more than one afternoon to thaw his bones.

A few robins were at the bird feeder. His scrap of lawn, mostly weeds, was still a sickly green patch surrounded by sidewalk and asphalt.

The house across the street looked worse for the warm weather. Toys left out last autumn lay untouched and the little dog was back on its chain, running from one extent of it to the other, driven mad by every movement of squirrel or car.

It had been a nice house in its day; the whole street had consisted of cozy, honest houses, not fancy, crowded with children, not tidy but clean. Every mother was your mother; every boy was your brother.

He didn’t get emotional about what was lost anymore. He had raged, in the way people do, about change, but that had been a long time ago. With age came acceptance. Things fell apart. He lived at his own pace, in his own way, and let the world do as it pleased.

On his chair, on his porch, both relics, he watched. Sometimes a car drove by, going too fast. A young woman parked across the street three doors down. It must be the man’s newest girlfriend. A scrawny cat wandered by. He heard the screen door from two houses down slam shut. Last fall, a new family had moved in there. He hadn’t seen much of them, just the car leaving and returning, and two bundled kids, only eyes showing, out in the only snow all winter worth playing in. That house had had a front porch, like all the houses on the street used to, until the previous owners’ remodeled.

The woman and her two kids came down the sidewalk, the kids huddled close, the mother whispering fiercely at them. They turned at his house and she looked up and smiled as they approached. “Hi. We were making some cookies for Easter and made too many. We thought we’d share them.”

“We could have eaten them all,” the boy said sullenly in undertones.

“I made that one,” the girl said, pointing to a cross-shaped cut-out splattered with purple sprinkles.

“Can’t have them. Diabetes.”

The mother glanced down, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean–anyway, I’m Ellen. My husband, he’s at work, he’s Rick. These two are Chase and Cayleigh. Say hi, you two.”

They did, eventually. He nodded.

“And you are?” she asked.

“Robert.”

“Well, we had a plate for the house over there, too. What are their names? We’ve done a lousy job introducing ourselves. I’d blame being busy with these two, but that’s just excuses.”

Robert glanced over at the house across the street, thought. “Don’t know their names, honestly.”

The mother nodded. “Well, thank you, Robert. See you later.”

Making the kids look both ways, the mother led the way across the street. Robert sat on his porch, watching.

Originally published at 4Countymall.com on April 6, 2017.

Inventory of a Winter Thaw

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Bed: sheets (disarray), cover like an empty shell (two blankets from the closet layered within), pillow (hair-stained), nightstand.

Nightstand: alarm clock (off), tissue box (empty), cup (empty, dried residue), thermometer, trashcan (filled: wadded tissue (mucus-encrusted)). Trashcan original location: bathroom.

Bathroom: toothbrush (dry from lack of use), shower (dry from lack of use), toilet (flecked with bile), pill bottle (empty). Similar bottle stored: kitchen.

Kitchen: sink (empty – except for a few dishes (days old)), fridge (full – except for an orange juice gallon (swallows left)), window (closed, shuttered), door (unlocked).

Back Porch: wooden boards (paint peeling), trees (leafless), grass (dead), sky (cloudless), sun (bright), weather (warm), steps (upon which is a man).

Man: scruff (three days), pajamas (unwashed), glasses (contacts in bathroom), blanket (enshrouding form) — the blanket is removed.

Words: “Huh. This is what living feels like.”

Originally published at 4CountyMall.com on March 6, 2017.

Count to Twenty

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When she was a baby, I could just cover her eyes with my hands and then take them away. Peek-a-boo! It astonished her. I disappeared and then reappeared. Magic.

When I first taught her to play hide-and-seek, she would hide under the desk. And then, before I had finished counting, she’d jump out and tell me she had hidden under the desk. This would continue until I showed her a new place to hide.

Eventually she learned to hide where I hid, which was usually behind a door or barely concealed behind a chair, and even then, if I pretended not to see her, she would make noises until I noticed her. And then she would laugh hysterically.

There came a time when I tired of such antics. We didn’t play the game for a long time.

It was a ugly, dreary, frigid winter Sunday. Everything to be done while shut up indoors had been done weeks ago. “How about hide-and-seek?” I suggested.

“You count,” she said.

I counted to twenty slowly. I opened my eyes and looked under the desk. Not there. I looked behind the bathroom door, in the coat closet, under the bathroom sink. Not there.

I thought I might actually enjoy this.

I looked in the pot drawer in the kitchen, and behind the couch, and under her bed, then under my bed. I looked in the bathtub, in the clothes hamper, in the sliver of space between the bookcase and the wall where she might fit.

I looked behind the coats in the entry, in the pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room, beneath the sofa cushions she’d pull off to make forts.

I looked in the dryer, where I had hidden once as a child, much to the dismay of my mother. I looked in the toy chest and in the sock drawer and in the crawl space I told her never to go into. I looked in the trash can outside, though I had told her not to go outside.

I double-checked behind all the doors and under all the furniture and the corners of every closet. When younger, she had often said, “Make a sound!” when she couldn’t find me. I almost said it now but that would be weakness.

As I wandered the house, looking in places an octopus couldn’t squeeze into, the rooms were changed. They were hollowed, like a corpse in which just an hour before life had been. I did call out, “Make a sound!” but no sound came. Her shoes were still by the door; the door was still locked.

I ended up in my bedroom and sat on my disheveled bed. A doubt and a panic rose up in me. It was as if she had stepped through a mirror, slipped into a shadow, been raptured. I had closed my eyes and she had disappeared.

Something moved by my hand. I felt the lump. She laughed and stuck her head out of the crumpled mass of covers. “You found me!”

I scooped her up. “You’ve gotten so big!”

She wriggled out of my arms. “Dad! Let me go.” She pushed her hair out of her eyes. “It’s my turn to count.”

“Just count to ten slowly.”

“I can count to twenty. I’m not a baby.”

“No. Of course not.”

She closed her eyes and began to count, forcing me out of the room.

Originally published at 4CountyMall on January 31, 2017.

The Madness of Franz Agapa

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In my continuing effort to put online short stories from “The Archive,” I present today “The Madness of Franz Agapa.” This story is a spin-off, of sorts, from “The All-Seeing Prophet of Fortune and Love” and exists in the same world as “The King’s Shield.” Pierre Agapa is a adventurer/treasure hunter in “The All-Seeing Prophet,” but here we see a more tragic story from his childhood. His father, Franz, has lost everything and he’s convinced that if he can present his case to the gods, he will be vindicated. So he takes his wife and only child, Pierre, on a journey to climb Aginsar, where the gods live.

The story, though, is rather more personal than mythic, and I like it for that reason. Though it exists in a fantasy world, it’s really about a family dealing with their position in the world. It’s perhaps a bit more mundane than some would prefer, but I like it.

Maybe you will too.

Click the link to download–>The Madness of Franz Apaga

Stark Rakin’ Mad

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Mr. Willis Montgomery ate his breakfast slowly. It was Saturday. The end of the week had come. He had no more excuses. It was time to rake the yard.

Mr. Montgomery despised raking. He hated the crunch of the leaves beneath his feet. It was like listening to someone chew potato chips with his mouth open. He hated the false promise of the rake. It did not gather all the leaves; some always slipped through. He hated the fickle trees, the slow drip-drip of autumn, so that no matter when he cleared his lawn, he would have to do it again at least once more.

If he had his way, he’d buy a blower, one of those monstrous backpack ones, and make quick work of it. But he didn’t. He didn’t because of Mr. Norris Denton.

Mr. Norris Denton was his neighbor. The man smiled and hummed as he worked. He kept his grass at putting green perfection, trimmed his bushes weekly, swept his sidewalk daily, and even managed to clean his gutters four times a year. And as the leaves turned orange and red, he made it his habit to spend Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, methodically raking his yard until it gleamed like the newborn son of the Jolly Green Giant, verdant and unblemished.

And so, Mr. Montgomery spent Saturday showing his neighbor he could do the same.

He dug through the garage, hunting down the rake from where he had thrown it in disgust sometime late last November, when the trees had finally shed their last bit of clothing. Grasping the weathered wooden shaft, he felt the premonition of his aching back.

He trudged outside.

The leaves were gone. Only a few remained, like crumbs after a feast. He had envisioned an hour of work.

He looked to Mr. Denton’s yard. It was cleared as well, with just a smattering of gold and crimson. He was a day early! Mr. Montgomery marched over and pounded on the front door. Mr. Denton looked out. “Yes?”

“How dare you rake my yard! I am capable of taking care of it myself, thank you very much!”

Mr. Denton blinked and looked over at Mr. Montgomery’s yard. “It looks very nice.”

“No thanks to me!” Mr. Montgomery declared.

“Did you do my yard as well?” Mr. Denton asked. “That wasn’t necessary.”

“I did not! I’d never!”

“Then who did?”

“What do you mean, who did?” Mr. Montgomery demanded. “Don’t play the idiot!”

“Look at them,” Mr. Denton said, not really hearing his friend. “Looks like a wind rose up and cleared out all the leaves!”

Mr. Montgomery finally looked. All the houses around had clean yards, with a few dribbles of leaves trailing away. Peering down the sidewalk, he found where the trails seemed to converge. “We’ll find the scoundrel,” he said, pursuing with furrowed brow like an angered wizard, his rake clutched like a staff.

He came to the corner. This road was busier, open to sun and traffic. Three houses down, he saw a flurry of movement, a cyclone of red and yellow. On the sidewalk, two small rakes and an odd assortment of buckets and other containers lay discarded. A girl and a boy were throwing armfuls of leaves at each other, shouting and squealing. They dove into a pile in the middle of their tiny front lawn so big they could both burrow in, hidden completely from sight, and erupt out again like the spirits of volcanos and geysers.

Mr. Montgomery stared in perplexity. These thieves had stolen his leaves. Why had they stolen his leaves?

Mr. Denton was at his shoulder, grinning like an idiot. “Guess it wasn’t work for them, was it?”

“They must have had help. Accomplices. Backpack blowers.”

“Come on, Willis. Leave them be.” The kids were dancing in the pile. “Let’s hope they want a big snow fort this winter.”

Originally published at 4CountyMall on November 2, 2016.

Open At The New Year

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Dear Future Self,

If you’re reading this, you’ve made it through another year. Congratulations! If you’re not reading this, you’re probably dead. Sorry about that.

It’s January, and if you’re anything like me (and I’m betting you are), you’re feeling pensive. It’s dark and it’s cold and most mornings you just want to sink a little deeper into your warm cocoon of covers and throw the alarm out the window. And yet, you feel you must DREAM and PLAN and EXPECT GREAT THINGS out of the new year. Because, let’s face it, last year wasn’t that great.

(Yes, I know I haven’t lived the year yet, and maybe it was great. Maybe you won the lottery or got married or landed your dream job, you know, the one where you get paid $100,000 just take pictures of exotic places and write clever articles and star in your own YouTube channel. But, notwithstanding these possibilities, I expect–no, I know–that in some way, the year has failed you. Even if you have a hot girl now, I’m guessing she has some unforeseen deficiency, like an inability to truly appreciate your awesomeness at all times.)

Anyway….

Last year wasn’t that great. You misspent your money or a friend got mad or your job (still) sucks or someone died. Maybe it wasn’t a dumpster fire, maybe you have lots of great memories, but it’s January and the pressure’s on. This needs to be the BEST. YEAR. EVAR.

I understand. I really do. And even after a year of Netflix and Instagram and late nights on Steam, you feel even further behind. There’s too much to watch, to read, to visit, to buy, to experience. It’s paralyzing.

But I am writing to you, dear self, to remind you of something I have forgotten again and again. Maybe I never knew it. I’m afraid you won’t remember it either.

There was a storm last night. (Do you remember that storm?) The electricity’s been off all day and there’s a travel advisory. I’ve been huddling beneath five blankets, trying to keep warm. I’ve only a little milk, some bread, and half a bottle of ketchup. My phone’s dead and when I look out the window at the blowing snow, I think I never want to go outside again.

And so I’ve been alone and cold in the silence as the wind gnashing its teeth. I’ve found myself sitting, just sitting, and thinking, sometimes not even thinking, just being, and I’ve found I’ve forgotten silence and thinking and being. I’m a little afraid of it and of the weather and of my absurd imaginings (of freezing to death in my little house). It’s all so tentative, these days and minutes.

And I remembered, for the first time in years, how I would ride my bike around the block as a child and sing, sing these made-up songs–do you remember? I hope you do. Sometimes these songs were prayers, just words to God, little impromptu hymns, because I was happy with the wind and the motion and the weather and the time, just empty time, circling the block, alive and free and never bored.

So I write to you, future self, to remind you of this cold January day, alone, when you sang, just a little, in your living room, to an old tune that maybe you know better now. You sang to Jesus and you laughed, embarrassed, but you felt happy and not alone, warm despite the cold, full despite the barren, empty day. And you wondered if it could happen again, if the year were not so important as the day, the goals not so vital as the tune you hummed beneath your breath.

Perhaps you could write and tell me.

Sincerely,
Your Past Self

Originally published at 4CountyMall on January 9, 2016.

The Heidelberg/Smolinske Reunion

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The dimly lit gymnasium/bingo hall of St. Mary’s Catholic School squeaked with shuffled strides and rubber wheels as the members of the Heidelberg/Smolinske family gathered for their annual Christmas reunion.

Great Aunt Mabel had died in August, fifteen years after her husband, nearly to the day (wasn’t that always how it was?), and the rest of the family had quietly assumed the reunions would cease, because if Mabel didn’t make it happen, it didn’t happen.

But, bless her heart, little Abigail had taken up the task with Mabeline resolve.

“Just put the casserole over there, Betty,” Little Abbie, now somewhere past 40, repeated, her smile already wearing thin.

“I tried something new this time, and I’m sure it didn’t turn out. I meant to make my other casserole, the one everyone likes, but I didn’t have time to run to the store yesterday. Oliver had his appointment, you know, and with this weather, I do hate driving.”

At a corner table, Oliver counted ceiling tiles, a personality quirk that had gotten him in trouble even 70 years ago, when he attended this same school.

Thomas and Russell’s voices rose from the other end of the room, each clutching his cane tightly as he listened to the other speak utter nonsense about politics.

“Maybe you could say hi,” Little Abbie said to her daughter, Sarah, who had come mostly because her fiance was working today. “They both like you.”

By half past starting time, everyone had arrived. Cheryl got everyone’s attention with that voice of hers that had made her neighbors aware of every marital spat and motherly rebuke. Little Abbie looked over her extended family. They stared back, some blankly, others peering through too-large frames, others with the frank disinterest of those who had lived long enough to no longer care what others thought.

“Thank you all for coming,” Little Abbie said. “It’s nice that we can all gather together to celebrate this time of year.” Great Aunt Mabel always had a speech ready. Looking at their faces, Little Abbie decided to refrain. “Let’s eat.”

Sarah returned as the line formed. “Crisis averted,” she said. “Only took me explaining, again, what a software analyst does.”

“Well, if your boy would just learn himself to change a spark plug, he’d be fine,” Little Abbie joked.

Bridget, her bouffant shadowing the mashed potatoes, grumbled in her smoke-soaked voice. “Where’s the music? Mabel always had music by this time.”

Soon after, something Lawrence Welkian hummed over the speakers. The tables, too, hummed with conversation as food reacquainted second-cousins and half-relations.

“….when he went back to the doctor, he took that kidney stone with him. It was full of spikes and this big. The doc couldn’t believe it.”

“Patsy in Florida called and told me she can’t keep the birds off her lawn. Tried everything. She’s frustrated and chases them off three or four times a day, she says.”

“…remember how scared Keith was?. He was only 9 and there was that garter snake on the porch. He screamed and Mary Francis came out, saw it, grabbed a hoe, and chopped it in two. She was always like that.”

Little Abbie sat and listened. Her forced smile changed, little by little. “What is it?” Sarah asked.

“There’s just something about this. Tradition and memories. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

Great Uncle Vernon settled down beside Sarah. “Remember me? You’ve grown up much since I saw you last. I think it was at Martha’s funeral last year.”

A gnarled voice rang out from the next table. “It wasn’t my funeral. I’m still here. It was Henrietta’s.”

“No, Henrietta died three years ago,” said another. “I know because my husband died two months before.”

“Then it must have been Donna’s. Was it Donna’s?”

Great Uncle Vernon shook his head. “I don’t remember. But I remember you. She’s a pretty girl, Little Abbie. It’s nice to see a young face around here.”

“She’s getting married next summer!” Martha yelled from the next table.

“Oh. That’s very nice.” He leaned in. “Between you and me, I prefer those to the funerals.”

After Vernon left, Sarah turned to her mother. “Why would they even come?” she muttered. “They don’t even know me.”

“Memories, Sarah. That’s most of what’s left for them. The least you can do is give them one more bright one.”

Roberta waddled up to Little Abbie. “Who made the brownies? Do you know?”

“Sarah here did.”

“Well, Sarah, you better learn to bake better than that if you want to keep a husband. Do you know, by the time I was sixteen….”

Sarah listened patiently, glancing at her mom from time to time, and smiling ever so slightly.

Originally published in the 4County Mall, November 25, 2016.

The House of Memories

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Today’s story from the archives is “The House of Memories.” For some reason, back when I scheduled the release of these stories, I put this one here the week before Christmas, despite it being not remotely festive. It is, if anything, a tale suited more for Halloween than Christmas. It was written for the anthology The Day After and was inspired by gothic horror stories such as you might read from Poe. It’s one of my best stories (or, at least, I think so, as do a few others). It would probably make a good episode of The Twilight Zone.

So, if for some reason you want a spooky story near Christmas besides A Christmas Carol, I suppose you can take a swing at this. Here’s the link–>The House of Memories – by Nick Hayden

Old Man

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Another weekend, another short story dug out of the archives. This week it’s “Old Man,” a story that takes place in Vienna, my fictional Midwestern town which is not much unlike the one I live in. Often, these stories include fictionalized versions of real events and people. This story is no different. This was written for my mother for her birthday one year. It fictionalized some of the last years of her dad, my grandpa, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. It doesn’t try so much to answer any of the big questions around such a time as it tries to memorialize the person my grandpa was, even in those times.

If you’d like to read it, click the link here–>Old Man by Nick Hayden

A Happy Story of Death

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The Saturday after Thanksgiving we made the six-hour trip from Peoria, IL, back home. By the last hour, all the kids (and the adults) were tired and bored and ready to be done. I put on the Muppets Most Wanted soundtrack and we bounced to the ridiculous songs. (The “Interrogation Song” is simply wonderful.) I was caught up, as I often am at unsuspecting moments when lively music is playing, in an almost aching sense of joy and expectation.

And it hurt, because while I felt a sort of inexpressible life, I knew it would pass, that it would drift away, and that I could not hold onto it. Next time I listened to those songs, it would not feel quite the same. The joy was destined to be short-lived. It was, by its very nature, transitory–and that is partly why it ached.

And, yet, I think this ache might be one of the truest marks of real joy. In a broken world, among fallen men, what else could real joy be but the merest glimpse of what we were destined for–and still are, if we will accept Jesus at his word.

When one of my friends read my new short story collection, Behind the Curtain, he joked that I should call it “Happy Stories of Death.” In many ways, that’s a valid summary. The stories circle around the search for something beyond–like that glimmer of joy with which, if you could just capture it and hold onto it, you would be happy to live forever. But these stories are filled with death and madness and deceivers, because the glimpse comes amid pain and confusion and the source of it cannot be found, really, in this life.

I’ve told my wife that sometimes I think I only really have one story to tell, and that I just keep attempting variations of it. That story is faith, man’s struggle to believe, the journey to fill the hole within, the quest to find God. Take Obed, from The Unremarkable Squire, who finds he serves one he doesn’t quite know yet; or Strin, from The Remnant of Dreams, trying to save all his people by his own efforts because he cannot believe in God; or Fitzwilliam Fitzwallace, from The Isle of Gold, who desires not only a drink of water, but to taste the experience of everything within the Sea; or Calea, from The Well’s Orphan, who is afraid to die, but doesn’t know why she lives. Everyone is looking for something, in fiction…and in life.

I started writing this blog only wishing to somehow collect my thoughts from my Thanksgiving trip home. But now that I’ve come this far I find myself thinking on Christmas. The answer to all my stories, to all the searching, is found ultimately in the stable, in the child who is somehow God, in the immortal man willing to suffer and die, in God seeking us out first.

That is where my stories are wrong. It’s good drama to have your hero search and overcome. But we aren’t the heroes. We’re the rebels. We aren’t looking for him; but he has found us. And He has offered us Himself.

Someday we will have Him completely. We will know as we are known. But for now, in this still-waiting world, we have glimpses. A moment of glorious happiness, tinged by sorrow, upon a road trip is one of them. Because everything will disappoint until we are with Him; and then we will dwell in the fullness of joy forever.