The Faces of Strangers by Liz Howard

She lifted up the card from the plastic case and saw “think of a reason to keep smiling” in glossy gold print with a bouquet of multicolored, unidentifiable flowers sketched beneath it. She thought she had only rolled her eyes, but it was clear that she had audibly huffed when the woman behind her stopped to peer at the card and when, as she whipped her head around, the woman pushed her cart along quickly, past the produce, away from her.

She gripped the card trying to sort out why she was so angry. She reasoned at first that she wasn’t genuinely irritated, just scoffing at something cheesy in a way that was small, calm, composed. But she felt the outrage swelling, and she knew it was more than that. She looked down at the dainty shimmering letters, and she wanted to crumple the card in her hands. She took a deep breath in a way that would make her therapist proud and when she opened her eyes, the feeling struck her in a dull, disappointing way—the feeling wasn’t small and composed, and it wasn’t really anger either. It was ostracization, a sense of distance between her and all these people around her, an incredulity at the thought that this simple saying could be deep or meaningful to anyone. Shards of memory began slicing their way through as she realized she’d felt this way once, before she’d lost her son. In a burst of energy, she shoved through the mass of cheerful Sunday shoppers and plopped the card down on the conveyer belt.

She generally made a habit of avoiding eye contact in grocery store checkout lines because she knew it encouraged conversation, and this kind of small talk was one of the worst for her anxiety, but she also knew that at this particular grocery store it was unavoidable. She smiled vaguely at the cashier who practically chirped in response and whose greeting wave was so enthusiastic that all of the little pins on their vest began shaking.

“Oh look at how cute this card is!” The cashier lifted the card off the belt and slid it across the scanner. When that was met with only a silent nod, they pushed: “I’ll bet this is for someone really special?”

She knew it had been inflected as a question, so she managed a soft “Oh. Yes.”

“That is so sweet—” and then the cashier was telling some elaborate story about a Valentine’s Day date, and as she slid her debit card into the chip reader and smiled politely along with the story, her mind went blank trying to remember her last Valentine’s Day, a Valentine’s Day, any Valentine’s Day in the last few years, and she knew she couldn’t remember because no matter which Valentine’s Day her brain landed on, the memory would be the same: she’d been alone.

In the car, she balanced the card carefully on her lap before she pulled out of the parking lot. She had declined a bag when the cashier offered her one because she didn’t want to pay the bag fee—she was embarrassed enough already having spent a few dollars on the card considering every time she looked at it she felt a bit sick and, worse, despite what she’d said to the chipper cashier, she didn’t have a “someone special” to give the card to. She supposed she could send it to her sister, maybe draw something like a smile with some of its teeth knocked out, but in her haste to purchase the card, she’d forgotten to grab the matching envelope. And anyway, even that felt like a pretty pathetic plan.

As she climbed the stairs, her apartment was silent, the same way it was always silent when she got home. There was a slight electrical hum she could pick up on when she really focused, but there was nothing else—no laughter, no greeting, no feet shuffling across the wood floors toward her. When she reached the top, she looked up to see a framed picture of her son. She stayed still for a few minutes, just absorbing the details: this picture was several years old, so his hair was thin and wispy and his teeth were small and round and she could spot where drool was just beginning to collect in the corners of his smile. She knew that anyone else would probably miss these tiny details, not knowing that as a baby he always drooled a bit this way, not noting the way his teeth had almost magically transformed from circular little nubs to fully formed incisors, canines, molars.

Suddenly, all in a rush, she grabbed the photo down off the wall and, still grasping the card firmly in her hand, she began moving into the living room, pulling down each of the framed photos as she went. She continued this way through every room of her home: the kitchen, the bedroom, her son’s old room, collecting every picture she’d framed and hung over the years into her arms until she was scared she would collapse and smash them all. She returned to her bedroom and set them all, a massive pile, down on the floor. Carefully, she placed the card down next to them and then slowly, methodically, she began to arrange the photos around it.

When she was done, she stared hard at the strange collage in front of her. Folding the cover of the card back, she found the blank page inside. After another quick survey of the photos around her, she uncapped a nearby pen and began writing:

I am forever, perpetually smiling. And yet, see my teeth? Forced. Here in these   photographs, these faces, these selves. I don’t recognize these photographs. The faces of strangers.

And with that she grabbed the card, jammed it into the drawer of her nightstand, and began returning each of the photographs to their proper spots along the walls.


author photo

Liz Howard is a queer single mom living in Philadelphia with her troublesome three-year-old & very loud beagle. She has work in: Split Lip Magazine, FIVE:2:ONE, bedfellows magazine, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @Mother_Faulkner.

Mouthfuls of Bombogenesis by D. Arthur

“Do you think you’ll ever love me?”

“Maybe when it snows in Florida.”

I asked, and Jared answered, on the metal bench of the hockey locker room where it smelled like weed. Or at least, I thought it smelled like weed, but he always quickly pointed out that I didn’t really know what weed smells like. I just knew the dark air smelled sharp, bitter, and like something that would get me grounded for at least a week, something threatening that reminded me that a 13 year old girl  shouldn’t spend so much time with a 16 year old boy.

Back then I thought love was transferred through fluids. I thought when you kissed you physically spit your love deep down into them, watering something inside, making it grow. When I kissed Jared, I imagined my spit taking a journey down through his pink throat.

Thirteen years later, I sit at a bar in Brooklyn, tight jeans tucked into snow boots, parka kept on over low-cut tank top. I look “winter hot.” The room is only lit by a few dangly edison bulbs and the glow from my phone as I scroll and I scroll. The Cyclone Bomb, winter weather system, is set to arrive. The president threatens war on twitter. It’s so cold I wonder if nuclear winter has already arrived, if I overslept through the impact and awoke to the cold seeping into my mortal bones.

Tweets blend together— cyclone bomb, bombogenesis, nuclear bomb. One, however, catches my eye. There are snow flurries in Florida’s panhandle.

The whole city smells like a hockey rink, cold and rank, tinged with ketchup, each corner a mobile concession stand.

I feel thirteen again.

Jared is easy to find on instagram. Like me, his high school rebellions have been sanded out over time: his dyed black hair now a soft—thinning— brown, black band t-shirts replaced by black tailored suits. I can almost see the twin mattress on the floor of his parents’ basement going through the natural evolution to become a Casper on an Ikea frame in a Murray Hill loft.

I slide into his direct messages. I like how it’s called sliding. It feels both slick and childish, a hose blasting over a tarp, the cool yellow plastic of playskool beneath my short shorts, large hands guiding me down a fire pole during a class trip.

“It’s snowing in Florida. Wanna grab a drink?”

“Too cold for bars. Come to mine?”

“Sure it is. *smirk emoji* Send me the address.”

I take the 4 from Crown Heights to Midtown. It’s near midnight and below zero. I have my pick of seats in the empty car. The blue plastic feels frozen solid. The chill seeps past my denim jeans, wool tights, and cotton panties. My cheeks feel as if they could stick like ice to the bench.

I spend the forty minute ride rehearsing scenes in my head. I don’t normally do this sort of thing, Jared. I don’t normally go home with guys without making them buy me a drink first. I don’t normally reach out like this. It’s so crazy, I’m so crazy, blame it on the weather. I mentally turn each line over until it comes alive, comes true. I convince myself I don’t normally do these things, forgetting that I actually do.

It feels good to press my spit-covered love into open and wanting mouths, willing bodies, salty skin. I imagine eventually finding a mouth that fits.

“You’re actually here.” His voice through the intercom makes it sound like he is miles away, back home under the bleachers, sixteen years old. For a moment it’s as if his voice traveled time, and his body is still there waiting to go to second base, back-down on a surface still slick with chilled sweat.

“Yes, and it’s fucking freezing. Buzz me up.”

He grabs beer, asks his smart speaker to put on Frank Ocean.

“This beer is called bombogenesis, how funny is that?”

I laugh but don’t mean it, swish the beer through my teeth, feel the storm in my mouth.

He doesn’t remember the Florida remark, but is happy I reached out. He does remember where to touch me on the small of my back. I wonder if he found a primal erogenous part of me when we were just kids, or if that spot turns me on because it was the first spot that was touched.

He takes me to bed, and part of me misses the cold metal of the locker room bench, the rumble of the Zamboni in the distance.

He falls asleep quickly after— his body smooth and solid, as if he is a statue I brought to life just long enough to screw before he had to return to his stoney form.

I grab my parka and a blanket, wrapping both around my still-naked body. I climb onto his small ice-covered balcony to smoke a cigarette. I think of all the times I have thought about Jared over the years, how quickly I remembered our deal the second that snow started to fall in the south. Then I think about Chris, Steven, Malik, Robby, Jason, another Chris, men, men, more men. I think of how often I think about them. I wonder how much time I spend thinking about men who never think of me at all.

Each drag in— he loves me. Each drag out— he loves me not.

He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not.

Eventually I realize that the cold makes it impossible to tell where the exhaled smoke ends, and my visible breath begins. The frigid air fills with soft white clouds from my mouth.

He loves me not. He loves me not. He loves me not.


D Arthur
D. Arthur is a Brooklyn based fiction writer and humorist. Her humor writing can be found on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Belladonna, and Robot Butt. You can find more of her work on her website, but she’s most fun on twitter: @babydmarie.


Small Mercies by Karen Jones

When you play Monopoly with your brothers, let them win, she says. Boys don’t like to lose, especially not to girls. She’s patting her face with a powder pad, as though her features will fall off if they’re not pressed in place. When she’s out at a dance, I sneak into her room and play at being her, being beautiful, being good with make-up. When a boy asks you out, always say yes. It doesn’t matter if he’s not the best looking, the cleverest, the funniest – it takes a lot of courage for a boy to ask a girl out, so be grateful and always, always say yes to boys. I take her lipstick and pout as I smear the scarlet grease over my too-thin lips on my too-fat face with its barely-there eyes. I can never look like her, but I can do as I’m told.  And so, I did. I said yes to boys. All the boys. The ugly boys, the short boys, the boys who smell like sewers and the boys with urgency mapped out in spots on their red faces. When your brothers get up in the morning, draw their curtains, make their beds – be useful. The liquid eyeliner almost makes me have eyes. Not eyes like hers – not violet, not startling, but at least existing. My mother made me easy – a thing she never was to me. I’m sure it wasn’t her intention, but I was nothing if not obedient, so I said yes over and over again. Until I finally got it, finally realised what I’d become. I used her cold cream to erase the face I’d painted. Then I said no. I said no over and over again. But the boys told me they’d heard about me and no really meant yes, and did what they wanted anyway. That hurt more, so I went back to being the girl my mother made me – the yes-girl, the old-before-her-years girl, the never-as-pretty-as-her-mother-so-beggars-can’t-be-choosers girl. Now she complains that I never gave her grandchildren. Oh, but I did, Mother Dear. So many half-formed girls that neither of us got to hold or mould.  Small mercies, Mother. Be grateful.



Karen Jones

Karen Jones is from Glasgow. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and e-zines and have been included in print anthologies including Discovering a Comet and more micro fiction, The Wonderful World of Worders, An Earthless Melting Pot, City Smells, 10 Red, HISSAC 10th Anniversary, Bath Short Story Anthology, Ellipses: One, Bath Flash Fiction Volume Two and Flash Fiction Festival One. She’s been successful in short story and flash competitions including Mslexia, Flash 500, Writers Bureau, The New Writer, HISSAC and Words with Jam. Her story collection, The Upside-Down Jesus and other stories, is available from Amazon.


The House Lamps by David Drury

When the house lamps got to talking, they talked about the sun. They whispered so no one would hear. What have you have seen? What have you heard? What does it mean? They marked the rising and setting of the sun. They kept a record of shadows—of figures passing windows, tree limbs crooking along tabletops, branches and ladders and lampposts falling slowly across their brass laps. The house lamps with their screwed in bulbs, had never cast shadows like these. What light is this? Who can contain it? Who would dare try? What manner of light brandishes even darkness, sharpening the edges of shade, gashing boundless space at will?

News and observations were dispatched regularly. Like sentries, the lamps in the living room sent word to the front hall. Tell the lamps in the master bedroom what we have seen from these, the largest windows. Announce it to the second bedroom, proclaim it in the guest bedroom, read it aloud in the study, discuss it in the den, lay it out in the laundry room. News of even fluctuations in brightness caused by clouds eclipsing the sun broke through the house like prophecy. Each message was relayed down the line until it reached the last and least of the lights, a chipped ceramic table lamp on a workbench down in the cold, dark basement.

The lamps contemplated the mysteries of the sun in the form of fabulous tales. In some of the tales, the sun ruled over the world of lamps with intimidation. In some of the tales, the sun bestowed the warmth of a great glory. In some tales the sun burned with a desire to destroy. In some tales, the lamps were being readied to one day inherit the throne room of the sky.

As time went by, the lamps grew accustomed to sunshine and their regard for mystery slowly fell away. They grew even to loathe the sun as a bore and an intrusion and a showoff. Their story-making continued, but only as an inside joke, a cruel game aimed at the one lamp who was naïve enough to still believe the stories—that chipped ceramic table lamp down in the basement. They told all manner of fictions about the Great Light—as if it was a person, as if it was coming to one day permanently erase all shadows, as if it was on the lookout for chipped basement lamps drowning in darkness, so that it might usher them into the throne room of the sky. The house lamps all laughed behind the back of the chipped lamp.

One day the homeowners moved out. The carpets were rolled up and hauled off. The furniture was sold. The floors and walls were stripped. Only the lamps were left behind. But even so, the electricity in the house was disconnected. Finally, on the sunniest day of summer, a crane with a wrecking ball moved into position in the yard. It all was going to be knocked down to make room for condos. This was the end. The lamps were so beside themselves with despair, they had not passed any of this news to the basement.

The chipped lamp in the basement had sat in an all-consuming darkness of many days wondering what was happening, having heard only sobs from upstairs,. Even the little night light above the workbench had gone out. Don’t worry, little night light, the lamp said. I have it on good authority that there is a great light called daylight, a gift from the brightest of all lights the sun, which shines like ten thousand lamps. We will see the great light someday, you and I both. The great light will peel away the ceiling and take down the walls and light like we have never known, it will come flooding in. And where there is no ceiling, my friend there is nothing to separate us from the throne room of the sky.



David Drury lives in Seattle, Washington. His fiction has been published in Best American Nonrequired Reading, broadcast on National Public Radio, and is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review and Zyzzyva. He has been kicked out of every casino in Las Vegas.