THE KISS OF DEATH • by Erin Appenzeller

I didn’t plan on wanting to be kissed.

It was simple. Twenty-four contestants wear MAK brand Belladonna’s Bliss, a bright red number that was perfectly safe on application, but lethal on the transfer. The contestants go on dates and complete challenges and die one by one until a winner is left. All alone, hands full of money with a slight increase in getting cast for another show. I’d survive by going unkissed, being unkissable, and by kissing everyone else first.

Stay aware, alert. Be charming enough to play — to get others to let their guard down, but aloof enough that they wouldn’t try to kiss me first. I had a plan, a good one.

But Deidra has this way about her. She was a study in gossamer, in the sounds stars made, in the smell of that artificial grass — the hot cocoa peppermint. I always forget the name — but listen, she wasn’t just gorgeous, she was light.

No, like, literally. She was made of light. I couldn’t stop looking at her. I had to go buy sunglasses after our first date. And by the stars, she could play the game. When we met she outstretched a hand as if to take mine — as if to press a gentle old school kiss to the back of my hand. And when I politely refused she smiled as if I had done something right. As if I were playing into her hand by refusing it. As if she’d get me anyway.

All the contestants were dancing when I took my first life of the game, leaning in to brush my lips against the scruffy cheek of my partner. He swayed, convulsed, and then died at my feet. And when I looked up, she was the only one to meet my eyes. And there it was again, that sly look, two generals with fingers poised over the big red button. Equals sitting down at the battlefield.

That night when we were sent back to the dorms. We stood in our doorways for an extra hour, saying goodnight every five minutes — not moving from the spot.

She told me about her family back at home. About the road trip she went on when she was twenty-one with the last of her money. About how the air between billboard cities seemed to deep clean her lungs. About how she broke into an abandoned building and climbed all the way up to the roof because she missed the stars.

I told her about you.

We never touched, not once, during the first half of the show. Not when she just barely survived another contestant, who had grabbed her hand and tugged her to their chest, leaning in to kiss her only for her to duck her head and kiss their neck — hard. More punch then kiss. And she’d stumbled away from the dropping body, almost falling over.

Not when I took out a seventh person and she found me hiding in the bathroom, a sobbing wreck. It didn’t get easier, not a single contestant. There was never any glee at being the victor. Most of the challenges had you learning more about the other competitors. Their lives, hopes, dreams, fears. The seventh person I kissed was a painter, was afraid of the dark, had once nursed a dead plant back to life only for an early winter to set in and freeze it. And I had helped them climb a rockwall, only to turn my head and kiss their shoulder.

Deidra and I didn’t touch, didn’t come within more than five feet. There’s none of the usual maneuvers between us. With everyone else, you go in close, you brush back locks of hair, you give necklaces to help put on. All she’s given me is looks, conversation, and a bottle of sunscreen. I can feel the heat of her body from half a room away, but it’s not enough. I want fire.

And I don’t want to kiss her, I don’t want to kill her. If I see her twitching and shuddering and dying on the floor, I’ll fall over with her. But I wouldn’t mind her kissing me. And that’s what I should have planned for. And that’s why I’m not coming home.

I’m too weak and she is too bright and I will gladly offer her my cheek.

Erin Appenzeller is a queer writer from New York. She has a BA in Literary Studies from the New School and a healthy appreciation of fire. Her work can be found on 12th Street Journal, and Coffin Bell.

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