Clementine had never been kissed. Not behind the bleachers, not in the back row of the Megaplex. Then a Miss H. Catie Wyvern held a press conference and announced that she’d be holding a weekly drawing with the winner receiving one wish granted. Whatever they wanted, she promised. No one believed her, of course. She laid down the requirements: to earn a ticket, all one had to do was initiate a kiss with someone they had never kissed before. It had to be a real kiss, she warned, not a peck on the cheek. You had to feel it.
Two reporters in the front row of the press conference, long time coworkers, each married, turned to the other with eyebrow raised and then one leaned over and kissed the other, a kiss lasting approximately five seconds. As soon as their lips reluctantly parted, a soft tcha from the ceiling and down floated a tiny bright green ticket that shimmered like lizard skin, with the name of the kisser written in very fine blackish red ink. The ticket was damp, slightly sticky and more than a little warm to the touch. The paper — no, it wasn’t paper exactly, but something like paper — felt impossibly thin between one’s fingers, slick, slippery, urgent and lusty.
“The ticket belongs to the kisser, not the kissed! The drawing is every Tuesday at 3:17 pm!” And with that, she stepped off the dais and disappeared into the crowd. No one knew what to make of it. Wyvern had no credentials, no LinkedIn presence, no driver’s license. People checked. And yet, no one could deny the reality of tickets appearing, snick, in the cool clean air right above their heads.
The first week everyone was using the drawing as an excuse to kiss pretty strangers or allow them to kiss you. Usually the better of the pair got to initiate, received their name emblazoned on the tiny emerald ticket, small as a breath mint. Clementine walked down the street, startled by every passerby. It would be just her luck, her great misfortune even, to have her first kiss be instigated by such a silly superstitious gimmick! Kissing for prizes! A kiss in exchange for a little green folly.
Why was she being so particular? It was just a kiss. Just a kiss, she thought again, as though such a thing couldn’t wake a sleeping princess or befoul an enchantment. The happy ending to every story was punctuated with a first kiss. Her ending, still yet to make itself known, an enchantment that still wanted breaking.
As it turned out, Clementine evaded being kissed that first day. In fact, she managed to make it the entire week by simply pretending not to hear customers at the coffee shop when, after ordering their coffee, frequently tacked on “and a kiss” to their order.
On that first Tuesday, at precisely 3:17 pm, there was another news conference where Wyvern announced the name of that week’s winner, whose true heart’s desire was to win a heptamillion dollars. Wyvern rolled her eyes as she announced the wish, with the wisher’s identity protected, but then the next day, a new quadrabillionaire was in the headlines, buying up real estate around Central Park, landing his private jet on Strawberry Fields, when just the previous week he had been rumored to declare bankruptcy. Was it him? Was this the winner of the contest? He refused to comment, which seemed to be confirmation just the same.
That’s when the kissing gained fervor.
The next week, Clementine’s kiss virginity was most certainly endangered. Before and after her shifts, she developed a knack for turning sideways whenever an eager pair of eyes scanned the crowd in the subway platform, pretending to look deeply interested in a text message. Tickets appeared and fell to the ground on all sides, virescent confetti. Would-be kissers hardly waited for permission, although strict rumors went out that authorities would charge unwanted kiss perpetrators with sexual assault, tickets or no.
Was there a way she could manage the situation without involving another person? In her little studio apartment next to the highway on-ramp, first she tried kissing her cat Lady Macbeth on the mouth, but no ticket appeared. She rubbed tuna water on her mouth until Lady Macbeth licked her lips — no sizzle, no slick little green ticket kissed into being. She kissed the television screen when her favorite celebrity judged a food competition, the camera close to her mouth, savoring a particularly unctuous morsel. No entry ticket. This was not a real kiss, Clementine knew it in her heart, and now the rules of the lottery confirmed it.
That week, Clementine opted to work the drive through at the coffee shop, where she was less likely to be smooched unexpectedly. Although she had offers, certainly. “I have a cold sore,” she would murmur. “Leprosy,” she said once. “Syphilis,” she whispered gravely another time. But then she got a stern talking-to from her manager, a stiff woman with the unlikely name of Mitzy, who then offered to let Clementine kiss her in front of the staff. “While that is a generous offer, Mitzy, I would rather not,” Clementine demurred.
Clementine didn’t even fully know why she didn’t want to participate in the kissing lottery. It was just a kiss! She was getting too old to be this restrictive. Certainly now, when she could possibly win something, a nice house, perhaps, a trip around the world, even erasure of her student loans. Magical deals always started with wanting and always favored the dealmaker. There was no good to come of it. Besides, there were too many people playing this game, the odds were impossible. And this Wyvern woman on the television gave Clementine the shudders. Something uncanny about her face — it was too smooth — something off-putting about her fingers, the long way she reached for the winning ticket, plucking at it the way a mosquito inserts its stylets into the skin to draw blood.
The next winner was selected; a Gulf war veteran with two puckered thighs remaining from his dance across live munitions lurking in the sand. His heart’s desire grew back right there on live television, first five tiny nubs on either stump, then toenails followed by a heel, the flesh stretching and lengthening. Viewer discretion was advised and the cameras cut away to the interviewer, an aging but still pretty news anchor who took that opportunity to kiss the makeup man, a jade paper fluttering down with her name scrawled on the back in shiny letters, still wet, still feverish to the touch.
Clementine lay low the following week, wearing a doctor’s mask over her mouth. New pairings were scarce — it didn’t work if you kissed someone you had kissed before, even if you couldn’t remember kissing them. Players carried notebooks. Some played rock-paper-scissors with strangers for quick scrapes of lips that lasted long enough for the familiar sizzle of the ticket above their heads. Others didn’t bother with negotiating who would be the first kisser, content in even odds that the ticket would have their name on it. At least two men and three women grabbed Clementine for a fast buss but her medical mask prevented each violation. She often realized she had been sitting with her lips folded inward into her mouth for protection, even when she was wearing the mask, even when she was alone in her little studio. Just in case. Just in case.
It seemed like not a big deal, this kiss. And yet it was an invocation, an invitation, a sea change. Clementine resided in sameness, the same bare walls she swore she would decorate eight years ago, a single mug on the mug hooks — it was a replacement for an identical mug she had broken three years prior — the same route to work every day, the same lunch, watching the same British costume dramas hundreds of times. But also, a stack of expired library books needing to be returned, perhaps for want of another’s voice saying, “Don’t forget your library books honey.” Her same studio never contained another’s voice. If only Lady Macbeth knew how to form sentences. Maybe that would be her heart’s desire, if she had a ticket, if she were the winning player. A talking cat! Now that would be something to make her smile, a bit of lightheartedness with a side of earnest companionship. But then what if Lady Macbeth started challenging her, broaching subjects Clementine didn’t want to pursue? Lady Macbeth was an excellent listener precisely because she never responded. Clementine told Lady Macbeth all of her most intricate shames. A talking cat — that’s enough now.
That Tuesday, a young girl, not more than seven years old, won the drawing, allegedly from kissing a classmate on the playground, the tickets a bit of excitement during recess, although one outlet would later report a more sordid story. Wyvern announced that the heart’s desire has been granted, resulting in the child’s emancipation from her birth family and subsequent adoption by a former First Lady. Additionally, the adults in the child’s family of origin were now being charged with child endangerment and severe abuse. The heart’s desire, Wyvern mentioned, was often unspoken, but she added, “My boss considers the entirety of the winner’s predicament.” This was a surprise to everyone, as they had not considered that the wish would be unspoken or that the lottery could be used for such lifestyle changes. It had not even occurred to anyone that Wyvern might answer to a higher authority.
“Miss Wyvern! Miss Wyvern! What is the chemical makeup of the tickets?”
“Mrs. Wyvern! How does the lottery winner’s wish become communicated?”
“Catie! Would you consider running for president?”
“Catie! Who is paying for all of this?”
As ever, she refused to answer any questions, just stepped out of the lottery showroom, with its swimming-pool-sized glass tanks of tickets glittering like dragon scales. In unison, the reporters nodded and sat down. After an hour, they began chanting “Hell no, we won’t go!” In response, the giant tanks of tickets began to smolder with dark green smoke that smelled like a mix of rotting cabbages and dead mice. It cleared the room almost instantly and none of the reporters or camera crew was interested in returning.
The magical sulfur trick was all anyone was talking about at the coffee shop that evening but Clementine was focused on the little girl and her unspoken wish of vengeance. Clementine thought back years, before her studio apartment, before her coffee shop life. Back to the day she met her own nemesis, the one whom she never allowed herself to think about. He had seemed so kind at first, had made it feel as if she was in control and that he was under her spell, until it was too late and she realized that it was she who had been tricked. When it was clear how things were going to go that fateful day, before she sank down into herself, to protect her Clementine-ness from his fists, her last thought was that he would be her first kiss, her first everything.
It turned out he never kissed her, probably unwilling to risk more transfer of DNA. The police said she had been lucky not to lose her eye, lucky that she wasn’t pregnant or worse, lucky that she played dead. That’s the way they put it, lucky, and then asked what she had been wearing, what she had been drinking, what was his name. A sweater (torn and bloody). An apple juice (in a box with a straw, an important detail for a trial that never happened, for a defendant that the detectives had never managed to detect). Marcus Snogglestein (when he told her his name she had laughed, and he had returned a smirk that should have been her first warning).
For the first time, Clementine saw something she wanted. Something she could obtain now that she could not before. Vengeance. She never knew his real name, and the detectives hadn’t been able to find him. Not enough evidence, they said. Wyvern would find him. Wyvern could draw a Clementine ticket and fulfill Clementine’s heart’s desire. Clementine’s nemesis would know what it was like to escape inside his mind, to try to play dead, to wish that he were actually dead. Most of all, he would know and feel Clementine for the rest of his days. Wyvern would see the necessity of this wish because Clementine was lucky.
Clementine’s first real kiss for a first bit of hope. A tiny green slip of paper with her name written on it in ink that was theorized to be blood. Clementine. Clementine. She would kiss and kiss and kiss until those kisses set her free. She put on her coat, took off her medical mask and went outside.
about the author