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  Jill Smolinski

The Next Thing On My List

Chapter 1

Next on the list: Kiss a stranger.

“How about him?”  Susan pointed to a guy so rakishly handsome, it was odd to see him in a downtown Los Angeles bar wearing a shirt and tie instead of modeling underwear in front of a camera, where he clearly belonged.

“Let’s be realistic.”

“Why? It’s just a kiss.”

Easy for her to say-she wasn’t the one doing the kissing.

It was Thursday after work, and the Brass Monkey was hopping. Susan and I had already been at the bar for an hour, casing the joint and sipping two-dollar margaritas that were, sadly, much too weak to help me muster my courage.

“What do you think-on the lips?” I asked.

“Definitely, but tongue is up to you.”

After much debate, I settled on three guys at a cocktail table across the bar. Mid- to late thirties and dressed in casual business attire, they seemed harmless, which was their primary appeal. Here goes. I hoisted myself bravely from my chair as if I were about to march forth into battle. My plan was to go up to their table, explain my predicament, and hope one of them would take pity on me and volunteer for the job.

In the event that that didn’t work-well, I didn’t want to think about what would happen if it didn’t work. I suppose it would involve skulking away in humiliation.

I swigged down the last of my drink, took a breath, and strode to the table. The three guys looked at me with open curiosity. A woman approaching who wasn’t a waitress was an interesting sight indeed. Plus I’d sort of slutted up for the occasion. I wore a snug suit over a camisole, and I’d gone to town with the eyeliner. My hair was doing its usual insane tumble of waves and curls to my shoulders.

“Hi! I’m June!” I said perkily.

After a moment, perhaps debating if I was going to try to sell them something, one of them said, “I’m Frank, and this is Ted, and Alfonso.”

“Nice to meet you!” And then I plunged in. “I came over here because I was wondering if you could help me? I have this list of things I need to do.” I held up the list, Exhibit A, which was handwritten on a sheet of ordinary notebook paper. “One of the things on it is that I need to kiss a stranger. So I was wondering-“

“You want to kiss one of us?” Alfonso asked eagerly.

Frank chimed in, “What-you on a scavenger hunt?”

“Not exactly,” I answered.

“So would this kiss be on the mouth?”

“Yes.”

“Tongue?”

“Optional.”

Three sets of eyes gave me a once-over, but-bonus points for them-they tried to make it appear as if they weren’t.

“Aw, Christ,” Alfonso said with what appeared to be genuine regret, “we’re all married.”

“I’m not that married,” Ted added. “I mean, if it’ll help the girl out.”

“That’s okay,” I said, starting to back away. Why hadn’t I thought to check for rings?

“No, we want to help you. None of us can do it, but we got a buddy here from work who might be able to. Hey, Marco!” Frank shouted across the bar, and who should turn around but the underwear model. Terrific. “There’s a girl here needs a hand!”

Marco trotted over. Well, he seemed eager enough. Trying not to blush-and knowing Susan was probably bursting a spleen laughing-I repeated my story. Before I could finish, he snatched the paper from my hand and started reading it aloud.

“Let’s see what this list is about,” he boomed. “Twenty Things to Do by My Twenty-fifth Birthday.”  Then he paused to look at me and smirk. “Twenty-fifth birthday?”

Oh, real nice!

I’ll have him know that I may be thirty-four, but in certain lighting I still get carded.

“Give me that.” I made a grab for the list.

He blocked me with his shoulder and kept reading. “Let’s see what it says, shall we? Ah, yes, here it is: Kiss a stranger.“

Afraid the list might get ripped if I grabbed for it again, I stood still, arms crossed, fuming.

Ted attempted to defend me. “Dude, don’t be an a-hole.”

“Run a 5K& . Get on TV.& Oh, wait, here’s the best one: Lose one hundred pounds. Used to be a fatty, huh? Well, you’re looking mighty fine now, sweetheart, so I can see why that one’s got a line through it.”

“Look,” I snapped, “it’s not even my list.”

“Yeah, right.”

“It’s not. But it so happens I need to do the things on it.”

Alfonso asked innocently enough, “Why’s that?”

I sighed. “Long story. Please”  I held my hand out. “Give it back.”

IT WAS TRUE. The list wasn’t mine.

It belonged to Marissa Jones.

Even though there was no signature on it, I’m certain it’s hers. I know because I discovered it myself in the days after I killed her. I’d been washing the blood off her purse so I could return it to her parents, and there it was. Folded and tucked inside her wallet.

Of course, I gave everything of hers back-even a pair of sunglasses found near the scene that I thought might possibly be mine.

But I kept the list. Didn’t say a word about it to them. After all, how heartbreaking would it be to see your twenty-four-year-old daughter’s list of dreams that would never be fulfilled?

Out of twenty items, she’d completed only two: Lose 100 pounds and Wear sexy shoes. The first one was already crossed off. The second I had to mark off for her myself-and seeing it written there sure explained those silver stilettos she was wearing when she died.

Naturally, everyone insisted that it wasn’t my fault.

They nearly fell over one another at the funeral offering assurances and hugs-which I accepted as part of my penance. My body was one big bruise. Even the gentlest touch was agony.

And here’s the worst part: She’d been thin less than a month. One lousy month. After a lifetime of knowing nothing but being fat.

As if to rub it in, staring at me from the front of the church had been a blown-up photo of Marissa standing in a pair of size twenty-eight pants-her body fitting in one leg while she held the waist out to its side. The smile on her face clearly said, Okay, world, here I come!

Well.

The whole time the minister was at the podium, I barely heard a thing he said. Instead, I devoted my thoughts to concocting the lie I would tell Marissa’s family about her final words. They were going to want to know, after all. And there was no way I was going to tell them the truth: that she’d been giving me a recipe for taco soup.

Turned out I didn’t need to worry. My entire interaction with them was limited to a handshake and an “I’m so sorry for your loss.” I skipped the wake, feeling that my presence there-with my bruised

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