Kissing Test

Terry Groves

At recess, the Smoking Club met behind the janitor’s shed. Derrick passed me the cigarette. “Man, I need this.” I tried to hold my jaw and mouth in my best tough guy pose. I coughed one chuff as the hot smoke burned my throat and tongue. 

“That test was murder.” I watched the breeze swirl the smoke and wondered what our parents would say if they caught us.

“Wasn’t so hard.” Derrick took back the butt, holding it for a moment down by his waist, palm up, cigarette pinched between his thumb and middle finger, the bird finger. It was his cool move, the one that said, I’m casual about this. Like he needed a cool move to be noticed. Two inches taller than me, his shoulders broad, the way the veins in his forearms stood out; everyone saw Derrick.

It’s important to be casual when you smoke, especially when you’re eleven, otherwise you look like a newbie, a nerd, a geek, and that’s fatal on a schoolyard. No matter what you do, be aware of the image you project, or you’ll get cut out of the important stuff.

 “I don’t get it. I study, I do extra work, I really try, but I just can’t beat you in English.”

“Don’t sweat it, Chris,” Derrick said. “Mine’s a natural talent. There’s no getting past that.”

He sucked a final drag, his lips pooched out and his cheeks drawn in, then crushed the butt under his foot.

“I gotta do better.” I looked up from the mangled smoke.

 “What’s going on there?” Derrick pointed to a crowd of kids. “Looks like a fight.” He slapped my shoulder, then started running. I followed.

The commotion wasn’t a fight, just someone talking loud, and there was no mistaking the speaker. Only one voice made my toes tingle. 

“I’m setting a challenge,” Mary-Ann said, her shoulder-length blond hair rippling around her face. Soft, brown eyes glowed from her smooth, perfect, delicate face. There was a flush to her skin, her tender lips edged a sweet smile. “If any boy beats me in the National Grammar Day test, I will give him a kiss… on the lips.”

My heart stopped. Derrick poked me with his elbow.

“This is my chance,” he whispered.

No one could beat Mary-Ann in grammar. Even Derrick’s natural talent didn’t have a hope. Hadn’t she looked right at me when she said, ‘on the lips?’ Get real! She hardly even spoke to me. Then the bell rang, dragging me back to reality. I walked away with lips, soft as billowy clouds, floating on the horizon of my mind.

“So, what do you think my chances are?” Derrick asked on the way home.

“For what?” I pretended ignorance.

“Of kissing Mary-Ann.” He stuck his tongue out, smile wide, mouth open.

“She doesn’t even like you.”

“So? Like has nothing to do with it. If I beat her, I kiss her.”

“You have as good a chance as anybody.”

“Better! I’m going to study this time.”

I had plans to study, too. I had even asked for extra homework. That had raised the teacher’s eyebrow.

The next day, Derrick greeted me with a hip check. “How’s it going? Can you believe that hockey game last night?”

“Weren’t you studying?”

“I did, but only a moron would miss the game.”

“I missed it.”

“You? Mr. Hockey Night in Canada?”


“Homework? We didn’t have homework.” Derrick paused a moment, his upper lip pinched between his thumb and index finger. “Wait, you weren’t doing homework. You were studying. You want that kiss.” He turned to look at me, a smile on his face. “You got the hots for Mary-Ann?”

“On the lips Derrick, on the lips. Who wouldn’t give up a hockey game for a chance to kiss her on the lips? What’s it to you, anyway.”

“Hey man! I’m sorry.” He grabbed my arm. “I didn’t know. That’s all. Listen Bud, you should have told me. I would have helped you study.”

“Right! And you don’t want that kiss as bad as I do?”

“Yeah, maybe. But for me it’s principle. For you it’s love.”

* * *

Derrick got his test paper back and flashed me the 97% scrawled in the corner. He pouted his lower lip as though he was sad that I didn’t have his good mark.

The teacher patted Mary-Ann on the shoulder when she handed her paper to her. Had the Grammar Goddess not done so well? Knowing my luck, she probably did even better than usual. My spirit boiled and my stomach clenched. Was ‘The Kiss’ still within my grasp?

The Smoking Club met again. Mary-Ann hadn’t come out for recess. Over the cigarette, we discussed how she was probably arguing for more marks.

Then I heard my name. Derrick looked at me for a moment, his face calm, cool, displaying his ‘I am in control’ smile. He turned toward the sound as my name was called again. We came around the shed and saw another gathering. I saw Mary-Ann. 

“Chris, come here.” My name danced off her tongue, lived for a brief eternity on her lips, her kissing lips.

I raised my hand in a half wave and the crowd parted before me. A path opened between me and Mary-Ann and her lips. She walked toward me, slow, her hips moving, willow branches in a breeze. My legs wobbled as I walked through knee-deep syrup.

“You beat me, Chris.” Mary-Ann used those lips that I was about to kiss. “I got 98. You got 99.”

Mary-Ann was right in front of me. She leaned close and whispered something that made everything else disappear. “I was hoping you would be the one.” She took my hand. Hers was warm, soft. A tingle ran up my arm.

She knew who I was, had known all along. I closed my eyes and puckered for my prize.

She made a little sniff. I waited, but nothing happened. Where was my glorious prize? I squinted, my eyes open just enough to peek at her. She was frowning, her forehead wrinkled, the smile twisted from her face.

“You smell like cigarettes,” she said, pulling away from me. “Eww, there’s yellow on your fingers.” She dropped my hand, took a step back. “You’ve been smoking. I’d never kiss anyone who smoked.” She turned and walked away.

I felt numb, dumb. The Smoking Club had taken away Mary-Ann’s lips. My prize was lost. 

After recess, we filed into the classroom. The teacher stood by the door and, as I passed, she touched my shoulder and said, “Good work on the test.”

“Good work?” I said, scrubbing the back of my fingers against my pants. “I failed; but now I’m going to quit.” I could tell from her blank stare, how her mouth opened with nothing coming out, that she just didn’t understand.


Terry’s first novel, The Summer of Grumps, was published when COVID hit. His recent short fiction has appeared in It’s the Holidays, 1st Degree, and The Hollow anthologies, and The Scribe, Kaleidoscope, Bewildering Stories, and Triangle magazines and has been released this summer as an anthology titled, Down the Tiger’s Throat. He blogs frequently about his childhood, growing up in a military family with five brothers at