Contest #19 winner 🏆

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It’s Man-Eater today — slick, metallic, with a scent like wet paint — and it’s twenty-five dollars and my brain is still trying to kill me.

The clerk looks at me like I’m a stray dog. A mixture of pity and disgust. She isn’t wearing a nametag, but she looks like she could be an Ashley or Rebecca.

My brain says, You’re useless.

The clerk says, “Do you need any help?”

I turn the lipstick over in my hands. The door bangs, making us both jump, and cold air blasts into the store. Ashley or Rebecca turns around and the new customer meets her at the register. Sweat prickles on the back of my neck, because now I’ve got a few more seconds with Man-Eater. A few more seconds to pretend I can buy it. I unscrew the lid again. Draw in that fruity, wet-paint scent. I dab a bit on my finger.

“Thanks for shopping with us,” Ashley or Rebecca says to the customer. The cash register clatters, there’s another rush of cold air, then the door closes. I set down the lipstick.

Ashley or Rebecca has materialized beside me again. “Do you need any help?” she says.

“Are there any coupons?” I ask. My mom always asks that, no matter the store. Ashley or Rebecca says no. I say, “Not on the website either?”

“No,” she says.

“Okay,” I say.

We look at each other.

“Well, thanks for your help,” I say. I take a quick picture of the lipstick, because Anna will definitely want to see this, and then I leave the store.

The parking lot glowers at me, everything frozen and gray and cracking. I fumble in my bag, feeling around for my car keys. My brain is loud, loud, loud.

 text Anna the picture. It’s called Man-Eater, I tell her.

Anna texts back before I start the car.

Iconic. We should start a makeup company that only uses lipstick names that are G A Y

I crack up a little at that, flopping into the driver’s seat.

My brain says, You’re pathetic.

The engine catches, the vents cough cold air.

My brain says, You’re disgusting.

I slide out of park, ease down on the pedal.

My brain says, You should kill yourself.

My favorite song floats off the radio.

***

It’s Black Honey tonight — searing, violet, smeared on her teeth. Anna picks me up at eight o’clock in her chipped red Subaru like she always does, and the night is fog-soaked like it always is, and she plays sleepy music and tells me to pick the place.

“I always pick the place,” I say.

“False,” says Anna. “I picked the place three times ago.”

“Was that the K-Mart night?”

“That was very much the K-Mart night.”

“An incredible choice,” I say.

Anna and I have a simple routine. She picks me up at eight o’clock, we pick a parking lot, and we kiss each other senseless.

Kill yourself, my brain says.

“That was three times ago, though,” I say. “It’s definitely your turn.”

“I hate you,” says Anna.

“Lies,” I say.

She hates you, my brain says.

Her Black Honey lips smile. “Fine,” she says. “No complaining, though.”

“Hey, I didn’t complain about K-Mart!” I say. “And it was K-Mart.

“K-Mart was romantic as shit,” says Anna.

And I laugh, but she’s not wrong. There was something about that parking lot — the warm red light leaking through the windows, the sound of shopping carts ripping around in the wind, the breathless risk of being seen.

Anna reaches over. She keeps one hand on the wheel, tapping, and keeps the other wound around my hand, cold, soft, tangled, our wrists digging into the consol. She says, “I know a pretty awesome place.”

As it turns out, that pretty awesome place is none other than the Baptist church.

I start laughing when she pulls up to it, when I see the dark towering cross and the wide ugly parking lot. 

“Are you serious?” I say.

“Hell yeah,” says Anna.

She parks towards the back, even though the whole parking lot is open. The church crouches behind us like a drooling monster. I just keep looking at the church, then looking at her, then looking back to the church, and laughing.

My brain says, You’re worthless.

“This is — amazing,” I say.

Anna grins like an idiot. “You know this bitch loves some irony.”

“If we weren’t going to hell before, we definitely are now.”

“Worth it.”

And we both look at each other, and we both know what we’re about to do, and we both just giggle. My eyes follow her Black Honey lips.

“I used to go here as a kid,” she says.

“Really?”

“Yeah, every Sunday.”

“Did they know you were–”

I didn’t even know at that point. It was a hell of a process.”

“Yeah,” I say.

My brain says, You’re worthless.

“Yeah,” I say again. “I get that.”

Her eyes, the color of aching copper. Her lips, drenched in Black Honey. The church, and the fog, and us.

My hand finds the back of her neck. She shivers, just a little.

My brain says, You are unlovable.

We kiss, and we kiss, and we kiss.

***

It’s no lipstick this morning, just dusty skin and glasses, forty-something and sitting with her arms folded. She asks me how my brain is doing.

“Okay, I guess,” I say.

Her lips pinch into a skeptical line.

My brain says, You’re pathetic.

“And the intrusives?” says Dr. Crothers.

“About the same,” I say.

“On a scale of 1-10?”

“Oh, you know,” I say, as a way of not answering.

“On a scale of 1-10?” she says again.

“Like a seven.”

“What thoughts have been bothering you?”

“The intrusive ones.”

“It’s safe to open up here, Olive.”

“No, it’s just — you know, they’re like, they’re embarrassing. And gross. And — private.”  

“Many people experience intrusive thoughts.”

My brain says, She’s lying.

My brain says, You’re disgusting.

My brain says, You should just kill yourself.

Dr. Crothers switches tactics.

“Regardless of whether you want to talk to me about your intrusives, I would suggest talking to someone you trust. Last session, we talked about your relationship with your parents, and where they stand in — all this,” she says. “Have you had the chance to talk with them?”

I nod, because it seems like less of a lie than saying yes.

“What about your girlfriend? Anna? Does she know about your OCD?”

I nod again. I can tell she doesn’t believe me, but at least she pretends to.

“All right,” she says, but it sounds like, “Suit yourself.”

***

At dinner, it’s Burt’s Bees Superfruit Lip Balm, pomegranate pink and just subtle enough, my mother’s favorite brand. It’s just the two of us for dinner tonight. Dad’s at a work conference and my little sister is still at cheer practice. We eat in relative quiet, picking through spaghetti the color of Man-Eater.

“How was the doctor today?” Mom finally asks.

“Oh, you know,” I say, as a way of not answering.

“That’s good,” says Mom.

We pick at our spaghetti.

My brain says, You’re such a disappointment.

“Did you have a good day at work?” I ask her.

Her face lights up.

“It was okay!” she says, in a way that makes it sound way better than okay. “Bob was a pill like usual, but Gwen said he’s really coming around to the back patio idea.”

My mom is a real estate agent, but she is also a superhero, because she cares too much, too often, about too many things, and it makes her really good at whatever she does. The only thing she’s average at is making conversation.

I say, “That’s awesome.”

She says, “It sure is.”

We pick at our spaghetti.

“Are you going out with Anna tonight?” she says.

“Yeah, I think so,” I say.

“How’s that going?” she says.

Anna and I have been together about eight months now, and every once in a while Mom does these weird check-ins. She never asks where we go in the evenings. She never insists to have Anna over for dinner. She just asks how it’s going.

“It’s good,” I say.

“That’s good,” she says.

We pick at our spaghetti.

“I found a cool lipstick at Sephora yesterday,” I say.

“You have a lot of lipstick these days, huh?”

“Yeah. I — yeah. But this one, it was called Man-Eater. It was bright red. I really wanted to get it.”

“So, did you?”

“No. It was too expensive.”

I wait, tense with hope, and watch her expression.

“Well,” she says, “You’d better get a job then, huh?”

I deflate. “Yeah.”

“What color was it again?”

“Red. Super, super red.”

“You’re a bit young for such dark makeup, don’t you think?”

I think sixteen is the perfect age for dark makeup, but I just pick at my spaghetti.

My brain says, you’re pathetic.

My mom says, “Hey, I love you. Don’t forget to wash the dishes.”

***

I decide on Bruised Plum — dry, heavy, smells like Kool-Aid. Anna and I go back to the church, and it’s foggy again, and we start to kiss but my brain won’t shut up and my stomach hurts and the church burns into the back of my neck and I pull back.

“You okay?” Anna asks me.

My brain says, You are worthless.

My brain says, Just give up.

My brain says, I fucking hate you.

I breathe, and I breathe, and I breathe.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m good. Just, you know. Slowing down for a second.”

Anna watches me. I imagine her eyes as two twin clocks, ticking down the seconds before she leaves me.

She reaches over, winds our fingers together. Her thumb draws half-moons across the inside of my wrist. Her three metal rings dig into my skin. She says, “Take all the time you need.” And her voice is so quiet, so honest, that I want to close my eyes.

I pull away from her and wipe my lips. The back of my hand comes back smeared, the color of a bruise. I stare down at that starry damaged color, how it smudges over the back of my fingerbones, and all at once I feel like I am going to cry.

I say, “Can you take me home?”

Anna says, “Of course I can.”

My brain says, No one will ever want you.

Anna says, “Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” I say. “No. I promise.”

She starts the car, pulls out of the parking spot. The wheels bump over a sewer grate. The church watches us leave. My brightness feels like it’s up way too high, everything oversaturated, black and red and Bruised Plum, and I’m terrified of Anna’s silence, how she hasn’t turned the radio on, how she doesn’t quite know how to look at me.

I say, “I’m okay. Seriously.”

My brain says, You are disgusting.

Anna says, “You know, you can talk to me about this stuff.”

“It’s the same old shit.”

“I don’t care how old it is.”

I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to her. How to make her leave me alone, or how to explain what’s going on. How to say my thoughts aren’t my thoughts, and my thoughts want me dead but I want me alive, and I am running out and overflowing and so, so scared.

I say, “I’m trying.”

She says, “I know.”

She drops me off and I stand on my front porch with the lights off. The back of my hand burns. I watch her headlights shiver and curl and disappear down the road. I wonder if she ever turned on the radio.

***

It’s Crocodile Tears tonight, a sleek green that resists a sense of sickness. I bought it weeks ago on an impulse, telling myself again and again that I would be brave enough to wear it. The faucet is running. I watch myself in the mirror, gaze caught on the crook of my eyelids, wondering if my face changes when I get a bad thought.

My brain says, You are entirely alone.

My eyelid doesn’t twitch.

I brush my teeth once, then twice, then one more time before switching to mouthwash.

My brain says, You are infected.

I take my birth control, then my Zoloft, 100 milligrams of it. The bottle is the color of tangerines. I fiddle with it, drizzle the pills in my palms and roll them between my fingers, soft and dark, a handful of seeds. I count each one and drop them back in the bottle.

My brain says, Even medication isn’t going to save you.

I screw the lid tight.

I don’t kiss Anna the next night, or the night after that. We just go to the parking lot and sit. The whole time, all I can think about is the shape of her mouth, but every time we touch I want to cry.

I go back to Sephora. I stand in the aisle looking at Man-Eater, wondering how it would taste against Anna’s lips, how it would look in my dented bathroom mirror. Twenty-five dollars. The clerk looks at me like I’m a stray dog again. I want to shove her, scream at her, force her not to look at me.

Anna wants to meet up today, at five in the afternoon, before it gets dark out. I know before I even see her that it’s over.

We drive to a coffee shop, but we stay in her car.

She says, “You’ve got to tell me what’s going on.”

My brain says, She is going to leave you.

I say, “Nothing is going on.”

She says, “Why are you lying to me?”

I say, “Why do you care so much? All we do is make out.”

She says that she loves me.

“Don’t fucking say that,” I say.

“I’m serious,” she says.

“Just say that you’re done,” I say. “Just say that you’re leaving.”

She looks at me like I’ve slapped her. My stomach is tight and crawling and the color of Crocodile Tears.

“Do you want me to?” she says.

I can’t speak.

“Do you want me to leave? Since all we do is make out?” she says, and my words don’t fit right in her mouth, they sound crooked, they sound out of tune, they sound like goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.  

“Do what you want,” I say.

Her eyes, anything but adrift. Her hands, clenched so tight that her fingers are white around the ring bands. Anna. My Anna. Eight o’clocks and fog-soaked parking lots and Black Honey.

She asks if I’m going to be okay.

“Oh, you know,” I say, but this time it’s an honest answer.

My brain says, It’s over. It’s over. It’s over.

“Okay,” she says. “Do you need a ride home?”

And I do, and she knows this, but I say no anyway and go sit in the coffee shop. I don’t order anything. The barista looks annoyed, but still, I sit there, wrapped in numbness, and I think about Man-Eater.

My brain says, It’s over. It’s over. It’s over.

I dig my fingernail into the table. Outside the window, I hear cars and shopping carts.

***

I cram all my lipsticks in a box and drive out to the church. There’s no fog tonight. I wrench to a stop in the same place Anna parked, and I clamber out of the car clutching the lipstick box, and I think, and I think, and I think, I am going to throw all of these to the fucking ground. I am going to uncap them and grind them into the pavement, I am going to write out a message, I am going to crush the plum into the pavement, I am going to scrawl out NO! NO! NO! and I am going to write Anna’s name until the letters fall apart and I fall back together, and I am going to hurl these into the stained glass windows of the church and my brain is going to stay quiet for once.

And I stand there, shivering but burning hot, in the stillness of the church parking lot. My hands sweat on the box of lipstick. Coral Fixation and Thirst Trap and Scorpio. Pinks and nudes and grays. I think, I am going to crush this shit into the fucking ground. I think, I am done with this. I think, I am done with this. And I think, and I think, and I just keep standing there.

I get back in the car. Balance the box on my kneecaps. Lean my head against the steering wheel.

My brain says, You shouldn’t even try.

My brain says, You can’t do anything.

My brain says, Just kill yourself.

I breathe, and I breathe, and I breathe. I think of tea bags and early mornings and Anna.

The engine catches on the first try. The radio plays my favorite song, mid-chorus.

***

I stop at Sephora on the way home. I spend twenty-five dollars on a lipstick I’ll probably never wear. The clerk looks somewhat impressed, and somewhat like she pities me. I give her a look back, like what can you do?

I take Man-Eater out of its package on the way to the car. I run my fingers down the torn cardboard edges and slit my fingernail under the plastic, peel the lipstick free. Man-Eater. Slick and cool between my fingers.

I get in the car and toss the box in the back. I hold onto the lipstick. The store lights blink out one by one, and I sit in the parking lot, and I turn it over in my hands. Again and again and again.

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39 comments

Twilight Bee
15:21 Dec 20, 2019

Great read! You have warmth and talent buzzing out from your story👌🏻👏🏻 I loved it 💫👑

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Kelsey Marlett
20:48 Dec 21, 2019

Thank you so much!

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Twilight Bee
11:06 Dec 22, 2019

Glad to have pointed your pure talent out!

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Terry r Barca
01:47 Dec 20, 2019

I have a few 'writer' friends who are so good they make me want to stop writing. I think you fit into that category. Masterful story. Well done.

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Kelsey Marlett
20:48 Dec 21, 2019

I so appreciate the compliment, but I also hope you never ever stop writing. We’re in this together!

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Tori Routsong
00:50 Dec 30, 2019

This story almost made me cry! I was immediately sucked in

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Felix Brown
08:50 Dec 24, 2019

Honestly, I have the attention span of potato, but your writing style is so smooth and captivating, with a really strong sense of voice - I kept reading right through to the end and enjoyed every second!

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Synia Sidhe
13:33 Dec 23, 2019

Great job! What a fascinating look at another life.

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Latasha Scruggs
05:07 Dec 22, 2019

What a touching read. I don't have OCD, but I do have chronic depression and ADHD, and those intrusive thoughts...they're *always* there. They aren't always debilitating, but they're always there...in everything I do. So thank you for writing this story, it spoke to me!

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Kelsey Marlett
18:02 Dec 22, 2019

Thank you so much for this comment! I hope my work can help people struggling feel heard ❤️

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K.c. Dunford
22:05 Jun 04, 2020

Hey, Kelsey! I read your story. Great work! I wanted to let you know about a free writing contest that I am hosting now until the end of June. The winning story will be published by High Dive Publishing and both first and second place will receive a bunch of cool prizes. Visit https://kcdunfordbooks.wixsite.com/contest if you’re interested! I hope you will submit! I’d love to see more of your work.

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Abigail Schulte
16:20 Apr 29, 2020

Wow, this is beautifully written. You clearly have a gift! Your writing is captivating and the story pulled me in right from the beginning. Also, I really admire the way you touched on such serious subject matters in such an understandable and real way. Thank you for writing this:)

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Pamela Saunders
23:12 Jan 26, 2020

This was amazing to read.

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Ella Devaux
04:40 Jan 09, 2020

The use of detail in this story is absolutely incredible, I loved every second of it. The heart of a story is found within its details, they're what connect us all. Keep doing what your doing, your work is amazing!

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Kirby Povilaitis
15:39 Jan 05, 2020

This is such a beautiful telling of what it's like to have OCD! Heartbreaking and glorious simultaneously - the true test of good writing. Keep doing what you do - you're amazing at it

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Hayden Quinn
15:48 Jan 03, 2020

Such an accurate portrayal of OCD, I really love this story! Not an easy read, nor should it be. Excellent characters too, I would happily read a novel this was a part of.

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Margie Ricca
14:05 Dec 24, 2019

I loved it. At first, I was uncomfortable reading it, not knowing where it was going. By the end, I was cheering her on, that she deserved that Man-Eater lipstick no matter what it cost. I am going to read it again and again.

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00:40 Dec 23, 2019

Really nicely written. You nailed the voice beautifully. I'm kinda old in the tooth now but I remember days of confusion when I first started dating. I wonder if I would have remembered if you hadn't shown it so well. Interesting. But that's what a good story does, doesn't it? It picks the reader up and pops then into a world that's half-familiar, half-new; gives you something and confirms something... Yes, you did a great job. It's the first gay story that I didn't feel was being thrust in my face - again, well done! It bothered me slightl...

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Sarah Paris
17:48 Dec 22, 2019

Truly poetic! Extremely well-written! Nice job.

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Kelsey Marlett
18:02 Dec 22, 2019

I appreciate that so much ❤️

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Sarah Paris
19:05 Dec 22, 2019

It's always awesome to stumble upon great writers here--and thanks for sharing a bit of your soul with us. Keep up the good work!

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11:10 Dec 21, 2019

Beautiful story!

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Kelsey Marlett
20:48 Dec 21, 2019

Thank you Vivian ❤️

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Jenna Williams
02:51 Dec 21, 2019

I love how you captured what OCD actually is. All my friends I tell I have OCD they think I mean that I like to be organized! It bothers me so much because in my head I think things that other people would think unthinkable. So just thanks for understanding what it is really like, and I LOVED you lipstick description. :)

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Kelsey Marlett
20:47 Dec 21, 2019

This means so much to me, Jenna! I’ve had OCD my whole life and people always treat it like an organizing super power when really it’s a painful and daily struggle with my mind. I’m so glad it resonated with you and thank you for your comment ❤️

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Jenna Williams
03:19 Dec 22, 2019

Thanks for actually replying to me too. I'm also just glad I have someone that can relate what goes on in my head day-to-day. And I am just now getting a therapist! Thanks again for replying to me Kelsey. Love your writing lots! :)

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Kelsey Marlett
18:03 Dec 22, 2019

Of course love!! I’m proud of you for getting help — I know that’s so hard. If you’re ever interested in reading more of my stuff, check out my Instagram @kelseydays. I’d love to talk more :)

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Jordan Safranski
20:41 Dec 20, 2019

I’m so inspired by the way the prompt was incorporated into this story. I always have a difficult time taking someone else’s prompt and making it my own, but this was so beautifully done. What a deep look into what it’s like to be trapped, as it often feels, inside your own brain when you have a mental illness. This piece gave me goosebumps as I was reading it. If this had been submitted while I was an editor for a journal, I would have begged for this to get published. It’s no surprise why this won!

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Kelsey Marlett
20:49 Dec 21, 2019

You are so sweet! Thank you for your kind words :)

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Arielle - Reedsy
20:22 Dec 20, 2019

The use of repetition in your prose is present enough that it underscores one of the story's main themes, but not so overtly that it distracts from the story. Congratulations on achieving this excellent balance — and on your win!

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Kelsey Marlett
20:49 Dec 21, 2019

I appreciate that so much! Repetition is a big part of my OCD experience and I wanted it to be a constant force in the story, almost like the repetition itself was a character. Thank you for your comment!

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Samuel Blue
19:54 Dec 20, 2019

I loved the way your words pushed the envelope.

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Kelsey Marlett
20:50 Dec 21, 2019

Thanks so much, Samuel!

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