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Ethan’s Machine

by T.L. Sherwood

 

I teeter by the door, ready to leave. I tell him it’s getting late but then Ethan’s kiss halts me with its perfection.

Pulling me close, he whispers, “I need to show you something.”

I make the lilt of my laughter as harmless as cotton candy. “I bet you do.”

“No. Come on.” His grip on my wrist is impatient. I decide to trust him and accompany him down the well-lit stairwell.

The basement smells like puppy breath; the walls are whitewashed. A black table under the metal monstrosity is the focal point of the room. “What is that?” I ask, stepping closer to inspect the square “face” of the thing; a cubist’s rendition of the Pink Panther.

“My love machine.”

The reverence in his voice scares me away from my initial reaction, which is to laugh. “Oh yeah?” The earlier wine has increased my tolerance for preposterousness. I glance back to see how far he’s willing to carry the joke. “How’s it work?”

“Let me show you.”

I expect a seductive move but he brushes past me. There’s a dull hiss of methane, the scratch of metal over flint, then the flinch of combustion. He repeats the process on the other side of the shrine then steps back. We stand near each other, swaying as the beaker above the flame forms jawbreaker-sized bubbles that float up into tubes. Gears begin to spin, and then the fidgety contraption picks up speed. Suspended from cables, the machine pulses against the far wall with a marching band’s precision. Puffs of pastel smoke erupt from where the arms would be if it were a person.

I turn toward Ethan. “Am I supposed to sleep with you now?”

“Not necessarily.” He winks, then returns his attention to the gauges.

The tension in my shoulders disappears. “Really?”

“It’s a love machine, Christina, not a passion one.”

“I suppose you have one of those, too.”

“Oh, I do.” His eyebrow arches up a millimeter and it melts me. “But this is more important.” He clears his throat. “God instructed me on how to make this to combat the world’s negativity.”

“Oh.”

His sigh is visceral. “You think I’m crazy.”

“No. I —” I will myself to slowly back away.

“You do.” I see him deflate. He swipes a hand against his forehead to brush his hair back. “It’s okay.”

While he watches, I inhale deeply to placate him. “I think I feel it working.” He nods and puts his hands on his hips. I stare into the yellow gauges. “Could you turn it up? That might help.”

When he moves to adjust the flame, I run up the stairs and rush out to the street. I don’t stop until I’m safely out of that cul-de-sac and in a Lyft. On the ride home, I stare at the crescent moon. There’s an airy flutter in my heart. I ignore it and dismiss the idea that Ethan’s machine could have possibly worked.

 

T. L. Sherwood lives in western New York beside Eighteen Mile Creek. She is the Fiction Editor at Literary Orphans and is currently working on a novel. More about her life and writing can be found on this website: http://tlsherwood.wordpress.com/

 

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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Ethan’s Machine”?

I wish I could say this story was based on an actual experience I – or one of my friends – had, and in a way, it is. Online dating is using a mechanical device to find love. Endearing emails and cute emoji text exchanges are like puffs of smoke trying to entice someone into a relationship, aren’t they? Finding love at any age or place or time can feel impossible, but it happens. Sometimes the matches make no sense to the people outside of them. In a way, I think I was using Ethan’s tinkering to explain those odd pairings. Real life doesn’t make a lot of sense, but fiction has to.

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