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Fiction

The Kissing Machine (Danielle Davis)

Posted: 28 February, 2014 at 2:45 pm   /   by   /   comments (1)

“I can’t get the lips right,” Ettie growled as soon as Amos closed the door. He didn’t have to ask how she knew it was him—nobody else dared to risk themselves on the creaky set of stairs that led to the attic Ettie had turned into her workshop.

He glanced at the way she hunched very unladylike over something on the table. Since her back was to him, he could admire the way the fat curls of hair cascaded down her back like party streamers. The hair wasn’t actually blonde—he saw streaks of tan, darker brown, and a pale yellow so light it was nearly white under the sheen of the gas lamps hanging from the corners of the room. The silk twill of her gown was a light blue that complemented her hair perfectly. But to him, just about anything she wore seemed to complement her perfectly.

He glanced at the papers pinned to the walls. Each showed complex-looking mechanical designs. One, in the fashion of da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, showed a naked figure with mechanical legs fitted to each hip. Another showed a bullet-like airship moving through the air without wings, an observatory section underneath the belly. Yet another was an anatomical drawing of a heart with a series of bolts and small gears fit tightly inside. That one had several equations scrawled to the side of the picture, all in Ettie’s tight, tiny handwriting. The drawing always made him feel a little queasy, as if he were watching a surgeon operating on his insides, so he turned away.

Though he knew he didn’t have long before needing to return to his station in the coatroom, he examined the shelves. There was always something new in her workshop, so he’d turned it into a private game to spot the New Device. He’d been up there enough that the boxes of cogs and gears, sorted in their bins by metal type and size, and the various half-finished gadgets lying about didn’t interest him. But the hourglass on the middle shelf caught his eye.

He bent forward, peering at it. While most hourglasses he’d seen were encased in a wooden frame, this one was held in place by a series of wires attached to two large metal coils on either side of the glass. The sand inside had almost finished falling into the bottom bowl.

“Is this new?”

Without turning around she asked, “The bug or the timepiece?”

“The hourglass. What does it do?”

“Tell time.”

He threw a disgusted glare at her back. As he turned back to the shelf, the last grain of sand fell. The hourglass began to shake and buzz as if it were filled with bees.

He drew back a little, eyes growing wide. “Is this supposed to—?”

With a loud snap, the hourglass sprang into the air, flipping end over end, close enough that he felt a breeze on his face.

He cried out and staggered backwards, only to bump into Ettie’s chair.

He turned to see the wire she’d been carefully winding around a coil snapped in half. “Damn it, Amos!”

She turned to him, and he fell back with another cry. The metal goggles strapped to her face magnified her eyes to three times their normal size as she blinked at him. She scowled, pushing the goggles up with one hand so they sat on her forehead.

“I’ve been trying to get the tension right all afternoon. And in two seconds, you’ve ruined a whole day’s work. What’s got you so jumpy?”

Flustered, he pointed over his shoulder at the shelf housing the hourglass. “Your thing, it just—” It was in the same spot as before, but now the upper bowl was full of sand. He stared, open-mouthed, then pointed an accusing finger at it. “That was not like that before.”

“That was yesterday’s project.” Her tone suggested he should’ve already known that. She paused, furrowing her eyebrows in confusion, then peered up at him. “Why’d you come up?”

He put a hand over his chest in dramatic fashion, feeling the quick thumpthumpthump, and took a deep breath. “Your mother’s looking for you.”

Ettie’s face slid into the irritated expression she got whenever someone mentioned her mother. “What social function is she headed to now?”

Amos cleared his throat. “Ah, that would be your debutante party.”

Ettie froze with a panicked look. “Oh, no. That’s today?”

With one last resentful glare at the hourglass, Amos straightened his coat. “Actually, Madam Henrietta, it started about thirty minutes ago.” Ettie scowled as he used the formal address all staff were to use with the house masters. He hadn’t used it in years, but he still liked to tease her with it. “I’ve been sent to find you and drag you to your chair so you can pretend you appreciate everything your mother does for you.”

From his droll voice, Ettie knew her mother had phrased it very close to that. “That’s the last place I want to be right now,” she moaned.

Amos caught sight of the object she’d been working on. “What’s this then?”

Ettie brightened and turned back to the table. “It’s a kissing machine!”

The object was metal and oval-shaped like a human head. There were two small watch faces for eyes, an indentation the size of his thumbpad where the nose should have been, and two slender rubber tubes that formed a mouth.

“What’s it for?”

Ettie’s eyebrows rose as she looked at him with exasperation. “It kisses. Hence, kissing machine.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed. “Yes, but why? Who’d use something like this?”

Ettie thought for a moment. “Spinsters. And I’ve heard odd things can be found at certain Oriental markets.”

Amos’s mouth twisted at the memory of some of the things he’d seen at such markets. “How does it work?”

“Like this,” Ettie said, with an enthusiasm that made it obvious she’d been waiting for him to ask. Cupping the cheeks of the “head” between her hands, she lifted it to her face and pressed her lips to the tubes. With one finger, she flipped a small switch behind one ear. Muted metallic grinding noises echoed from inside the headcase, and the lip tubes plumped as air hissed through them. Ettie closed her eyes and moaned with dramatic enjoyment.

Amos raised an eyebrow. “Is that how you think it works?”

Ettie looked up and frowned at him. “Of course. I built it.”

“No, kissing. Is that how you think it’s done?”

She lifted one shoulder in a shrug, turning the machine over in her hands to examine it. The lip tubes deflated, then hissed again as air refilled them. She flicked the switch off and the noises stopped. “Well, it’s not quite right yet. I can’t get the lip pressure the way I want it. The tubes have to inflate in a way that mimics a real person instead of a bicycle tire.”

Amos tried to bite back his snicker but failed. Her face darkened, and her lips thinned to a hard pink line as she jutted her chin forward. It was a habitual expression her mother had been unsuccessful at breaking.

“What’s so funny?”

“Really, who would buy this?” Amos chuckled. “How desperate do you really think someone would have to be to—?”

“Spinsters!” she hissed. He saw the beginnings of a blush creep up her cheeks.

He cupped his chin with one hand so that it obscured his grin. “Okay. Let’s say for a fantastic moment that I think this is a good idea—which I don’t. How will you know when it’s working right? When did you become an expert at kissing men?” He kept his tone light, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear her answer.

Her shoulders sagged as she gave the metal head a rueful glance. “I’ve been guessing. It doesn’t feel like… It’s not yet how I’ve read about it in books.”

He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath until it flew out in a small puff all at once. “You can’t believe everything you read. Some things you just have to try yourself to get the full experience of.” It was the boldest statement he’d ever made to her.
But she just smiled at him as if he’d suggested something absurd. “Right. Because I’ve got so many opportunities to do that now, don’t I?” Suddenly she scowled. “And speaking of opportunities, I need to get to that party.” She sighed as she stood up and began stripping off her equipment, then arranging the head parts in a certain way on the table. “I’ve been promised a dance with pretty Thomas Mendeville, and my mother would be quite displeased if I didn’t show up to do it.”

Her tone was mocking, but Amos felt his smile fall away at the other man’s name. “Pretty Thomas Mendeville, huh?” He couldn’t help the bitter emphasis he added, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“Yes. Mother’s determined to have me married to him by my next birthday. She told me his being here was my present today.” She stuck out her tongue to show what she thought of the gift, and Amos managed a half-hearted smile in response. The idea of her getting married made him feel sick. No, he corrected himself, the idea of her marrying anyone else.

“Well, you’re going to miss it entirely if you don’t go change now.”

She frowned up at him. “Change? I’m not changing.”

“You can’t wear that to your coming out party. Isn’t that a tea gown?” He gestured at the length of her.

She gave him a strange look. “Since when do you notice what I’m wearing?”

I always notice, he thought. But he just shrugged instead, which she seemed to find some answer in.

“Well, Mother will have to be happy I’m dressed at all. I don’t really have time to change, now do I?”

“She’s not going to be happy,” he warned. Amos still felt the need to say such things, mostly because she didn’t seem to care and he felt someone needed to say them.

She rolled her eyes as she brushed past him. Tossing a quick smile over her shoulder, she strode away. From her loud, determined steps, he was pretty sure she intended to stomp into the parlor like a Clydesdale. Not for the first time, he wished he was one of the kitchen servants. Then he’d get to see the party, including her mother’s reaction. Or, at the very least, keep an eye on Thomas Mendeville.

With images in his head of her pressing her lips to Thomas’s face, cradled as carefully between her palms as her machine’s had been, he headed back to the coatroom.

It was only a few hours, though, before he was summoned again. Matthew, the head attendant had been with the family for years, but now something had upset him to the point that he barely managed to stammer out that everyone was leaving early before running off again. As Amos fetched coats and wraps and elegant beaded shawls, he caught snatches of fervently-whispered conversation between the guests as they departed. Anxiety twisted his stomach into knots at the snippets he heard, but he managed to smile and “good day” all of the guests out the door without any problems.

Once everyone was gone, he went in search of Ettie.

He burst into her room without knocking, pausing to close the door behind him. She jumped to her feet with a cry when he entered, but let out a loud sigh when she recognized him. “Amos! I nearly died of fright. What are you having at, to burst in here like that? My mother would have you beaten if she caught you in here.”

The room looked washed-out to him: pale yellow walls, with light-patterned drapery and sheets. He noted that she’d fetched her kissing machine at some point and had placed it on the edge of the washstand. He leaned his shoulder against the tall post at one edge of her bed.

“Really, Ettie. I understand he deserved the slap,” he began slowly. “After all, there are few things more insulting than a marriage proposal, but after you’d already lit the man aflame? The fire didn’t get the point across? You had to hit him, too?”

With a frustrated moan, she sank on the bed and placed her head in her hands. She sighed and there was a depth to it that caught his attention. He reached out to comfort her, with his hand hovering inches above her shoulder, only to lose his nerve and put it back in his pocket.

“He didn’t catch fire until after I’d hit him. And that was an accident.”

“The fire or the slap?”

Another sigh. “The fire.”

“Care to catch me up? It’s hard to get quality gossip from people who don’t even know you’re alive.” His lips twisted into a smile, but he realized it wasn’t very funny because it was true.

She turned her head toward him but still didn’t meet his eyes. “I slapped him because he tried to take my necklace. And the fire happened after he’d asked for my hand.”

He swallowed hard at her confirmation that there had been a proposal, but kept his face neutral. When he didn’t say anything, she tossed her hands up and let them flop in her lap. “It’s just… it started off fine. My mother was angry, I could tell, but was just glad I’d arrived at all. Then later, Thomas came to talk to me and it was just me and him. Everyone gave us this wide space. It was so obvious that they were trying to give us privacy like a real couple.” She rolled her eyes. “But he started teasing me about my dress and then my necklace.”

His eyes dropped to her neck, at the delicate copper key looped through a blue satin ribbon that matched her eyes. The tip of the key nestled gently between the slight swell of her bosom, and he looked away quickly. He knew the key well—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her without it.

“He told me it was an ugly thing and that it didn’t match the rest of me. He offered to help me take it off. When I declined, he thought it a game and kept taunting me, trying to sneak his hand around to untie it. The feeling of his hands on my neck…” She grimaced and Amos looked away, jaw clenching and unclenching.

“So you hit him?”

Ettie gave him an incredulous look. “What else should I have done? I told him to stop and he didn’t.”

Amos laughed, a stuttering chuckle of disbelief that eased some of his anger. He nodded as her story clarified some of the things he’d heard the guests gossiping about. “You hit him because of a necklace.”

She closed a hand possessively over the key. “Not just a necklace.”

The ferocity in her voice made his mouth feel dry. He licked his lips and looked away, clearing his throat. “And, uh, the fire?”

“He’d just asked for my hand in marriage. I told him I’d have to think about it, just because I didn’t want to be rude to him in front of everyone. Not with my mother already fuming over the slap. But instead of making a joke or laughing it off, he got this serious look on his face, like I’d made him angry. And he sneered at me and told me everyone knew my opinion but it didn’t matter anyway.”

She turned intent eyes to him. “And, Amos, it occurred to me that he was right. It was true. Nothing I say determines what I will do, not while my mother and father make their plans for me. But I don’t want that, and I didn’t want Thomas, and… It just made me mad. So without thinking, I pushed him to get his smug face out of mine. Only Gilbert was just coming out with the cherries jubilee and…it was unfortunate timing, that’s all. And it was only the shoulder of his jacket. He hardly risked his life.”

“Not to hear him tell it.” Amos remembered the Mendevilles as they’d been leaving: Thomas, with his mother swooning over him as if he’d been to war as she clutched his scorched jacket, the furious expression of his tight-lipped father. A thought occurred to him, and he fidgeted with his fingernails a little before he gave voice to it. “You know your mother’s just going to find someone else, right? Setting Tommy Mendeville on fire doesn’t change that.”

Ettie twisted her lips in response. She glanced around her room, and he watched her, knowing that her eyes weren’t seeing furniture and drapes but mechanical items on shelves. “I just want to be left alone to tinker and read and do whatever I want. Not because someone tells me to, but because I want to.”

Amos rolled his eyes. “Right, because you’ve got such important work to do.” He gestured grandly at the metal head and was rewarded with a smile from her.

“I like machines better. They’re easier to understand.”

“People might be if you spent as much time with them as you do with those…things.”

“Not likely,” she snorted. She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear and fingered the teeth on the key around her neck.

He realized he was staring and jerked his gaze away as a flush crept up his neck. “Why not?” He hoped she didn’t notice the long pause before his response—he had no idea how long he’d been studying her lips pressed against the pink tip of her tongue as she concentrated.

She shot him an irritated glance. “You can’t usually tinker with people the way you can with machines. You can’t just open them up and see how they tick.” She paused. The accidental hypocrisy of her words hung heavily in the air between them, and they shared a look that said they both realized it and wondered if the other was going to comment on it. After a few moments, Amos decided to let it go, as he often did. Though this time, a sense of dull resentment sat in his chest—why must he always be the one to protect her feelings? Why was it never the other way around?

“That’s why,” he said in a droll tone, “if you spend time with people, they will sometimes open up for you and tell you those things themselves. A novel concept, conversation.” “People lie.”

“And machines can’t love you!”

What he’d meant to say in exasperation came out with more force than he’d intended, as if he hadn’t just told himself to let it go the way he’d done hundreds of times before in other conversations. But it seemed that his heart couldn’t bypass it anymore. The anger in his voice startled both of them and they stared at each other in surprise. Then, as if that one outburst had merely been the first piece of flotsam in a flood, all the bitten-back comments and pushed-aside frustration spilled over his self-control.

“You spend so much time hiding away in that room. It’s no wonder people like Thomas don’t want to get close to you, Ettie! You’re a hermit! You shun people like they’re monsters and then complain when they do things you don’t understand. How can you understand people and how they work when you don’t invest any time in getting to know them?”

“I don’t think you’re a monster,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Does it really matter?”

She stood and moved toward him, but he backed away quickly. He saw the concern in her eyes and wished it was anything but pity.

“Amos, you—”

“Don’t say it, Ettie. I’m angry, not stupid.” He passed a hand over his face, feeling the flushed skin of his cheeks.

“I was just…” Ettie paused, then pursed her lips and frowned. “You’re still you, Amos. I didn’t change that. Nobody can.”

He hated the way he still hadn’t had the courage to say what he actually meant and hated her for seeing through his angry outburst. It wasn’t concern for her social skills that burned inside him—and she knew it. Then, just like that, his emotions seemed to drain from his chest down through his legs, leaving him feeling weary and strangely empty. He looked at her and, for once, didn’t try to school his expression into something more appropriate.

“How would you know? You already said you don’t know how people tick. You think you can set people on fire to get rid of uncomfortable situations.”

She stepped toward him, following even as he backed away, until his lower back pressed against the door. “I told you, that was an accident.” Her voice was soft as her hand touched his sternum over his jacket, then slid up his chest to rest over the lump that sat where his heart used to be. He knew she felt the ticking that everyone mistook for a heartbeat. He turned his face away, unable to meet her eyes and unwilling to see the emotions that were never what he wished they were.

She leaned close to him. “All I did was fix a broken thing, replace one faulty piece with one that worked.” Her voice pleaded with him to understand.

He laughed, a rough noise that made her flinch away. “Well, you did a terrible job if you call this fixed.”

She furrowed her brows as she looked down at her hand. “You don’t know how bad it was, Amos. You would’ve died if I—”

“That’s not what I mean!” he shouted. He whipped his head around to face her and let his eyes meet hers. The anger was back, surging hotly through his stomach like a furnace. She frowned and tried to step back but he slapped his hand over hers, pinning it to his chest. Through the delicate bones in her tinker’s hand, he felt the ticking increase as the gears whirled and ground to keep up with his increased bloodflow. “You don’t get it,” he snarled. “You’ve never gotten it.”

He took savage delight in the uncertainty that flickered across her pretty face. A cruel voice at the back of his mind goaded him to keep going, even as he knew he should pull his emotions back, get them under his usual, tight control before he said something he shouldn’t. He felt like he was barreling toward a precipice, though he didn’t know why. But he knew this path let to something permanent, something he wouldn’t be able to take back. The cruel voice demanded more, wanted to see shock spread across her features and it wouldn’t be denied. He wanted her to finally react with the some semblance of the fire he felt now.

He followed her backwards until she found herself pinned against the side of the wardrobe. Her other hand snaked up to slap his cheek, but the motion barely registered as he caught the hand and pinned it to her side. He leaned his upper body into her, crushing his hand on top of hers between them. The pounding of the gears was like a drum in his ears.

“I was not a machine to be tinkered with, Henrietta! Do you think you ever would have noticed me before the accident?”

She squirmed against him, but it wasn’t fear that flashed across her face now. It was anger.

“Stop this, Amos! Have you lost your mind? We’ve been friends since we were children—”

“No, we’ve known each other since we were children. We weren’t friends until you saved my life.” He spit the words at her as if they were foul-tasting things.

“And that upsets you?” she said, with a sarcastic twist of her eyebrows. “You wanted me to let you die instead?” Her eyes flashed at him like dark jewels.

“I wanted you to notice me before, the way I was. The way I noticed you. You only really seemed to see me as something other than background noise once I became another one of your devices.”

There it was. Out of his mouth and hanging in the air like the traitorous emotions they were. Once again, he cursed the accident for not taking away his feelings entirely so that he could be an empty automaton.

She stopped moving and stared up at him in surprise. Her eyes moved over his face almost wonderingly, as if she’d discovered some new feature there she’d never noticed before. “Oh you stupid, foolish boy,” she breathed.

He stepped away from her, confused. Of all the reactions he’d ever dreamt of after he declared his feelings, this was not one of them. “What do you mean?” he asked, feeling as if he were the butt of a joke he hadn’t understood. Her hand slid off his coat and fell limply to her side.

“How could you not know after all this time? I couldn’t have made it any plainer.”

His mouth opened and closed like a fish as he struggled to make sense of how absurd the conversation suddenly seemed. “I, ah…I don’t think I follow. Is this one of those monthly mood swings your father’s always complaining about?”

She looked down at the floor, seeming to weigh her words before she spoke them, while she absently fingered the key necklace. When she straightened, her smile was like the sun breaking over a rooftop at dawn. The way her face lifted, as if a great weight had been taken from her, made her seem both younger and more beautiful in a way that made his clockwork heart ache. He’d dreamed of her smiling like that at him but couldn’t remember ever actually seeing it in his waking moments before.

“Amos, why do you think I saved you? If I never saw you, as you say, why go through the effort of saving your life?”

He found himself half-smiling back at her. “Because you like to tinker with things?”

She laughed and he found himself laughing with her, as if he were caught under some witch’s spell. The whole experience was surreal. He’d never seen her act this way with anybody else, though he knew he was closer to her than most. The laughter, the unguarded way she smiled up at him, so wide he could see most of her small, perfect teeth… It was so close to his private fantasies, he was scared to trust it.

“I have never known how to talk to you,” she confided. “You were this quiet, intelligent boy who seemed to understand me better than anyone else. And I always seemed to be the apple in a basket of oranges.” She glanced over at her bed. “But then you got hurt. And they didn’t know what to do with you, and I… I felt my chance slipping away.”

She stepped forward and glanced at him as if asking permission. When he gave her a quizzical look, she pushed aside the lapels of his coat and began unbuttoning his shirt.

“This is not happening,” he murmured. She favored him with a small smile and focused on the buttons. He wasn’t sure which was more unbelievable: this unguarded version of Ettie or her being this close to him. If he bent his head just slightly, he’d be able to kiss her slightly-pursed lips, touch the tip of her tongue with his.

The touch of her fingers on his skin made him gasp. They crept like soft spiderlegs across the hair on his chest, over to the convex glass window protecting the gears that kept him alive. For some reason, the skin there was always hotter than anywhere else on his body, likely from the friction produced by the never-ceasing whirl of the gears’ motion. With her palm against the glass, her fingertips felt cool where they pressed against the skin just above the copper edge of the gear casing.

He stared at her with a carefully blank expression, the one he’d perfected in her presence that hid the chaos he felt inside. He felt like he was experiencing every emotion he’d ever felt, all at once. Even if he appeared calm, he knew she felt the truth hammering away under her palm.

When she looked up at him, her mouth was set in the familiar twist she had when she tried to explain complex mechanical concepts to him. That twist said I know you won’t understand, but I’m going to tell you anyway because no one else will listen.

“I didn’t know how to talk to you when you were one of them. But I knew how to buy myself some time. And once I got in there—“ she tapped the glass lightly “—I got a better idea of how much I really don’t know.”

“You’re the reason my heart beats,” he blurted out.

“Of course I am,” she responded in a matter-of-fact voice, and he realized how foolish and naïve he sounded.

He took a steadying breath. “I just mean, you didn’t have to take me apart to know what made me tick. I’d gladly have told you if you’d asked.”

Then he bent his head and did kiss her, pressing his lips against the softness of hers as gently as if they were made of rice paper. She drew back and stared up at him with wide eyes.

“You’ve always had my heart, Ettie,” he whispered. “Even before you fiddled with it.”

She fingered the key that rested in the hollow of her throat. “Do you want this back?”

“I’d trust it with no other.”

She smiled at him, the unguarded smile he was coming to love, and leaned towards him again. This time the kiss was anything but gentle as their lips slid and ground against each other like the cogs in his chest. She uttered a small “oh!” and drew back, though her hands remained clenched in the lapels of his coat. She looked over at the kissing machine on the washstand.

“Are you okay?” he asked, afraid he’d hurt somehow hurt her. But she wasn’t paying attention to him at all.

“I wonder if I could make it do that,” she mused. The realization that she’d already turned back to her work left him staring slack-jawed at her.

With a deliberate movement, he walked forward and pushed the mechanical head off the table. It crashed to the floor with a metallic twang as gears of all sizes exploded from a hole above the ear.

Ettie shrieked and turned to him in shock. He set his jaw and stared at her, daring her with his eyes.

“What in the bloody hell was that for?” she yelled. “Three months of work, gone! Do you know how long it’s going to take me to get the lip pressure back to normal?”

“I’d say at least a lifetime.” He grinned at her and moved to put his hands on either side of her waist. “It’s an obsolete model anyway.”

She leaned away as he attempted to kiss her again. Her hands tried to push his off her hips. “Don’t you dare try to cozy up to me after that. Three months! Wasted! I’m not playing, Amos—”

“And neither am I.” She stopped pressing at his hands but continued to scowl at him. He really did love it when she scowled. “You don’t need that thing anymore. You’ve already got a kissing machine right here.”

She continued to scowl, but a small smile played at the edges of her mouth. “Your lip pressure’s not quite right, either.”

“Care to help me calibrate it?” He grinned at her. “I’m not too good with machines.”

And then there it was, that smile again. This time when he leaned into her, she let him.

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  • 30 October, 2015 at 6:45 am Wendell Darnell Mitchell II

    I enjoyed the story and how cute the characters are with one another. I am a sucker for cute. I had a feeling there was something different about Amos, but I’m glad he wasn’t as different as I was expecting.

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